Adopt “vital behaviors”

Photo/Dennis Sparks

“If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten,” an old saying reminds us. Improved results, therefore, require that leaders change their behavior, which is a central premise of this blog and of Influencer: The Power to Change Anything by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler. “[A]lmost all the profound, pervasive problems we face in our lives, our companies, and our world can be solved. . . . [T]hey require people to act differently,” they write.

Put another way, talking about problems and their solutions is insufficient. Gaining knowledge is insufficient. Setting goals and making plans is insufficient. In the end it is what leaders do, particular their engagement in high-leverage activities, that is the major source of their influence and of the changes in the behaviors of others that extend from that influence.

“A few behaviors can drive a lot of change,” Patterson and his colleagues note, “and enormous influence comes from focusing on just a few vital behaviors.” Consequently, they recommend that influencers “[G]ive special attention to a handful of high-leverage behaviors.” That means that school leaders adopt highly-targeted changes in their own behaviors that will in turn produce desired “vital behaviors” throughout the school community. Here are a few suggestions offered in Influencer.

“Vital behaviors”

Engage in crucial conversations: Influencer emphasizes the importance of having “crucial conversations”—“the ability to speak and be heard and encourage others to do the same, no matter how controversial, political or unpopular one’s views,” as Patterson and his colleagues define it. “[W]e’ve found that being able to successfully hold crucial conversations is frequently the vital behavior behind change.”

An example: A leader identifies the slowly-escalating problem of tardiness to meetings as an “elephant in the room” that is affecting morale and the quality of teamwork. The leader describes what she has observed (only half the group is in the room at the designated meeting time), her assumptions about it (the problem may have a number of causes, and it undermines teamwork), and invites dialogue about her observations, assumptions, and what might be done about it.

Create personal experiences: “When it comes to resistant problems, verbal persuasion rarely works,” Influencer points out. Instead, Patterson and his colleagues say “The great persuader is personal experiences. . . . Personal experience is the mother of all cognitive map changers.”

An example: Rather than reading and discussing an article about how protocols can improve collaboration, a principal uses a protocol in a faculty meeting to aid in the analysis and discussion of data. Afterwards, the principal asks participants to reflect on the quality of both their analysis and of their interaction.

Tell stories: Patterson and his colleagues recommend “. . . telling a story rather than firing off a lecture. Stories can create touching moments that help people view the world in new ways.” They add, “A well-told narrative provides concrete and vivid detail rather than terse summaries and unclear conclusions.” Stories are most effective when they evoke emotion and offer hope by suggesting solutions.

An example: A leader selects a story from his personal experience or from among those he’s heard told within the school community to illustrate the importance of a school goal, to explain how it will be achieved, and/or to offer hope that success is possible. Others in the school community are invited to tell their stories.

Acquiring new behaviors

Acquiring new behaviors, Influencer says, requires both clarity of purpose and consistent practice. “Devote attention to clear, specific, and repeatable actions,” its authors say. “Ensure that the actions you’re pursuing are both recognizable and replicable. . . . Break tasks into discrete actions, set goals for each, practice within a low-risk environment . . . . [M]ake sure that you apply the same deliberate practice tactics to physical, intellectual, and even complex social skills.”

Teamwork is another important process for identifying and sustaining new behaviors, Patterson and his colleagues tell us. “When a vital behavior requires several people to work in concert—where no one person can succeed on his or her own—you have to develop people’s ability to work as a team,” they write. “When facing changing, turbulent, or novel times—calling for novel solutions—multiple heads can be better than one.” “Changing, turbulent, or novel times” is certainly an apt description of the work of school leaders!

Take a moment now to . . .

• identify a “vital behavior” that you believe will make a substantial difference in the quality of your work.

• commit yourself to a practice schedule that will enable you to establish the behavior as a habit.

1 Response to “Adopt “vital behaviors””

  1. 1 Mike June 7, 2010 at 6:42 am

    If I were superintendent I would insist that all administrators and teacher leaders read these columns. The solutions to the problem of people being late to meetings alone make this a valuable resource. But the column is much much more and can be a valuable guide to effective living for anyone.


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