Want to Change Behavior?

Talent Management

January 11, 2013

by Marshall Goldsmith

Anne Lamott took the title for Bird by Bird, her wonderful book on writing, from one of her father’s teachable moments. She said:

“My older brother, who was 10 years old at the time, was trying to get a report written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day … and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father … put his arm around my brother’s shoulder and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”

The notion of rebuilding our spirit “bird by bird” provides us with enough psychic comfort that we can actually accomplish the toughest part of any creative endeavor: We can begin.

It’s a common anxiety I have experienced even with super-successful clients when they have to change their behavior. When I tell them it’s a process, they always think they can change in weeks.

I tell them, “It’s not about you. It’s about the people around you. They need 12 to 18 months to accept that you have changed.” That’s when the anxiety kicks in. They’re sure they can change, but not so sure others will see it.

Dealing with long-term processes such as changing behavior is like building a wall. You lay down one brick, then another; you’re aiming for serial achievements. To show people who you are now, you can’t rely on one-off gestures. They end up looking like stunts.

Imagine a rude co-worker who’s suddenly nice to you. The first time this happens you wonder, Huh? What got into him? The second time becomes a signal to pay attention. The third time a pattern begins to form in your mind. It’s only when the nice behavior is repeated a dozen or more times, without any flare-ups of rudeness, that you begin to accept the change is real.

If you provide people with continuity, however trivial or feeble, they will notice. When they see a pattern of repeat positive behavior, they begin to understand what you’re doing and accept a new you. This is how reputations are rebuilt.

They don’t have to be splashy successes. They just have to be achieved in an observable sequence. Consider actor Michael Caine recounting how he overcame the disadvantages of his accent and social class when he broke into films:

“To be a movie star you have to invent yourself. I was a Cockney boy and obviously didn’t fit anybody’s idea of what an actor was supposed to be, so I decided to put together elements that added up to a memorable package. I got myself seen around the ‘in’ spots, wearing glasses and smoking a cigar. I became known as ‘that guy who wears glasses and smokes a cigar.’ Then people began to say, ‘He plays working-class parts.’ Suddenly I was ‘that working-class actor who wears glasses and smokes a cigar.’ Then word spread that I was quite amenable, so I became ‘that easy-to-work-with working-class actor who wears glasses and smokes a cigar.’ It was the truth, but I had quite consciously assembled the truth so nobody could miss it. I did for myself what the major studios used to do for the contract actors. I created an image.”

These are some rules to consider so you finish what you’ve started and people take note. Stop waiting for more information or for better circumstances before you get started. Anyone who thinks he or she can predict what will happen five years down the road is delusional. Change happens quickly now. Stop straining to see a future beyond your vision. Circumstances are rarely perfect.

E. L. Doctorow, author of Ragtime, once said, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

You may not think you have the tools you need to effect change, but you can get started; you’ll pick up whatever you need later.