Getting Comfortable with New Behaviors
Why baby steps and support are essential
In recent newsletters I’ve been discussing how we can build more inclusive cultures at work by taking small and actionable steps. These include engaging people across levels, practicing active listening, investing in coworkers’ development and including squeaky wheel colleagues in meetings. Such practices are straightforward, even simple.
But just because they’re simple doesn’t mean they’re easy.
One difficulty is that, as humans, we seem to come equipped with built-in forgetters. We resolve to do something in a healthier or more beneficial way, and we feel inspired or hopeful at the start. But after a while, we default to our habitual responses and established behaviors, otherwise known as our comfort zone. That’s because doing something in a new way requires us to think through our actions and responses. Our brains read this as extra work and so register it as discomfort. If we’re in the habit of speaking first, holding back feels awkward. If we usually avoid people we perceive as not our style, trying to connect with them might feel fake. If we’re used to taking a seat at the back of the room, suddenly striding to the front row feels showboat-ish, even rude.
Please note: none of these actions are intrinsically awkward, inauthentic, or intrusive. They just feel that way because we’re not accustomed to them. To sustain change, we need to tolerate feeling a bit uncomfortable until new habits get established.
We also need to build structures of support that can hold us accountable for what we’re trying to achieve and remind us of what we’re trying to do. If we lack such support, our discomfort may spur us to devise narratives that serve as an excuse for reverting to established habits.
Narratives such as:
It’s pointless to try to talk with this person– we have so little in common!
This meeting is just too boring– time for me to slip out.
Why should I give up my seat to that dimwit?
Such thoughts are primed to undermine our efforts. That is in fact their purpose: to nudge us back into our comfort zone so we can avoid the stress to our systems that change inevitably stirs. Pushing back requires us to give our resistance a reality check. This is best done by getting out of our heads and enlisting support from others.
Enlisting support gives us both perspective and a potential means for holding ourselves accountable for the changes we seek to make. It also provides an additional incentive to persevere when change feels just too hard. If we’ve made a point of telling a colleague that we intend to practice a new behavior– and we’ve gone out of our way to ask for their help– we’re more likely to follow through because we’d feel like a fraud or a big waste of time if we did not.
Knowing we have support also helps disable our built-in forgetter because seeing, or even thinking about, the person we’ve taken into our confidence reminds us that we’ve made a commitment to act in a different way.
Baby steps by definition feel awkward and usually involve someone there to steady our progress. But it can be reassuring just to realize how natural something that feels unnatural actually is. After all, we’ve been doing it since we were toddlers.
You can pre-order my forthcoming book Rising Together at a discounted price before publication on February 28. Just click one of the links below. If you do pre-order, you will be invited to attend a free 60-minute Zoom workshop with me on April 11th.
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