It’s Not What We Know That Matters Most; It’s What We Do

Human beings are not perfect. One manifestation of our imperfection is that we do things that we know we shouldn’t, and we don’t do things we know we should.

• I know I should be a better listener
• I know I should exercise
• I know I should stop smoking
• I know I should spend more time with my customers/clients
• I know I should stop going to value-less meetings
• I know I should provide regular clear feedback to my team
• I know I should take more time to think strategically
• I know I should take the time to align my team

So why is it that we don’t do what we know we should do? I believe there is a real temptation to oversimplify the answer to this powerful question. Here are some popular options: Bad habits, lack of time, it’s the way my mother raised me, I’m not sure where to start, it wouldn’t make a difference anyway (a fatalistic and “victim” statement for sure, but I’ve heard it).

There is substantial research about why there is misalignment between what we know and what we do.

One powerful approach to bridging this gap was recently developed by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey at Harvard University. Their 2009 seminal book: Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization helps us understand the competing commitments that pull us in the direction of behaviors we cognitively understand might not be good for us, or even that we’ve strongly committed not to do. Their work is excellent—and they are great teachers and terrific people as well.

Charles Duhigg wrote a very good book a few years ago called The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. In it, he discusses the habits of individuals, as well as the habits of organizations and societies. And he helps us understand how habits form and how we can change and re-form them.

Another useful book on this subject, I believe, is Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen (authors of the book Difficult Conversations). It focuses on the three types of triggers that block feedback- why we don’t ‘hear’ and integrate the feedback we are given- and how to overcome them. This is so important, because our inability to receive information about the impact of what we do can keep us stuck. Equally true and perhaps even more frustrating is our inability to hear what we could do to improve (for example, clear suggestions about how we could communicate more effectively).

Of course, it matters which explanation or excuse is most important to us. Understanding what is blocking us helps determine where and what we need to change. These books and others are useful places to start. Working with a coach can also be invaluable for making these types of changes.

I believe it is crucial for each of us to remember that we are responsible for the impact of our actions. What matters is what we do, not what we know. So our conversations should focus on behaviors.

Wherever it is that we begin our effort to align our doing with our knowing, it is critically important for us to bring not only discernment and focus, but also compassion. After all, most of these issues- involving our careers, our teams, even our families- are very important to us, and if it were easy we would have made the changes already. Change is hard; we can be gentle with ourselves and others while remaining firm with the issue. (I have written about this before, including in my recent blogs “Balancing Personal Accountability with Compassion,” parts 1 and 2.)

As we begin 2016 and focus on how we can be more productive, successful, and satisfied, I encourage you to remember to focus on your behavior and that of your team members- that’s what matters most and is the starting point for real change.