Jun 072016

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Earl R Smith II, PhD


A while back I was having drinks with a friend who has been involved in coaching senior executives for several decades. During the course of that conversation he offered an interesting and challenging question: “Why is it that some executives find it so difficult to change behaviors in the face of overwhelming evidence that 1) the behaviors are counterproductive at best and often destructive and 2) that such changes will probably radically improve their effectiveness as a leader … and their contributions to their company?”

EinsteinWhen asked what the source of the question was, he recounted a series of coaching situations with much the same (and clearly to him highly frustrating) outcomes. In each case a CEO had, after extended experience with the limiting destructiveness of their own personal tendencies, come up against the distinct possibility that their behavior, rather than the world at large, was the primary source of the factors which were stunting their company’s growth.

As he went through the “case studies”, the pattern quickly became clear. Philosophically the question became: “If humans are capable of rational thought then why doesn’t rational thought trump counterproductive behavior in these kinds of situations?”

I responded initially with one of my favorite aphorisms: “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think!” After a good laugh we decided that maybe that was as good a door as any through which to enter this darkened room.

My first foray began with the idea that, for some people, habits, particularly when they relate to important and closely held components of self image and personality, are very hard to break. My idea was a variation of the old Chinese proverb that once a sheet of paper is folded it will always tend to re-fold in exactly the same place. I suggested that some behavior changes present more of a challenge because they require fundamental modifications in an individual’s understanding of who they are. Under the theory that a person’s self image is accumulated over time and plays an essential part not only in defining who that person is to themselves but also what their appropriate place and status in the world is, I suggested that these CEOs were most likely to resist changing behaviors that have come to represent a central part of how they define themselves and how they prefer to be accepted by the world.

urlThis suggestion took us down a path that meandered through a couple of drinks, some tasty, if somewhat overly spicy, hors d’oeuvres and about a half an hour of lively conversation. But the analysis, though logically satisfying, didn’t seem to bring us much closer to an answer that might be useful. As satisfying as it was to come to the conclusion that, in some ways and in some situations, people are just stubbornly mulish, it didn’t do much for two people who spend a lot of time and energy trying to help the mule get up and actually pull the wagon.

And, if we were going to attack the problem from that direction both of us should probably take a decade off and get an advanced degree in psychiatry! So I started to look for another possibility.

What was it about these CEOs that seemed to set them apart from others who didn’t had the same problems with change? The question seemed daunting. They were a rather incoherent group … managing companies across a range of sizes, industries and value propositions. Some had decades of experience while others were just starting out. There was no apparent dominant gender, age, ethnicity or race trait in the group. So what made them a group? And what caused them to have trouble with achieving fundamental change?

Sometime after the second drink I made a suggestion that seemed to promise a way up. “Maybe what is important is not the habits that are hard to break but that portion of a person’s self image that tells them they are either still on the journey or that they have arrived.” Maybe this group is a group because all of them subscribe to what I call the “Completeness Doctrine”.

CroppedImage608342-hubris1I have been fond of observing that “organizations evolve much more quickly than the people who inhabit them”. The idea here became “maybe these people have stopped learning. Perhaps they see themselves as fully formed … arrived rather than on the journey. Maybe these people have stopped growing!”

We focused on the personalities of these CEOs and began to dig out some common characteristics. They all had been pretty much rounding the same small circles for years. As another friend is fond of saying, maybe “they get to confront the same problem over and over until they solve it and then get to go on to the next one.” But, since they aren’t capable of solving it, the circular journey continues and the behavior endures.

I left the conversation convinced that we had stumbled on something quite important. Acceptance of the “Completeness Doctrine” as part of an individual’s self-image might create limits to growth and change merely through its acceptance. By such an acceptance, an individual might immediately create a whole family of challenges they will not be able to overcome simply because they closed the books before they developed the necessary skills … they have stopped learning before they have learned what is necessary to know.

On the drive home I remembered people that I had met while on Wall Street who, even well into their 80s, seemed reflexively to take the “student” role when facing the world or new challenges. The combination of wonder and curiosity that they carried with them in all their “adventures” seemed to re-arrive to my present musings and smile at me over the years … out of a remembrance that had been refreshed.

I have always thought of people who have stopped learning as a kind of “walking dead”. Their recourse seemed to be to the pettier aspects of life, instrumental interpretations of reality and the delusions that seem to be so necessary to maintain a self-image that awaits only the grave. But now I found myself considering the costs … the terrible costs … that the living are often called upon to pay on account of these “fossils-of-the-once-alive”.

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