I pushed and pushed…and pushed again.
But no matter how hard I tried, I could not get every manager in our company to get all of their reports and department start-up tasks completed on time.
Competence was not the issue: everyone had the required skills and knew how to do what needed to be done.
Desire was not the issue: everyone knew they needed to be completed and was committed to getting them done, but with so much to do, things inevitably got lost in the shuffle.
My staff were even frustrated with themselves.
And no matter how I pushed, pulled, or incentivized, nothing changed.
We have been taught to rely on our willpower to change our behavior.
“Just do it!”
It’s a great shoe slogan, but when it comes to impacting human behavior, particularly the behavior of groups, it’s a hoax.
And it’s a particularly devilish hoax because we don’t care for the alternative:
If I can’t just will myself into doing better, feeling better, or changing, there must be something wrong with me, right?
You’re not weak, nothing is wrong with you, and your team isn’t a bunch of weak-minded morons.
Willpower is useful in some instances, but so much of what we do is determined by other things:
- by the physical environment we are in
- by what the people around us are doing
- by our skills and abilities
- by the existence of other values and priorities
- by systems that work against what we’re trying to do
Beating the Hoax
Environment matters – Imagine an extreme situation where you are surrounded by jelly beans, everyone is eating jelly beans, and getting any other food is very difficult. Despite your willpower and desire not to, odds are, you’re going to eat some jelly beans.
It’s an extreme example, but it gives you a picture of what happens every day. It’s not a failure of willpower, it’s a consequence of particular surroundings.
So it makes sense that if you want to change your behavior or the behavior of your team, you need to focus on something other than willpower.
In this example, you might focus on acquiring skills to help you find food other than jelly beans. Or you might focus on the system that is filling your room with jelly beans.
One of the easiest places to focus is on surroundings:
What and who are people seeing every day?
- If your team isn’t seeing key benchmarks on a daily or weekly basis, try placing them publicly…on a wall, in an email, in an intranet.
- If people aren’t working together or communicating, examine their opportunity for interaction. Do they get to see each other? Are they hiding behind closed doors?
- If students are not interacting with what they’re learning (or communicating with each other), look a the layout of the room. Rows of chairs facing one direction don’t facilitate conversation with anyone.
- For my team, a simple spreadsheet listing the tasks and showing who had completed what was all it took to help them accomplish what they already wanted to do.
It’s not that they were stubborn or lacked the capacity to do what was needed…changing the environment helped clarify priorities and also produced some competition between teams to get things done well and on time.
Are you struggling with willpower?
If so, it’s time to end the hoax.
Try changing your environment and see what happens!
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- Do You Really Want Things to Get Better?
David M. Dye
(Photo by Jen Gallardo)
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David is President of Trailblaze, Inc and shares twenty years experience teaching, coaching, leading, and managing in youth service, education advocacy, city governance, and faith-based nonprofits. He enjoys partnering with people to change the world and helping others discover and realize their own potential.