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Two-tenths of a second to change your behavior

Why only leaders who are not afraid to change become champions in business

Why would a top executive change? Because the world is growing more and more demanding of business. In the past it might take a company at least a couple of decades to reach $1 billion in turnover; today it could take just two years. And things can collapse just as quickly. The conditions for success have become like those for sports – to get to the Champions League one needs to continually make adjustments. First, find a better training center and a more experienced trainer, and then follow that up with new approaches to your workouts. Otherwise, it won’t be possible to sustain continuous progress, and competitors will overtake you.

High-level managers give plenty of lip service to change, but deep down they do not like to work on themselves – in reality, even the best managers are reluctant to change. Even when they know they need to gain new skills and knowledge, they can’t break their old habits. And this is equally true in any culture – I see examples of it in our business school in the EMBA for Eurasia programme, where managers from all over the world come to study. Moreover, the higher the person is in the corporate hierarchy, the more resistant they are to change.

The world has seen countless examples of rigidity and ignorance of external signs leading to dire consequences. For example, Kodak lost an enormous market share due to the emergence of digital photography. The irony is that Kodak’s own engineer, Steven Sasson, invented the digital camera back in 1975. But Kodak’s leadership saw this innovation as a threat to the company since it made film obsolete, and film accounted for the lion’s share of Kodak’s profit at the time.

The inability to overcome inertia causes real tragedies. In 1986, shortly before the launch of the shuttle Challenger, engineers noticed that the outside temperature fell to -2°C, which significantly increased the risk of an accident. The launch protocol didn’t specify what to do in this case, and NASA leadership declined to take any action, especially because the entire country was watching from their TV screens. As a result of the temperature, the external fuel tank exploded, killing all seven crew members. This tragedy was a result of a reluctance to alter patterned behavior.

A human initiates a response to information received by the brain in just 0.2 seconds. This brief interval necessitates the use of automatic, habitual behavior, which can take up to several months to change. And it’s extremely difficult to change behavior, especially for senior leadership. Why?

The first reason is that they are “infected by success.” Successful entrepreneurs are more afraid of making mistakes, and therefore inclined to repeat actions that previously led to positive results. They stop taking risks and act based on their previous experience, rather than the particular situation at hand.

The second reason is that top managers are never told the truth. Being on top means, you are either respected or feared, which   causes people to either tell you what you want to hear and flatter you for the sake of reward or hide problems to avoid punishment. But how long can an athlete stay on top of their sport if they only receive praise and flattery from their trainer in everything they do?

The third reason is a fear of vulnerability. Many leaders believe they must appear invulnerable, so they are scared to show their weaknesses, mistakes, and their “human” side. This is especially characteristic of Asia with its concept of “losing one’s face.” But if a manager becomes a bronzed statue, they can hardly compete with an “alive” and responsive opponent.

And the final reason is the misconception that change is something to be feared. There is even a Chinese curse that says, “God forbid you live in an age of change!” Yet, how many of you would refuse to quit your favorite job and move to another country if you were offered $500 million? Indeed, we are not scared of change, but of the uncertainty it brings. If a manager explains to his or her team that changing will lead to concrete results that will improve their lives, then this fear of change will disappear.

It’s challenging to persuade a manager that they need to change. Even if the manager can admit there are gaps in their  approach, filling those gaps is not an overnight process. The ability to react to the situation at hand and change develops gradually, along with new behavior and experience.

Unfortunately, the development of a new habit takes much longer than 21 days – this belief is half a century old and has been disproved repeatedly. For example, in 2009, researchers from the University College of London found that the actual period of time needed to change behavior ranges between 18 and 254 days! And it takes even more time – up to six months – for people around you to notice a change in behavior.

What’s the key to taking the first step on this path? Primarily, one has to be willing to recognize one’s own imperfection and look in the feedback “mirror.” Feedback can come from colleagues, members of an educational programme or an executive coach (by the way, this is the main value of such programmes, not obtaining new knowledge). After the feedback has been received, consciously focus on catching your automatic responses within those 0.2 seconds, and gradually change those responses. Try to stop yourself from yelling at a team member who failed, or automatically dismissing a new proposal from a colleague.

At the end of the day, winning in business, as in sports, is not about overpowering your circumstances, but rather being able to respond to them more appropriately and more quickly than your opponent.

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