Why do people have such a hard time changing their behavior?

By Mike Cook

For The Bellingham Business Journal

This week’s column may not seem like it is in keeping with the season. But in my mind, it is. The subject is somewhat somber, some may think even dark, but as we approach the new year and that time for resolutions I think you may see that it is timely.

Ever wonder why people can’t make the changes they obviously need to make to stay healthy, stay alive even? Believe it or not, in many cases so do they. Try as they might the changes do not come.

My friend Ted almost died this week. At least that’s what the doctors told him while he was spending six days in a hospital after collapsing during a business trip. Actually, he had been collapsing for almost two weeks by the time his flight arrived in Atlanta and he was rushed to the emergency room.

Ted is a friend and he is also a client; we have known each other for more than 15 years. Ted had accepted a new position a few months back, and as an assist while he was getting settled in his new role he asked me to serve as his business coach for several months, a role I had served him in on several previous occasions.

Our relationship is grounded in mutual respect and shared values, like most of my best relationships.

We talk on the phone, text and email and generally stay pretty well abreast of what is going on in our professional lives. That closeness is why I began to suspect something had been off for a while shortly before Ted’s heart failed him.

In recent phone calls, maybe the past three or four weeks, Ted had been expressing his experience of a level of anxiety that didn’t coincide with the circumstances of his work life. Having worked together on several occasions, I had my suspicions about what was going on but not being able to see him in person definitely allowed him to hide the full extent of the problem. Finally, last week he gave me a detailed description of his symptoms. It wasn’t simple anxiety at all, he was having trouble breathing, he had no energy and could barely drag himself through a day, and of course he was on the road.

On a Monday call I insisted he needed to see a doctor immediately. Ted informed me that he had recently seen a heart specialist who assured him that all his physical signs were good. I was dismayed and insisted that we talk again the next evening, knowing he was going to fly across country and attend a company holiday function before then flying home the following day. I called at our appointed time and he was not available. Maybe he was tired and went to bed early, I thought? Nope! That was not the case, he was in trouble and had checked into the ER that very night.

Ted and I spoke over the weekend and he acknowledged that he knows he was fortunate not to have died. The doctors told him that he likely experienced a heart attack two weeks back and just kept going, to the point where he was hours away from death. He told me that he thinks he has gotten the message, that his health is more important to him than his job. Personally, I am not convinced. Ted is up for a promotion and said that he is going to take his name out of the running for the position. That’s a good first step but he’s a long way from out of the woods.

So, what’s going on here? You may have Ted in your life too, or you may be a Ted!! He is an intelligent guy, works out, doesn’t have any bad personal habits — but he is talking himself to death.

You know we talk to ourselves all the time, right? But do you also know that the little voice in our head is not just casual chatter, it is instructing our behavior. Call it self-programming if you want but is has everything to do with why people maintain destructive patterns.

You see this same type of behavior in your employees, in your friends and sometimes in yourself.

“Resistance to change does not reflect opposition, nor is it merely a result of inertia,” according to research done at Harvard by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey. “ Instead, even as they hold a sincere commitment to change, many people are unwittingly applying productive energy toward a hidden competing commitment.”

In other words, they are talking themselves into the destructive behavior and it has become hard wired.

I’d encourage you to read, “The Real Reason People Don’t Change” before you start making any New Year’s Resolutions.  You may find that like my friend Ted, the answers you are looking for may take some deeper reflection.

Mike Cook ‘s columns appear on BBJToday.com every other Tuesday. He facilitates a CEO peer advisory group in the Whatcom/Skagit area. He can be reached at mike.cook@vistagechair.com. He recently published ‘Thriving in the Middle: Why Managers Need to Be Coaching Each Other

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