Every decision starts with a belief. That is, we base our decisions on what we know to be true — what we believe. As Linda Henman writes, sometimes, however, we believe something that isn’t true.
Both intellectual and emotional, beliefs influence our behavior when facts and reason alone don’t. How do we develop our beliefs? Our early relationships, experiences, events and situations create and influence our belief systems. However, when we fail to examine our beliefs and bring them to the conscious level, we run the risk that we will continue to base decisions on false or inaccurate inputs.
So, what can you do to disrupt your belief system?
1. Kill Your Sacred Cows
Just because you’ve always believed something doesn’t mean you have to continue to believe it.
Stanford psychologist Lee Ross noted that people have a systematic tendency to ignore the situational forces that shape behavior. He called it the “fundamental attribution error.” The error comes from our inclination to attribute our behavior to “the way I am” instead of to “the situation I’m in.”
So, the first step, then, is to create new situations. Instead of creating an uphill battle for yourself every day, create a steep downhill slope and give yourself a push. Remove friction from the trail and scatter around lots of signs to let you know you’re succeeding.
2. Get New Habits
Last year, I coached an executive in the construction industry who was having trouble with prioritizing, which was leading to anxiety. He just wasn’t getting things done. I asked Pete to walk me through a typical day so I could help him identify when he was encountering a situation that fueled his anxiety.
Pete said he opened email first thing in the morning and immediately felt anxiety. So, first thing out of the gate, Pete felt overwhelmed, which caused him to have trouble prioritizing, which caused him to lose control of his day.
Pete said, “that’s just the way I am,” but I didn’t let him get away with that. Instead, I asked him to change his situation and to deconstruct success he’d had previously.
He admitted that he had created other folders for non-critical emails that he’d handle on certain days and certain times. In other words, he took control and changed his situation, which changed his habits.
If what you’re doing is not working, quit doing that and get yourself off behavior autopilot. Pete did something else, too. He reduced cognitive dissonance.
3. Reduce Cognitive Dissonance
People don’t like to act in one way and think in another. So once a small step has been taken and people begin to act in a new way, it will be increasingly difficult for them to dislike the way they’re acting. Similarly, as people begin to act differently, they’ll start to think of themselves differently, and as their identity evolves, it will reinforce the new way of doing things.
Several years ago, I helped Scott, the president of a small manufacturing division of a much larger corporation, reduce his cognitive dissonance. Through our work, I realized that Scott was in danger of losing three members of his leadership team because they simply couldn’t work with Kaveh. Each told stories about how Kaveh created conflict, stormed out of meetings and generally abused the others on the team. I personally found Kaveh difficult to work with, and he stormed out of a one-on-one meeting with me, too – the one and only time that’s ever happened in more than 40 years of doing this work.
When I discussed Kaveh’s behavior with Scott, he said, “I know, Linda, but the guy makes me so damn much money. I can’t fire him.” Later in the day, another teammate who had worked with Kaveh at a previous company confided that Kaveh had lied on his application. He didn’t have a Ph.D., as he had claimed. When I confronted Scott with this piece of information, I assured him that he would need to fire Kaveh or corporate HR would likely fire him.
Scott believed he was doing the right thing to keep the best rainmaker working for him, even though that belief stood in stark contrast with the corporate core values of integrity, respect, trust, shared risk and simplicity.
Scott fired Kaveh, experienced a brief dip in sales, and then got promoted to a corporate VP level. Scott disrupted things that day, but he made them better. As Scott learned, our beliefs shape our thinking, which influences our behavior.
When the gap between what we say and what we really do narrows, tough decisions become easier. High-stakes situations demand that we make our decisions based on our core values — the intersection of what we believe and how we behave.
These unconscious beliefs create biases that shape our world view — and our mindset. When we actively examine our attitudes, biases, beliefs and values, we take the requisite steps that build confidence that we can take a risk.
Our negativity instinct causes us to notice the bad more than the good, however. There are three things going on here:
- the misremembering of the past, often making it the “good old days” when it wasn’t;
- the feeling that as long as things are bad, it’s heartless to say they are getting better; and
- our bombardment by negative news. (When is the last time someone reported all the airline flights that didn’t crash?) Yet, when plane a does crash, it stays in the headlines for weeks and even months.
When people wrongly believe that nothing is improving, they may conclude that nothing they have tried so far works and lose confidence in things that actually do work. Too often, clients want to tell me everything they have done that didn’t work and fail to mention all the efforts that moved the needle, even just a little. Henry Ford once said, “whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you‘re right.”