How do we unlearn our bad habits?

We’re not proud of everything we have done in our lives. Sometimes we make mistakes or behave in a way that isn’t a fair reflection of our true selves.

I remember attending a business meeting a couple of years ago where the hosts were enthusiastic about my work and were interested in seeing how I could help them. We explored different scenarios and then something unusual happened. I began to ‘wing it’. I started to promise things that I really had no idea about my capability to deliver. I started to talk about things I had done before which were similar, when in reality the work hadn’t really¬†been done and was merely a series of ideas and ambitions. As I left the meeting, I found myself asking “What the hell happened there?”. Why did I click into a different mode and start to promise the world?

I’ve seen this bad habit in other people in recent times. Interestingly, some of you will actually say that in business it’s ok to wing it. In fact, a bit of puffery is exactly what you need when you’re trying to sell. Give people what they want to hear and then when you have the deal, figure out how you’re going to do it.

I’m not so sure about that.

I wouldn’t dream of doing this now. And in fact, I’ve changed a lot of the different aspects of my business in the past year to make sure that I’m totally aligned to the reality of what I can do, rather than some notional ‘potential’. But the question that most interests me is where did this habit come from?

One of the more unpleasant aspects of school was the pressure you felt when you had to recite a piece of poetry that you were expected to know ‘by heart’. The pressure went up a level or two when it was in a language other than English. The problem with this kind of learning is that you are programmed to equate knowing the answer with being a good person, and not knowing the answer with being a bad person, someone who needs to be censured and punished.¬† Not knowing the answer was a sign of failure. A sign of weakness. Even a sign of disrespect.

Is it any surprise that people are afraid to say ‘I don’t know’?

But here’s the reality: sometimes ‘I don’t know’ is the only honest answer. But yet, many organisations have a culture that rejects the ‘I don’t know’ answer. You’re expected to have ‘the answer’, whatever that is. I have seen it myself first hand in apparently sophisticated organisations where experienced executives scurry around like schoolchildren trying to get ‘the answers’ ahead of a pressure-filled meeting with their boss.

That, I believe, is where the impulse to wing it comes from. The fear of censure when you admit that you don’t know. And that fear has, unfortunately, been beaten into many of us from an early age.

So, how do you unlearn that bad habit? How can you get comfortable with admitting that you don’t know the answer to that question? Is it a matter of practice? Or of trying to answer the question in different ways?

Changing that culture within an organisation has to be driven by the leadership and set by example. But every individual can make a difference too by reflecting on bad habits they might have and committing to eliminating them.

My take away: so many of our ‘automatic’ behaviours and habits have been developed in a different time and environment and some of these may be entirely inappropriate for where we are now. Anything that raises our awareness of those automatic behaviours should be embraced as something worth doing.

What bad habits do you need to unlearn?



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