Why We’re Bad at Change      

By Amy Pasquale, MA, PCC, BCC

As an executive coach, the essence of my role is to support the development and growth of a person.  As a person, you are already very aware of how complex your growth and development is. If I were to ask you: “have you grown as a person and a leader in the last five years?” I’m sure most of you would respond with an emphatic yes. If I then proceed to ask you how you accomplished this feat, I think the answer would be far less straightforward.  Thus, when a leader starts working with a coach, the discussion about how one actively participates and engages with their own growth becomes the point of inquiry.  “I want to grow and develop, but how do I do that?”

There are many potential pitfalls littering the path toward change and as a coach I can help you avoid these.  One of the pitfalls I routinely see is treating all efforts to change in the same way.

The approach I most frequently see as the default mode is what I’ll call the “technical fix” approach.  Let me give you an example: if I have a broken arm, the process of “fixing” my broken arm is very straightforward.  I go to a doctor who has prior experience with this, the doctor puts my arm in a cast and then we wait for the bone to heal.  I go back, the cast is removed and voila, no more broken arm.

With a technical fix: we can define the problem, we have the solution and nothing else is required of me.

Now, let’s think about a different problem.  Let’s say I’d like to have a healthier lifestyle.  It is so tempting to use the same approach and in fact we can lull ourselves into thinking we can, just look at all the books that give us the “answer.”  But as many of us know – this doesn’t often work, because what’s different about this problem is that in addition to all the external steps I need to take (go to the doctor, wear a cast – from the previous example), I also need to change how I think: I may need to change my assumptions about how the world works, my assumptions about who I am, and I will need to learn a lot of new information and ideas.  These types of challenges I’ll call “adaptive.”  I need to adapt something internally about me, not simply behaviorally.

There is a great book called The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tolls and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World, by Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky, which goes into much more detail about technical and adaptive challenges. I think this simple quote captures the essence: “The most common leadership failure stems from trying to apply technical solutions to adaptive challenges.”

If you are working with an executive coach, it’s most likely that you are working on challenges that need to be met with adaptation and not technical solutions and if you feel some resistance to this, just try to relax: that’s another common characteristic of adaptive challenges, we resist the adaptions for which they call!



For more on adaptation vs. technical solutions, consult with Amy today.