How to Overcome Self-Protection to Create Personal Behavioural Change

ami Simon, in a recent interview podcast, spoke to Dr. Lisa Lahey about her co-authored book, Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization.  Lisa is also a member of the faculty for the Inner MBA, jointly conducted by Sounds True in partnership with New York University, Wisdom 2.0 and LinkedIn.  In the interview, Lisa and Tami explore our self-protection mechanisms, the need for courage to overcome them and the importance of supportive challenge to sustain significant personal change.

Our self-protection mechanisms create an immunity to change

Our self-protection mechanisms are designed to protect our sense of self-worth and overall psychic health – they stop us from doing things that would be harmful to our psychic welfare.  Research and experience demonstrate, however, that that many people in organisations find it difficult to make positive behavioural changes that would make them a better staff member or manager.  For example, staff may not change inappropriate behaviour despite regular corrective feedback and a manager may not be able to delegate effectively despite their belief in the need for delegation.

Lisa maintains that the real barrier to these desirable behavioural changes is not a lack of procedural or technical knowledge but the need to change our “inner landscape” – made up of our beliefs, inner rules, feelings, self-stories and assumptions about our self, others, and our world.  Many behavioural changes in an organisational setting require these “adaptive changes” – becoming aware of the specific, inner landscape barriers to a focal behavioural change and working consciously to remove them.  This perspective advanced by Lisa lines up with our earlier discussion of “absolutes” and their impact on our thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

Lisa likens our inner landscape to our immune system which is a self-protection mechanism designed to protect us against infection.  Our immune system, however, can also work against our physical welfare.  This can happen when it becomes hypersensitive to foods that would otherwise be good for us and creates inflammation in the form of rashes, hives, and other manifestations of food intolerance and allergies.  Another example is when the immune system rejects a liver or heart after a transplant.   Our inner landscape, just like the self-protective mechanism of our immune system, can work against making and sustaining desirable, personal behavioural change (whether within an organisational setting or in daily life with our family).

Making adaptive change through the “immunity change process”

In her Book, Immunity to Change, Lisa provides a detailed four-step process for making adaptive change which she calls “the immunity change process”.  In the podcast interview, she offered a brief description of each step and these are illustrated below:

  1. Have a clear goal in mind – Clarity around your behavioural change goal is critical because it enables a focused exploration of your “inner landscape”.  Lisa gave the example of her gaol to overcome the fear of public speaking.  Here I will focus on the goal of improving delegation as a manager, drawing on my experience working with managers over many years.
  2. Honest exploration of your self-sabotaging behaviours: As a manager, you might work against the achievement of your delegation goal by constant interference/ checking in with the person to whom you have delegated work (the delegatee), expressing a lack of trust in the delegatee’s ability to complete the work successfully, showing increasing signs of nervousness, and/or being unclear in your instructions/requirements when establishing the delegated task.  These behaviours can feed your anxiety cycle and thwart effective delegation to the delegatee and, at the same time, undermine their confidence so that they do not do the delegated job very well (an outcome that reinforces your belief system about the threats to your self-worth involved in delegating).
  3. Honest exploration of your inner self-protective goals:  These inner goals lie beneath your self-sabotaging behaviour and provide the unconscious rationale for behaving in a way that works against the achievement of your goal.  These self-protective goals could include trying to avoid the embarrassment of staff making mistakes, ensuring the security of your own job, maintaining a sense of superior knowledge and skills (“better than”) or avoiding being seen as lazy. 
  4. Identifying and challenging the underlying assumptions that give rise to the self-protective goals: These could include the assumption that if the delegatee becomes really good at their work your job will be at risk, they will see any poor work that you have done in relation to the delegated task,  they might do it the wrong way if you don’t constantly check on them, you will be seen as incompetent if they do the delegated task poorly or you will lose control of the task and the delegatee and reduce your influence.  These assumptions are interrelated and self-reinforcing, reducing your capacity to see possibilities and explore creative options.  Once these underlying assumptions have been surfaced, you can challenge them by exploring alternative assumptions.  Lisa suggests, for example, in relation to delegation, that the process could be seen as adding real value to the organisation and the delegatee by enabling them to be the best they can be.  This not only contributes more fully to the achievement of organisational goals but also builds staff motivation and mental health through providing a sense of agency.  Also, as neuroscientist Tali Sharot explains, you grow your influence by letting go.

Reflection

Our inner landscape acts as both a self-protective mechanism building our self-esteem and a self-sabotaging system that comes into play when we perceive that our self-worth is under threat.  As we grow in mindfulness through reflective processes such as the “immunity change process”, we can become more aware of our self-sabotaging behaviour, our unconscious self-protective goals and the underlying assumptions that hold them in place.  As we challenge our assumptions and associated expectations, we can break free of their hold over us and be open to creative options that we can pursue with courage and persistence.

