"Seek Discomfort When Changing Behaviors"
by Bauback Yeganeh, Ph.D.

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I've been reflecting recently upon the relationship between behavior change and comfort. It starts with auto-pilot. We think and act automatically most of the time. This is a way for the brain to preserve energy so it can focus on new things, adapt and survive. The things we do that have led to our career successes are so ingrained that we aren't aware of them most of the time. Auto-pilot is comfortable and familiar to us. We rarely stay in auto-pilot and think "whoa I'm in auto-pilot right now and it doesn't feel right". It feels normal, and this is where things get interesting. When leaders want to change behaviors it is because there is something that they can do differently to be more effective. For this to work, our drive toward the new behavior must be as strong or stronger than our drive toward that familiar auto-pilot feeling. This is a significant challenge.

I was running an executive education program and shared that its unwise to assume that people around us don't understand our social network and relationships at work. I suggested that when we walk into the office there are some people we spend more time with than others and it becomes clear by our verbals, non-verbals and time spent, whom we prefer. I also suggested that if we want to be equitable leaders we will consider this and go out of our way to spread our time more evenly. At this point a leader in the back of the room raised his hand and said "I won't do that." I asked why and he said "it's just not me." I asked what it means if a behavior "isn't you." I then asked what would happen if he were to try distributing his attention and time more evenly and he said that he would feel uncomfortable. In what may not have been my most graceful facilitation moment I asked "so what?" I asked him whether our job as leaders is to seek comfort or something else entirely. Isn't being an intentional leader about engaging behaviors that will guide our teams toward productivity, motivation, and a sense of accomplishment? If we are comfortable on auto-pilot, and some of our less effective behaviors happen on auto-pilot, we should be seeking at least a bit of discomfort when changing behaviors.