According to U.S. News & World Report, 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail by this point in the year. Researchers have found a number of reasons for this, including a lack of accountability, support and motivation. But the other, more complicated possibility is that our immunity to change is what holds us back from making shifts that stick, a concept first explored by Harvard professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey. They found that self-limiting, often-buried beliefs—dubbed competing commitments—conflict with our genuine desire to change. The big takeaway for HR? It’s not enough to set goals that require us to change our behavior. We need to first unearth our competing commitments.
Here’s what I mean by this. We often set goals for ourselves and our teams without considering the underlying beliefs and attitudes that drive the behaviors we want to change. To achieve lasting transformation this year, it’s more effective to address these root causes head on and focus your energy on changing your mindset.
During my career, I’ve had to address my own competing commitments. For example, I’ve often struggled with giving constructive feedback. I tried various approaches to improve this skill, but I didn’t make progress until I discovered why I resisted these conversations in the first place. Growing up, I prioritized being liked and fitting in over everything else. I was always quick to compliment, to agree, to defuse tension with a joke. As an adult, I realized this behavior translated to me avoiding giving feedback that might make me less likable. Recognizing this competing commitment helped me understand the difference between being liked and being respected as a leader. I learned that giving candid feedback is important to building respect, and that while avoiding those discussions protects me from not being liked, this behavior doesn’t at all serve the person who would benefit from the feedback.
Skills-based training is often the default, but when it comes to changing behavior, that doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. Addressing what makes us resistant to change is more effective. At Google, we put a big focus on self-reflection, pushing leaders to examine and shift their mindset. Let’s say a leader sets a goal to delegate more often, shares this with their team and asks for help to be held accountable. This is where most leaders stop. But what if they also acknowledge why they struggle with delegation? For example, “I’ve built my career on the quality of my work, and I worry that others won’t be able to uphold these same standards. I’m afraid that if our work isn’t perfect, others will think I’m shirking my responsibilities and think less of me.”
We build this type of self-exploration into Google’s development process to help leaders evolve into their bigger, bolder self—or what experts call becoming “self-authored.” This starts with leadership assessments grounded in adult development, so one can understand their “socialized self”—how we make meaning about ourselves and our self-worth based on what other people say or think about us. By creating awareness on how this might hold you back, you can mature into holding other people’s opinions more objectively, which allows you to take more risks and be more authentically yourself—a signal to others on your team to do the same.
As leaders, we also need to model vulnerability if we want to help our teams unlock their competing commitments. In many organizations, the natural instinct is to avoid admitting vulnerabilities or fear of failure. It turns out that managers who are vulnerable, by admitting to their shortcomings and talking about mistakes, are three times more likely to have teams that are innovative because they feel comfortable with the failures that come along with experimentation and trying new things.
The research and practice proves that we are more likely to achieve our goals if we examine our “internal operating system” by debugging our own assumptions and limiting beliefs. As one of our senior engineering leaders recently said to me, “This isn’t rocket science. Rocket science is easier than this—it’s hard work, but incredibly powerful and enduring.”
So, as we aim to beat the odds and land the goals we set for 2023, ask yourself how you’ll achieve them by first understanding what might get in your way.
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