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Image by Peter Perhac from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

A Framework for Reflection for Organisation Leaders

Chip Conley, author and hospitality entrepreneur, emphasised the importance of reflection, wisdom and lifelong learning for leaders.  He created the Modern Elder Academy to further that end.  He was especially interested in making the workplace a place for fullment, inspiration and self-actualization for employees – which he maintained was the means to achieve a sustainably successful organisation.  Chip acknowledged that his leadership philosophy was heavily influenced by the writing of two men Viktor Frankl and Abraham Maslow.

Viktor Frankl through his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, impressed on Chip the importance and power of a meaningful life for leaders and the critical role of leaders in providing an environment that is conducive to employees developing a “sense of purpose and meaning”.   Research has confirmed that a meaningful life is foundational to a person’s health, happiness and overall well-being.

Abraham Maslow and his work on developing a Hierarchy of Needs had a very profound effect on Chip and his approach to leadership, both as an owner/entrepreneur and a mentor to other leaders, especially the young founders of Airbnb.  Maslow’s work gave Chip an insight into how to develop a reflective framework to guide his own role as a leader and to assist other leaders to create meaningful work for employees.

A framework for reflection for organisational leaders – the transformative pyramid

Chip explained his reflection framework in a TED Talk© given in 2010 titled, Measuring What Makes Life Worthwhile.  He elaborated further on the evolution of the framework and how to put it into practice in a podcast interview with Tami Simon of Sounds True.  He was particularly concerned about the challenge of applying Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to business and the management of employees.

What Chip realised is that, for employees, meaning provided inspiration which in turn developed intrinsic motivation.  He came up with the idea of a framework which he called the “transformative pyramid” – built on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which was illustrated as a five-level pyramid with physiological needs at the bottom of the pyramid and self-actualization at the top.

To simplify things and make his framework easy to implement, Chip developed his transformative pyramid as a three-level pyramid with “survival” at the bottom, “success” in the middle and “transformation” at the top.  He pointed out that many leaders focus only on the bottom of the pyramid, the survival needs, by using all their energy to create non-sustainable, extrinsic motivation in the form of pay, bonuses and financial rewards while ignoring what truly influences and shapes employee motivation.

In Chip’s model, “success” relates to recognition that an employee is achieving their role and contributing to the organisation.  He understood that positive feedback was a powerful motivator and that people often left their jobs because of the way they were treated, including feeling a sense that they had been “taken for granted” and their efforts were unrecognised.   Chip explained, by way of example, that during the dot-com crash, he introduced a process of recognition at his weekly managers’ meetings that not only provided some positive element to what was a relatively sober discussion but also helped to spread recognition and positivity throughout the organisation. 

The initiating process for giving recognition was simple – he introduced a ten-minute period at the end of each meeting where a manager would mention someone in one of the teams who “deserved recognition” for something they had done in the workplace or in the field.  This recognition was communicated personally to the individual involved who felt that they were “noticed” and respected, and their contribution was appreciated.  Chip suggested that great companies are differentiated by the fact that they are “first-class noticers”.

At the highest level of the transformation pyramid is personal reframing of work from “just a job” to something that is meaningful and worthwhile.  Chip suggested that this can be achieved by helping employees to understand the higher purpose of the organisation – the inspirational “why”,  and to find meaning in what they do by understanding the connection between their daily work and something broader that makes a difference in people’s lives.  

Chip indicated that he learned this lesson from a maid who had worked for a  long time in one of his hotels.  When he asked her why she seemed so happy doing mundane work every day (such as cleaning the toilets), she said that she was able “to create joy” for people who stayed in their hotel away from their home and often without their family or partner.  She was able to mentally connect what she did every day to a “noble purpose”.  This realisation and reframing were “transformative” for her – putting her mundane work in a totally different light and acting as a source of intrinsic motivation.

Chip encapsulated his “transformation pyramid” and its underlying principles in his book, PEAK: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow.  He encouraged leaders to use his framework to reflect on their relationships with their employees, customers and investors.  Since the first edition of the book, many organisations worldwide in different industries have used his framework to transform their businesses. In particular, they have found innovative ways to recognise the contribution of their employees.

Reflection

It is often the simplest ideas that have the greatest impact.  Chip demonstrated that focusing on intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation was the way forward to transform companies and he proved this through his own roles as founder and CEO of Joie de Vivre and as mentor to the founders of Airbnb.  In the process, he addressed one of the key underlying problems associated with the growth of depression – the loss of connection to meaningful work.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can increase our understanding of leadership and what is meaningful in life for us and others, and notice, appreciate and provide recognition to people we encounter who contribute in whatever way to our own welfare and that of our organisations.  Noticing, appreciating and giving recognition require us to be present in the moment – a key aspect of mindfulness.  Being present builds awareness of our self and others.

