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The annual cycle of performance feedback or leadership assessment tools means most senior leaders have received many hours of feedback by the time they get to senior roles. Books such as Mastering Leadership or What got you here wont get you there offer great insights into ways for leaders to develop useful leadership competencies or behaviours that have been proved to be effective time and time again. Yet organisational engagement scores continually illustrate the frustration employees have with their leaders. Culture audits illustrate the impact that ineffective leaders have on their entire organisations. As a former executive in a recruitment firm I know the value that industry has when a recently appointed senior leader does badly, as the organisation being led by that person suddenly offers up a whole rash of candidates eager to find new jobs else where!

So why is this so hard? What is it about leaders changing their behaviours that seem to come unstuck so often? Are these people not intelligent, educated and in may cases very well paid? Does is not seem to the mere mortals that if they were that well paid, they would change just about any behaviour!

The science of behaviour change is vast and gives us good insight into the difficulties we all face when changing deep-rooted behaviours such as leadership orientated behaviours. But one of my favourite researchers, Robert Kegan, gives some interesting insights into why changing behaviours might be difficult. His research suggests we all have competing commitments- usually un-noticed by ourselves that actually compete against the desire to change. That is they actively work to keep the status quo rather than enabling the leader to change. At first this seems bizarre or even incredulous. 

What is it about leaders changing their behaviours that seem to come unstuck so often? Are these people not intelligent, educated and in may cases very well paid?

But Kegan’s research which had been lauded globally suggests our competing commitments fall into five common clusters. Have a look to see if you recognise any of these examples.

1. My relationship(s) might be affected if I change.

This is a big one. The internal competing commitment to not changing is driven by the belief that someone important to me might not like me if I change. Imagine if I decide that I want to get really fit and run a half marathon in six months. Sounds positive! However if I also believe that my husband may not want me to spend that time in training and also may not like the smaller version of me that would emerge after that training, I am now caught between my desire to get fit and my belief that my husband will not approve of that activity.

As a leader being encouraged to be less critical and controlling in order to foster a more collaborative team sounds like good feedback. Indeed, there is an unlimited amount of research that would support this. But if a former leader or mentor had taught that person to be tough is a sign of strength, the notion of changing to a ‘less tough’ leadership stance feels like I am letting that person down. Competing commitments in action.

2. My identity will change (for the worse) if I change

Using the same example, imagine the leader trying to be less critical and controlling in order to foster a more collaborative team and at the same time they believe a leader who does that is just not them. They believe they are not the kind of leader that does good collaboration, or being less critical is not them, i.e. their identity as a leader is quite different to this desired leader. When this happens the status quo to not change is driven by the (hidden) belief that my identity is at risk if I were to change.

3. This will be painful if I were to change!

This is a complicated one! The pain associated with the effort required to change is hard to endure. Alternatively, the potential loss of changing from being a controlling leader to one that is more empowering is painful. For some people the emotions required to change are too painful to ensure. One leader I worked with was so scared of actually trusting his staff as the first step in letting go his controlling tendencies because he could not stand the potential pain associated with being let down by them. It was easier to control every output in his department- or so he believed- than to go through the possibility of empowering others and occasionally being disappointed. In that coaching scenario we used the notion of different types of parenting at different ages and stages as a useful metaphor to assist in him uncovering this hidden commitment.

One leader I worked with was so scared of actually trusting his staff as the first step in letting go his controlling tendencies because he could not stand the potential pain associated with being let down by them

4. The actual outcome I am trying to achieve will actually lead to something undesirable!

Imagine working hard to change a behaviour that ultimately leads to a promotion in the work place. Hey that’s a good thing in many people’s books! Right! Wrong. What if that promotion led to some undesirable outcomes such as more work, higher levels of stressful responsibility, more international travel, more time away from family and so the list goes on. For many leaders the rewards associated with the desired outcome are actually not desirable or the notion of potentially failing at a higher level of responsibility puts the behaviour change needed to achieve that promotion into the undesirable bucket. Just too hard!

5. I will lose my control (read power) if I change!

The last powerful competing commitment is associated with a loss of power or control. “If I am more empowering, I will then lose my ability to be on top of the numbers/ outcomes/ actions/ activities. My ability to be powerful is lost”. This is a common hidden competing commitment for leaders to uncover. Particularly if the trimmings of power are very overt in the company culture, i.e. more seniority is associated with more control/ power / authority etc. Potentially changing behaviours to be less controlling could man giving up control/ power/ all that I have worked for in order to get into this position! Powerful indeed.

Given how easy it is to write out an action plan after receiving feedback in a performance related conversation or on a leadership development program, it is not hard to understand why so many attempts at behaviour change actually fail. Uncovering some deeper truths or commitments such as the five listed above will give the leader a higher chance of success in actually committing to change or at least committing to changing something they actually will!

Click HERE To listen to a podcast interview with Pod and Pauline Lee where we discuss the notions of Immunity to Change.

Padraig (Pod) O’Sullivan is the Founding Partner of The Leadership Context, a leadership advisory firm specialising in top team development and accelerating leadership transitions. He is the author of the award winning ‘Foreigner In Charge’ book series.

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