If you’re like most people leaders, you struggle with how to inspire your employees to make lasting change. You have likely had your fair share of tough conversations and have seen your employees make commitments with the utmost sincerity. Yet, when something gets sticky, or when deadlines are tight, those commitments fall by the wayside and they revert to old habits.

This story isn’t familiar only in the workplace. Anyone who has set a New Year’s Resolution and failed knows how hard it is to make a new behavior stick.

So how does change happen?

Harvard Professor Robert Kegan’s research has revealed that when thinking about real, transformational change, we are often looking at the wrong challenge. We seek to apply a technical solution – training, skillbuilding – to what is fundamentally an adaptive problem. Put another way, the most fundamental changes that we face aren’t about skill-set, but are about mindset. What we miss, in most cases, when giving feedback to employees on how and what they need to change, is not telling them what they need to be doing more of, but understanding what is motivating them to continue to act in the ways they have been doing to date.

Behavior change isn’t solely a cognitive matter. It is one that exists in both the head and the heart: in thinking and in feeling. To succeed in behavior change we must put at risk what has been, to date, a well functioning operating system. It’s not the act of change itself which is uncomfortable and anxiety-producing, but the act of losing our defenses – behaviors and attitudes we’ve likely held for years – and having the courage to be vulnerable that makes it so challenging.

Knowing this, as a people leader, what can you do to help inspire real behavioral change that goes beyond skill set, but also incorporates evolving one’s mindset?


  1. DON’T APPLY A TECHNICAL SOLUTION TO AN ADAPTIVE CHALLENGE Training and skill development is great if employees are facing a technical problem, like mastering a new product. If it’s a matter of how they communicate with others or process information, it’s more of an adaptive challenge and one that requires a deeper level of coaching to help them understand what their true barriers to behavior change really look like.
  2. PEEL BACK THE ONION When thinking about behavior change, it’s helpful to think in layers. Start with your end goal and then probe a little deeper. What is the person doing (or not doing) to support that goal? Probe further to get a clear picture of their underlying concerns and motivations. Ask them, what are the risks if they make this change? Then peel even further about the cost of not changing and give them the space to meaningfully consider this. The key to increasing adaptivity is by making what was previously unknown, known. By supporting your direct report in considering this, things move from the unconscious out into the open. This takes power away from their behavior being something that happens automatically and enables them to be more thoughtful and intentional about it.
  3. SAFETY Lastly, creating the space for vulnerability and emotion is critical for this type of work. We can’t think our way out of our behaviors because they are intrinsically connected to our feelings and our emotions. Opening up about our fears and putting at risk the strategies we’ve relied on in the past in order to grow is deeply personal work. As a leader, it’s your job to create a space free of judgement which encourages openness and honesty. One of the most powerful ways to do this is to drop your guard, and leading by example, take this risk first.



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