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Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Mindfulness and Personal Transitions During Organisational Change

Change in our personal lives and in an organisational setting can generate anxiety, fear, insecurity and anger.  This discomfort can be expressed as resistance to change and lead to a wide range of unproductive behaviours that can be harmful to us as individuals as well as for the organisations we work in.  William and Susan Bridges identified three broad stages of personal transition in the context of organisational change.  In their 2017 book, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, they explained that each of us go through these stages at different rates for different changes depending on the our perception of the impact of the changes.  The three stages they identified are (1) endings – where the focus is on loss, (2) neutral zone – involves a “wait and see” orientation and (3) new beginnings – putting commitment and energy behind the change.  Their book provides a range of managerial strategies that can be employed by organisations to help people transition from endings to new beginnings. They emphasize that without these strategies individuals and organisations can become stuck in either the endings stage or the neutral zone, resulting in illness and organisational decline.

Mindfulness and personal transitions during organisational change

Wendy Quan, a certified organisational change agent and creator of The Calm Monkey (Mindfulness Meditation in the Workplace), had a personal experience that gave her a deep insight into how people deal with a confronting and challenging change.  She was diagnosed with cancer after many years in multiple organisational change roles. This personal challenge led her to seek out mindfulness practices, and meditation in particular, to help her deal with this devastating illness.  Through her meditation practice she came to accept her illness and all that it entailed, and realised that she had a choice – she could view herself as a victim or take a proactive approach that would enable her to lead the best life possible, given her health setback.

This led to a further insight in that she realised that she could employ her understanding of organisational change and mindfulness to help others in an organisational setting.  She was able to draw on the research of William and Susan Bridges and developed a refined model of personal transitions.  She focused on the psychological change processes involved and identified five transition points in an individual’s psychological journey during organisational change:

  • Awareness: becoming aware of your thoughts, emotions, reactions and behaviour when facing the change
  • Understanding: gaining insight into the “why” of your holistic response – body and mind (recognising that this is a normal reaction to a confronting and challenging change)
  • Acceptance: accepting “what is”, not denying your current reality (e.g. a changed role, loss of a job or status)
  • Commitment: moving beyond acceptance to committing to adopt a positive, proactive response to improve your personal experience of the change, “taking things into your own hands” – self-management instead of reactivity
  • Advocacy: promoting the change and its positive elements if your energy level and role enable this.

Research into mindfulness and personal transitions during organisational change

Wendy was able to apply her insights in her work situation to help her colleagues through difficult change processes.  She moved beyond working with a small group to establishing a weekly mindfulness meditation “drop-in” where participants could share their experiences of change, both personal and organisational, and identify what they were trying to cope with and how they were going about it.  After a few years, she had 185 people on this drop-in program (highlighting the psychological challenge of organisational change) and this enabled her to undertake formal research of the impact of her approach of combining mindfulness with change management insights.

Her research was published in a study titled Dealing with Change Meditation Study which can be downloaded here.   Wendy indicated that her approach revolved around two key points of intervention, (1) raising awareness of the personal, holistic impact of a change process and (2) focusing on the future to develop a more constructive response so that the individual undergoing organisational change can have a better experience of the change and make decisions about their future.  Participants in the study were asked to focus on a challenging change and listen three times over a two-week period to a 15-minute, guided meditation focused on positively dealing with the change.

Resources for personal transitions during organisational change

Wendy, building on her own experience of combining mindfulness and organisational change insights, has developed several resources that people can use to assist their personal change processes or to facilitate the transition for others undergoing organisational change:

Wendy also provides a series of free and paid meditation podcasts on her website.

Reflection

I have been engaged in organisational change consultancy for over 40 years, and more recently undertaken extensive research and writing about mindfulness, as well as developing my own mindfulness practices, including meditation.  However, identifying a practical approach to combining the two related skill sets has alluded me to date.  Wendy, through her experience of a personal health crisis, has been able to introduce a very effective, evidence-based approach to using mindfulness to help people transition through organisational change processes.  She has been able to demonstrate that as we grow in mindfulness we can become more aware of our personal response to an organisational change, develop an increased understanding of the nature of that response, increase our acceptance of our changing reality and gradually build a commitment to shaping our future in a positive and constructive way.  Her work resonates with the insights and approach of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, as well as that of Susan David who focuses on using mindfulness to develop “emotional agility”.

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Image by Geralt from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.