By Joel Constable (Speaker at Human Innovation 2019) taken from Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2018/03/two-techniques-for-helping-employees-change-ingrained-habits
I first met Eric (not his real name) in a new manager training I was facilitating. He had recently become a manager after several successful years as an individual contributor and was excited to learn more about his new role. Throughout the next two days Eric fully immersed himself, engaging with other participants and actively practicing new concepts. At the end of the training, Eric committed to let go of more of the tactical work he was doing to empower his team and open up his time to think strategically.
Months later I talked with Eric about how things were going. He acknowledged that after a few weeks of creating space for big picture work, he’d gotten buried with a new project and jumped back into the details. Some members of his team had begun to feel like he was micromanaging them and his boss had recently given him feedback that he needed to have a clearer vision for the future.
Eric’s situation certainly isn’t unique. In my experience developing leaders at Intuit, Pinterest, and Google, just about everyone I’ve ever worked with is capable of and interested in getting better. And yet time and again many of these individuals struggle to improve despite their best intentions. I believe one reason for this is that in learning and development programs, far too little time and focus is devoted to how to change existing habits and behaviors, which are often the greatest barriers to personal growth.
Fortunately, there is lots of behavioral science on how people best achieve their goals and change their behaviors. Research by psychologists Gabrielle Oettingen and Peter Gollwitzer has found that doing two things significantly increases the likelihood of goal achievement in virtually every context.
The first step is considering your ideal future state and the obstacles you expect to face on the way to achieving that state. In Eric’s case, possible obstacles may be a lack of time to think strategically, the sense of satisfaction he gets from doing tactical work, or even discomfort he feels from letting go of control.
Most of us do great on the first part, declaring what we want to achieve, but rarely complete the second part, thoughtfully considering all the obstacles we’ll face. Oettingen calls this exercise mental contrasting and has found that it increases the likelihood that we will stick with our goals.
At first glance this may seem counterintuitive. Shouldn’t focusing on obstacles discourage us from pursuing our goals? But the opposite is true. Anticipating obstacles and deciding to pursue the goal anyway increases our commitment. And considering obstacles allows us to plan for them.
The second step builds on mental contrasting and involves framing your goal as an “if-then” statement. The “if” is a goal-relevant situational cue, and the “then” is your goal behavior. Gollwitzer calls these implementation intentions. Implementation intentions are powerful because they create a strong associative link between the cue and action which becomes automatic over time. Implementation intentions can be powerful both as reminders to take action and in helping create contingency plans for obstacles that may take you off track. Eric would think about what time, situation, or circumstance would help prompt or remind him to focus more on big picture work. A few examples:
If Eric’s main obstacle is not making time or forgetting: If it’s 9am on a Friday, then I will spend 60-min focused on our team’s strategy and vision for the future.
If Eric’s main barrier is his satisfaction completing tactical work: If I’m doing work that a member of my team could do, then I’ll ask her if she can take over the work in our next 1:1.
If Eric’s main barrier is discomfort letting go of control: If I start to feel uncomfortable about not completing the work myself, then I’ll ask for updates on the work in our next team meeting.
At Pinterest, we began using this science to modernize our development planning approach. Early results were encouraging. We first tested this approach with a group of our managers who attended a one-hour action planning workshop following the results of our bi-monthly employee engagement survey.
During the workshop, managers filled out a one-page action planning worksheet, which prompted them to list things like goals, obstacles, and if-then plans. They also paired up to coach one another. Two months later we launched our next engagement survey and asked employees whether they perceived their manager had taken action since the last survey. 97% of employees reporting to one of the managers who attended our workshop felt that their manager had taken action.
While we don’t know for certain whether our worksheet and workshop made the difference in managers’ follow-through, we feel confident that aligning the structure and focus of the worksheet with the behavioral science that exists significantly increased the likelihood that managers would act on their intention.
Gurus and coaches often tell people to “visualize success,” but that’s not enough. To really achieve your goals, don’t stop there. Think through what will get in your way, and make a plan for overcoming it.