What Behavior Do You Want to Change?


May 6, 2008

by Marshall Goldsmith

In my younger days, as a newly minted PhD and executive educator, I would challenge my clients to pick one to three behavior patterns for personal improvement – that is, if they demonstrated a positive change in these practices, they would become more effective leaders. As I grew more experienced, I began to realize that three patterns were too many.

The problem was not a lack of motivation or intelligence – these were brilliant, dedicated leaders. The problem was that they were just too busy. They all had profitability goals, growth goals, quality goals, customer goals, health goals, and so on. If my clients applied the logic that I was teaching and picked three goals in each area of their lives, they would quickly reach a number of goals that was not only impossible to achieve, but also impossible to even remember.

What I teach my clients now is to pick the one behavior pattern for personal change that will make the biggest difference, and to focus on that. If we pick the right area to change and actually do so, it will almost always influence other aspects of our relationships with people. For example, more effective listening will lead to being more successful in building teamwork, increasing customer satisfaction, and treating people with respect.

Consider the Consequences

My friend Nathaniel Branden is a psychologist and the author of about 20 books. He has a wonderful exercise that helps people isolate the pattern that makes the most sense to change, because it helps people figure out the benefits of change. This is how he helps people decide whether change is worth it: Five to eight people sit around a table, and each person selects one practice to change. One person begins the exercise by saying: “When I get better at…” and completes the sentence by mentioning one benefit that will accompany this change. For example, one person may say: “When I get better at being open to differing opinions, I will hear more great ideas.”

After everyone has had a chance to discuss their specific behavior and the first benefit, the cycle begins again. Now each person mentions a second benefit that may result from changing the same behavior, then a third, continuing usually for six to eight rounds. Finally, participants discuss what they have learned and their reactions to the exercise.

When Branden first explained this exercise to me, I was polite, but skeptical. I couldn’t see the value of simply repeating the potential benefits of change over and over. My skepticism quickly went away when I saw the process work.

Moved to Tears

Nathaniel and I were facilitators at a large conference that included many well-known leaders from corporations, nonprofits, the government, and the military. The man sitting next to me was a high-ranking military leader directly responsible for thousands of troops. He also was extremely judgmental and seemed to be proud of it. For example, when conference participants discussed the topic of character, he said: “I respect people with real character – and organizations, like mine, with real values. I don’t believe in this situational crap!”

When we began Nathaniel’s exercise, our military friend chose: “When I become less judgmental ___” as his behavior to change. I was skeptical about his sincerity and thought his participation in the exercise would be interesting to observe. True to my expectations, the first time around he coughed and grunted a sarcastic comment rather than talk about a real benefit. The second time around he was even more cynical. Then something changed. When he described a third potential benefit, he stopped being sarcastic. Several rounds later, he had tears in his eyes, and said: “When I become less judgmental, maybe my children will speak to me again.”

Since that day, I have conducted this exercise with several thousand people. Many start with benefits that are “corporately correct,” such as: “This change will help my company make more money,” and finally end with benefits that are more human, such as: “This change will make me a better person.” I will never forget one hard-driving executive who chose: “When I get better at letting go” as the behavior he should work on. His first benefit was that his direct reports would take more responsibility. His final benefit was that he would probably live to celebrate his 60th birthday.

Try It for Yourself

As the exercise progresses, one of two realizations tend to dawn upon participants. Some see the more compelling motivations to change and become convinced that doing so would be worth it. My advice to these people is simple: Get started on changing now, and I’ll talk about how to do that in another column.

Others begin to feel they are just making up benefits to complete the exercise. The benefits don’t resonate with them or seem genuine. My advice to them is equally simple: Don’t waste your time. If you feel you have to make up reasons why you should change, your heart won’t be in the process, and you ultimately won’t put in the effort required.

Now, it’s your turn to pick a behavior pattern that you may want to change. Complete the sentence: “When I get better at ___” over and over again. Listen closely as you recite potential benefits. You will be amazed at how quickly you can determine whether this change is worth it for you.

Please try this out, and send in any comments or reflections that you may have.

What behavior do you really want to change? Is it worth it?