It’s not why you do it, it’s how

June 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

Due to my recent move from being a technical leader to a leadership facilitator I’ve wondered a lot about my conceptualisation of change and motivation in people. There are a lot of interesting threads in this regard. One of these being the difficulty people have in assimilating advice (we seem to find it a lot easier to disseminate advice;-). An interesting article by Art Markman on Psychology Today gives an interesting clue to this part of the tapestry. In the article Markman discusses how advice givers focus on the “why” while advice takers are busy with the “how”. Interestingly enough in much of the coaching I do at Aim I try to focus a lot on not giving (direct) advice but rather asking insightful questions about the challenges faced by the coachee. It is an interesting road to take because to a certain extent you avoid both – you don’t give advice that focusses either on the “why” or on the “how” but rather focus on the context of the coachee. Of course it also facilitates a kind of process of internalisation of the answers that is immensely valuable.

The other interesting thread that comes out of coaching is the idea of someone’s attitude or, in a deeper sense, thier values and the importance of dealing with thier values. There are a lot of articles and books written about the topic of bias, e.g. “anchoring bias” – the idea that priming people with certain information can change the way they respond to situations. (Interestingly enough this bias is used extensively in the Markman article and the books by Dan Ariely.) One of the insights I’m working with at the moment is that there is very little difference between a bias and a value and that to a large extend they are one and the same thing.

At Aim, and I presume at other organisations professionally involved in people change management, we understand the importance of addressing people’s value systems if you want to make change sustainable. To put it differently – if you don’t change people’s bias they will gravitate back to doing things the same way they did them in the “good old days”.

Of course it is very interesting to see articles such as the recent one in the New Yorker by Jonah Lehrer showing that smarter people’s bias’s have an even harder link to their actions. The tapestry gets even more intricate when you add the fact that the more creative people are the more likely they are to twist the truth, as explored in Dan Ariely’s new book. Maybe even as importantly creative people are even more likely to twist the truth when there is room for ambiguity. However this twisting of the truth does often show thier bias’s.

Seemingly all the threads above can be split into two types: the “why” threads focusing on your bias and values; and the “how” threads focussing on your actions and words. We need to get to the “why” threads so that we can weave a new tapestry formed out of the desired “how” threads, but the “why” threads can very easily be hidden by our sophistry. I cannot recall the number of times in which I have been asked the “why” question where I end up in a complete quandary. This quandary generally is because I realise none of my possible answers are objective. Now that I can see the link between bias and creativity I am starting to better understand why I have this problem.

So how do I get to see my own “why” threads then? I can’t approach them directly since then my brain uses all the possible ambiguity to confuse the issue, so I have to approach it obliquely. One way is to approach it by the “how”, i.e. what were my actions and what is the broader picture that my actions show. To a large extent it comes down to “actions speak louder than words”.

From my experience so far and my discussions with my colleagues it seems like finding these oblique approaches on top of understanding how people can sustainably change is one of the key arts of helping myself and other leaders develop. Of course another oblique approach is to create a space for safe meaningful play, and that this is why the EnablerTM seems to be such a successful tool in facilitating change.


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