We’ve just slid past the finish line for the first quarter of the year. That means you’ve either successfully completed three months of business and personal goals or — like most people — you’ve managed to drop most, if not all, of the resolutions you made, if you made any at all.
Why are we as adults so bad at changing behaviors? How can we become better at it? What actions can we take in order to become the people we want to be? “Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts — Becoming the Person You Want to Be,” by Marshall Goldsmith and Mark Reiter, attempts to answer those simplistic yet key questions.
The authors begin examination into how we change by focusing on triggers. A trigger is “any stimulus that reshapes our thoughts and actions.” Such stimuli are infinite in number. They can have positive or negative impact. The problem arises when they too often make us act against our own best interests.
A trigger in your environment can even be both. For example, if your co-workers put in late hours every night, you may feel obligated to match their commitment. To do so, you may forego your child’s baseball game or your personal priorities. The result is that such triggers leave you feeling like a victim.
The authors argue against the feeling that you have no control. “Fate is the hand of cards we’ve been dealt,” the book notes. “Choice is how we play the hand.”
Much of his research is based on Goldsmith’s four-decade experience as a world-renowned executive coach. With a client list that includes dozens of global CEOs, Goldsmith doesn’t limit his readership solely to that group. Instead, he provides accessible guidelines for helping any individual or organization become its best, no matter its stage of development or their role.
Goldsmith begins the triggering process of facilitating change by outlining two truths:
Truth #1: Meaningful behavioral change is very hard to do. Not only do we have difficulty admitting we need to change, but we often fail to recognize we prefer not to act on something that may prove difficult.
Truth #2: No one can make us change unless we truly want to change. Some people say they want change when they really don’t mean it.
In order to identify a trigger, Goldsmith uses a feedback loop of four stages: evidence, relevance, consequence and action. Ultimately this feedback triggers desirable behavior.
Goldsmith illustrates using a client example. The first stage was presenting evidence taken from interviews with co-workers. Relevance was found in the client’s inappropriate behaviors. Consequence was both personal (potentially losing his job) and professional (reflecting the company). Action took place as a result of understanding the first three stages of the loop.
While we always have a choice, it may not be clear while we are experiencing the effect of triggers and our reaction to them. Because of this, the author recommends “forecasting the environment” by following three interconnected stages: anticipation, avoidance and adjustment. For example, avoidance may be the best response to a trigger. This seems easy when the environment is unpleasant; it becomes a challenge when the environment is enjoyable.
While there are many kinds of triggering mechanisms, they are often used to alter the behavior of others. Goldsmith suggests a simple yet infrequently used technique for change — self-questioning.
Too frequently self-questions are passive, producing negative consequences. Passive questions allow us to pass the buck to anyone except ourselves. Goldsmith also explores and gives examples of daily questions that highlight that success is the sum of small efforts repeated daily. He recommends tracking the answers.
One contrarian answer is that the change process can benefit from structure. Structure limits options allowing us to control unruly situations. Goldsmith gives as one example the story of Alan Mulally, the CEO of Ford who implemented multiple, often seemingly minute structures to turn around his organization. These included no cellphone meetings and weekly self-grading by executives.
Goldsmith concludes, “We take a foolish pride in prolonging some behaviors as long as possible.”
In doing so, we are leading a changeless life in the most hazardous way, he says. Better to think about one change, one gesture that would trigger it, and take action to become more the person you want to be.