Why People Don't Change

Last Updated Sep 6, 2011 11:58 AM EDT

Cleaning out my office the other day - an odd thing in itself - I came across something even more arcane than the thought of Why People Dont Changeme cleaning anything. It was a DiSC behavioral profile my management team and I did back in the 90s.

The chart showed that I was heavy in the "dominance" and "influence" areas with pretty much zilch in the "conscientiousness" and "steadiness" realms. It was apparently a classic "Inspirational Pattern." This is what it looked like (over there, on the right -> ).

According to the DiSC material:
  • My goal is to control my environment by "consciously attempting to modify the thoughts and actions of others."
  • I'm adept at "identifying and manipulating other's existing motives and directing the resulting behavior toward a predetermined end."
  • I influence others through charm and intimidation and become manipulative and quarrelsome under pressure.
Tell me something I don't already know. And readers wonder why I write about control freaks all the time. It's something I know a lot about, that's why.

So why bring up this unpleasant bit of history? Well, it's surprising how accurately that profile described the "me" of 15 years ago. And while there were some things I would have liked to change about my behavior at the time, the truth is that I didn't change a thing.

Don't get me wrong; I have changed a lot since then. But what the DiSC program revealed had nothing to do with it. I changed when my goals changed - for reasons we'll get to in a minute - and I realized the behavior that had served me in the past was no longer effective.

That's what this post is about: the difference between identifying behavioral characteristics, which DiSC and similar programs like Myers-Briggs are probably very good at, and actually doing something about it, i.e. modifying behavior, which is a whole different ball game.

The real value of behavioral profiles systems
Not only was the DiSC system dead-on, it also provided tips on how I can be more effective and showed my staff why I behaved like a lunatic from time to time. That said, I think the real value in the exercise was that, for a day, we all got to be on the same level discovering what each of us was really all about. I remember it being fun and disarming.

Personally, I think we achieved similar results from our quarterly dinners out - getting to know each other in a different setting over good food and even better wine. That made it easier to face issues and crises together, as a team. We could look each other in the eye and know there's a real live person with real emotions in there, beneath the bravado and confidence we project as part of our daily lives as executives.

So, even though the DiSC system told me I could be a "belligerent" jerk under certain conditions, was deeply afraid of "being too soft," and would be more effective by showing some "genuine sensitivity" from time to time, nothing changed because I had a job to do and that was get results, not get all warm and fuzzy with my inner self.

What it really takes to affect behavioral change
In reality, it took a couple of pretty dramatic personal crises to get me to take a cold hard look in the mirror and decide that I wanted different things out of life. And to achieve them, I would need to spend some quality time actually getting to know my family and myself and enjoy life. I needed some balance.

Somebody who used to work for Intel's former CEO Andy Grove - a guy who was famously tightly wound - once told me that Grove became a much nicer and mellower guy after his run-in with prostate cancer. A CEO I used to work for also softened up after a scary bout with cancer. That's the sort of thing that motivates change.

You see, DiSC profiles may be eerily accurate, but they're still pretty superficial compared to Why People Dont Changeeverything you and I have going on under the hood. That's because the architecture of the human mind is complicated. It's actually a lot like an onion. Here's what it looks like (over there, on the left <-).

And just like an onion, you peel a layer, cry, peel another layer, and cry some more. In other words, just when you think you've got it all figured out, you go a bit deeper and find out you didn't know a damn thing. The mind's tricky like that.

You see, what it all really comes down to, the essence of how you and I behave on a daily basis, is a loop that actually goes something like this:
Why People Dont Change You can follow the loop for years, even decades, thinking everything's fine. Then, one day, something happens - a crisis, an epiphany - and you realize that the results of all your efforts weren't what you expected. So you change your goals and, well, your behavior won't change overnight, but it's a start.

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Onion Image: Like_the_Grand_Canyon via Flickr

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