Why You Need to Fully Understand Choice-in-Action if You Hope to Succeed at Anything

At the moment, success rates of change efforts, big and small, are probably not far off from what random success rates would be without any expert change agents leading the way. Sure, there are change agents that do better than others, but with 70% ¬†failure rates for major changes and 90% of people admitting they will not execute the things they say they will, it’s long overdue to admit what Scott Keller and Carolyn Aiken titled The Inconvenient Truth about Change Management.

Brain science provides many insights that allow us to change these statistics and turn change more into a science (with predictable results and at least a 70%  success rate instead of 70% failure rate). Perhaps the most interesting of all is the understanding of the Choice-in-Action principle and its applications to change of any sort.

Is your organization going through a merger and are your people having a hard time adjusting? Are you trying to influence a team to change their dynamics? Is someone you know trying to acquire a skill or make adjustments that will lead to higher productivity? All of these, and many other big and small changes, can only bypass the random success rate if you design change efforts to incorporate the Choice-in-Action principle.

Choice-in-Action is a deliberate choice to DO something despite resistance. Yes, resistance is imperative for this equation. Without it, the choice is not solidified in the brain…go figure. If you want to acquire a new habit (let’s say you want to stop smoking or start a diet) the most important thing is for you to keep doing it despite (and in the presence of) your own resistance. Choice-in-Action is so important that it trumps where your motivation comes from. This means that if you choose to change your diet in a lasting way, and you practice a new diet, despite your resistance over and over again, you will be able to adopt the new diet, even if your motivation was fear, anger or other such negative emotions. That is, provided your experience or conclusion about the diet is that it leads to subjective positive results. Force a child to eat broccoli – even though it’s for the ‘wrong’ motivation – and if the child ends up experiencing broccoli as a positive thing, he will adopt the habit of eating broccoli (maybe even liking broccoli).

I know, with everything we are being taught about motivation, this sounds very suspicious. It gets even worse before it gets better: in the workplace, you can force, scare, threaten or use any other form of manipulation to successfully get people to change. If you have a mechanism that will keep them making Choice-in-Action despite their resistance, and if they will end up experiencing the change as a positive thing, they will make needed changes in a lasting way. Imagine getting a team to adjust to a new culture after a merger. What I’m saying is that if you have a mechanism that will force the team to choose to practice the new culture over and over again despite their resistance, they will acquire the new culture quickly and in a lasting way.

Here is where it gets better: it hides in the word “choice.” There are two keys for people adopting a change in a lasting way:

  1. The first is that people make a CHOICE to continue practicing despite their resistance.
  2. The second is that they conclude that the experience was a positive thing.

You may very well force yourself to diet out of ‘bad’ motivations. Yet, if you’ll end up concluding the diet is a positive thing after making repetitive choices in action, you will sustain it.

What does that mean when it comes to designing change efforts?

  • Give people access to their own ability to change: Share with your team that in order to adopt a new ability, adjust to a new culture or sustain new habits, they need to repeatedly make a Choice-in-Action despite their resistance.
  • Don’t shy away from resistance, you need it: Instead of trying to make resistance disappear, use it to your advantage. People who know how to use their own resistance, can learn how to change, which is the most important building block for excellence.
  • Monitor the conclusions people draw from experiences to the greatest possible degree: Talk to people about the conclusions they draw from experience. Give them ample examples that reinforce the conclusion you are trying to get them to adopt. The experience is only as important as the conclusion people draw about it. Talk to your sales people about which conclusions they draw when they meet with rejection; explore with your team which conclusions they draw from how meetings are run; talk to people about the conclusions they assign to things you say. Give people experience-based reference points (things you do and practical examples you can give) that reinforce a new conclusion.
  • Be sure to listen: In doing so you won’t find yourself trying to reinforce conclusions that make no sense to anyone but yourself.

Creating the right setting for change is not about being nice and hoping that people will follow you because they love you. It’s really about building a relationship that will allow you to be in a position to get people to practice Choice-in-Action despite their resistance.

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