Why Do So Many Personal Change Initiatives Continue to Fail Miserably?

I recently received a thought provoking email from a client and friend of mind, containing excerpts from a book she is currently reading.

“He was desperately looking for a new policy that would correct his problems. He thought if he could establish new rules, people would automatically obey.

He had just returned from a management retreat where the senior team mapped out the initiatives for the next quarter. After the planning session, he was energized to share the ideas with his team but he soon hit reality. His team wouldn’t get on board. “We’ve never done that,” or “It won’t work,” seemed to be their mantra. He wanted them to be on the same page but it seemed they weren’t even in the same book.

Because he only had a plan but no buy-in with this team, there was constant complaining and blaming. Between people bickering about how unfair their job was and the constant gossip that seemed rampant throughout the organization, Phil didn’t know how much more he could take. Phil didn’t start out this way. He had taken management courses that taught him the policies and procedures of his job. He had visions of building a staff that was focused on serving customers. He longed to have a staff with trusting relationships that achieved amazing results and had fun in the process. It wasn’t turning out the way he hoped and if he didn’t do something quick, this ship was going to sink fast.

“Policies don’t produce results, behavior does.” It wasn’t what he wanted to hear. He wanted a golden key that would solve all his management issues and he wanted me to give it to him in five minutes.”

When challenges like these pop up in a team, the initial reaction is to send people through a course. “We need a team building event,” some exclaim. Others want to do a ropes course or a motivational seminar. We attend these events and believe that magically everything will be fixed. The problem is, after a week everything goes right back to how it was previously. People do not change at an event. To change behavior, you must have a process.

Be-The-Change-e1348837935700Change initiatives fail because there usually is no process on the back-end of an event…and there is no plan.

  1. Are you clear about the change that you want to see in yourself or perhaps on your team or in your business?
  2. If you are a leading the change initiative – how are you being the change you wish to see? Are you a “travel agent” type leader who is selling destinations and places you’ve never been to or are you a “tour guide” leader – taking people into territories that you’ve visited and know well – where you can point out both the beautiful vistas and those places that are less than desirable? This makes a huge difference and improves buy-in to the initiative.
  3. Are you aware of all the steps necessary for you to take to effect positive change?
  4. Are you and members on your team equipped with the skills and capabilities required to make the desired changes?
  5. Are you prepared to embrace the inevitable relapse and learn from it, instead of giving up in desperation and frustration?

There are several models of behavior change, but the one most widely applied and tested in health settings is the transtheoretical model (TTM). Although most of the evidence for this model comes from studies of alcohol, drug abuse, and smoking cessation, anyone motivated to change can use it and formulate strategies. First developed in the 1980s by alcoholism researchers James O. Prochaska and Carlo C. DiClemente, TTM presumes that at any given time, a person is in one of five stages of change: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, or maintenance.

  • Precontemplation. At this stage, you have no conscious intention of making a change, whether through lack of awareness or information. You tend to avoid reading, talking, or thinking about the unhealthy behavior. To move past precontemplation, you must sense that the unhealthy behavior is at odds with important personal goals.
  • Contemplation. In some programs and studies that employ TTM, people who say they’re considering a change in the next six months are classified as contemplators. In reality, people often vacillate for much longer than that. In this stage, you are aware that the behavior is a problem and are considering doing something about it, but you still aren’t committed to taking any action. To help people get unstuck you might encourage them to make a list of the pros and cons of making a change, then examine the barriers — the “cons” — and think about ways to overcome them.
  • Preparation. At this stage, you know you must change, believe you can, and are making plans to change soon — say, next month. You will want to create a realistic action plan with achievable goals.
  • Action. At this stage, you’ve changed — and you’ve begun to experience the challenges of life without the old behavior. You’ll need to practice the alternatives you identified during the preparation stage. For example, if stress tempts you to eat, you can use healthy coping strategies such as yoga, deep breathing, or exercise. At this stage, it’s important to be clear about your motivation; if necessary, write down your reasons for making the change and read them every day. Engage in “self-talk” to bolster your resolve. Get support. Let others know you’re making a change.
  • Maintenance. Once you’ve practiced the new behavior change for at least six months, you’re in the maintenance stage. Now you’re working to prevent relapse and integrate the change into your life. That may require other changes, especially avoiding situations or triggers associated with the old habit. It can be tough, especially if it means steering clear of certain activities or friends while you work to fully assimilate your new, healthier habit.

A Harvard Health article on “Why It’s Hard to Change Unhealthy Behaviour” suggests that persistence is key – don’t stop…keep trying.

“The path from one stage to the next is rarely straightforward. Most people relapse at some point and recycle through certain stages. When relapse occurs during the maintenance stage, you may find yourself back at the contemplation or preparation stage — or perhaps all the way back to precontemplation if the relapse was so demoralizing that you don’t even want to think about changing.”

While never losing sight of your outcome, and having a positive mental attitude to the change process versus a negative one is tons better, I think it’s important also to factor in the fact that relapse is common, perhaps even inevitable. Don’t let it derail you. Think of it as an integral part of the change process. You learn something about yourself each time you relapse. You may find, for example, that the strategy you adopted didn’t fit into your life/business or suit your priorities. Next time, you can use what you learned, adjust, and be a little wiser as you continue on your pathway to successful change.

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