Triggers. Creating Behavior That Lasts – Becoming the Person You Want to Be. By Marshall Goldsmith

Marshall Goldsmith is a world-renowned business author, educator, and coach. He’s considered by Thinkers50 the most influential leadership thinker and coach. Forbes considers him one of the five most respected executive coaches.

Triggers is a superbly written book. Besides proposing the methods needed to achieve meaningful and lasting behavioral change, Goldsmith shares great, powerful stories from his professional practice to exemplify his points.

I enjoyed reading this book for the first time, and then a second time to write this review. Both times I’ve benefited greatly and came out with concrete advice and discovering areas of personal improvement. I strongly recommend it for anyone who wants to be improve his or her leadership, or simply as a book that will help you become the best person you can be.

Why Don’t We Become the Person We Want to Be?

Goldsmith centers the explanation of why we don’t become the person we want to be around two ‘truths’: First, meaningful behavioral change is very hard to do. Hard to initiate, harder to stay on course, and even harder to make change stick. And second, no one can make us change unless we want to change. Some people say they want to change, but they don’t really mean it.

We are reluctant to admit we need to change. Even when we recognize the need for change, given the choice we tend to do nothing -–that’s inertia’s power over us. And when we decide to change, motivation by itself is not enough. We need to know how to change, and have the ability to execute the change.

Even when the benefits of changing a specific behavior are indisputable, we are geniuses inventing reasons to avoid change. We fall back in a set of beliefs that trigger denial, resistance, and self-delusion. Goldsmith call these triggers belief triggers.

An excuse is the explanation we offer when we disappoint other people. It explains why we fell short of expectations after the fact. We are late for work because of ‘traffic’, and other variations of ‘the dog ate my homework’. Belief triggers, however, trigger failure before it happens. They sabotage change by negating, deeply inside us, the possibility of change.

Some examples of believe triggers (Goldsmith lists a total of fifteen triggers, every one worth reading):

  • Forgetting the difference between understanding and doing triggers confusion. Understanding what to do doesn’t ensure that you’ll actually do it.
  • Giving too much credit to willpower and self-control leads to overconfidence. We choose to ignore the will-reducing power of the environment, disregarding the need for help or structure.
  • The faith in time’s infinite patience triggers procrastination. There is no urgency to begin today… We simultaneously underestimate the time it takes to get anything done, and belief that we have enough time to get everything done.
  • Forgetting that we need to change not only our behavior but how we define ourselves leads to stubbornness. We refuse to adapt our behavior to new situations because it isn’t me.
  • While other people consistently overrate themselves, we think think that our own self-assessment is fair and accurate. We have an impaired sense of objectivity.

The Environment

Above listed rationalizations still don’t still completely the larger question of why don’t we become the person we want to be.

Our environment, Goldsmith argues, has a strong influence on our behaviour. Because we don’t appreciate how our environment influences our choice, we fail to make the right choice. “If we do not create and control our environment, our environment creates and controls us.”

Driving in a crowded freeway, surrounded by rude impatient drivers, can lead us to become rude and impatient ourselves, even if that’s not our usual behavior. Placing ourselves in a work environment of impatience, competitiveness, and hostility, can probably alter our usual behavior. Excessive pressure on our sales force to reach exceed their goals, no matter what, can trigger non-ethical behavior, even if that was not our intention.

If there is one “disease” that I’m trying to cure in this book, it revolves around our total misapprehension of our environment. We think we are in sync with our environment, but actually it’s at war with us. We think we can control our environment but in fact it controls us. We think our external environment is conspiring in our favor —that is, helping us— when actually it is taxing and draining us. It is not interested in what it can give us. It’s only interested in what it can take from us. (…) Our environment is a nonstop triggering mechanism whose impact on our behaviour is too significant to be ignored.

Identifying our Triggers

Goldsmith proposes feedback as a way to see our environment as a triggering mechanism. “ Feedback —both the act of giving and taking it— is our first step in becoming smarter, more mindful about the connection between our environment and our behavior. Feedback teaches us to see our environment as a triggering mechanism.”

A feedback loop comprises four stages: evidence, relevance, consequence, and action. “Once we deconstruct feedback into its four stages of evidence, relevance, consequence, and action, the world never looks the same again.”

An example. After trying unsuccessfully several approaches to decrease speeding in residential zones in Goldsmith town, town officials installed radar speed displays (RDS). Also called driver feedback systems, this speed limit signs with a digital readout of your actual speed work effectively to decrease speeding.

The RDS measures the drivers speed and relays it to the driver (evidence). The speed limit sign lets drivers know if they are breaking the law (relevance). Awareness of their actions and possible consequences kicks in (consequence), so they slow down (action).

Our environment produces no feedback loops by itself. It often triggers bad behavior against our will and better judgement, and without our awareness. On the other hand, if we could control our environment, it could trigger our most desired behavior. A well-designed feedback loop triggers desirable behavior.

Goldsmith maps triggers into two axis: Encouraging-Discouraging vs Productive-Counter-productive. The resulting quadrants help us take inventory of our triggers and increase awareness about our environment.

  • We want it and need it. Where encouraging triggers intersect with productive triggers… this is where we’d prefer to be all the time.
  • We need it but don’t want it. Rules push us in the right direction, but nobody likes them.
  • We want it but don’t need it.
  • We don’t need or want it

Even if our environment does not always help, we always have a choice. Goldsmith proposes a modification to the classic sequence of antecedent, behavior, and consequence —by interrupting it with a sense of awareness and an infinitesimal stoppage of time. We can make any impulse run in place for a brief moment while we choose to obey or ignore it. The more aware we are, the less likely any trigger, even in the most mundane circumstances, will prompt hasty unthinking behavior that leads to undesirable circumstances.

Superior Planners, Inferior Doers

Goldsmith makes a parallel between Hersey and Blanchard’s situational leadership1 and the dynamic that exists within us when we attempt to change our behavior. There are, inside us, two different personas. The Planner, and the Doer. We are, says Goldsmith, superior planners, and inferior doers.

As we go through life making plans to be a better friend, partner, worker, athlete, parent, son, or daughter, inside each of us are two separate personas. There’s the leader/planner/manager who plans to change his or her ways. And there’s the follower/doer/employee who must execute the plan. We think they are the same because we unwittingly function as one or the other throughout our day. They are both part of who we are. But we are wrong. In fact, we start each day as a bifurcated individual, one part leader, the other part follower—and as the day progresses, the two grow further apart.

Just like the effective leader, we should size up the situation and adopt the appropriate management style for the doer in us. Measure the need, choose the style.

Anticipation, avoidance, and adjustment, are tools for correcting this conflict between Planner and Doer in us.

Anticipation. “When our performance has clear and immediate consequences, we rise to the occasion. We create our environment. We don’t let it recreate us.” However, most of the time, most of our days, we don’t associate the situation with any consequences. We forget about the environment. And when we are not anticipating the environment, anything can happen.

Avoidance. Peter Drucker, quotes Goldsmith, says that “half the leaders I have met don’t need to learn what to do. They need to learn what to stop.” Quite often our smartest response to an environment is avoiding it.

Adjustment. Finally, when avoidance is impossible, we adjust to the circumstances.

Goldsmith proposes a framework he calls The Wheel of Change. In pursuing any behavioral change, we should consider four options: change or keep the positive elements, change or keep the negative. These options lead to four actions:

Creating. “The challenge is to do it by choice, not as a bystander. Are we creating ourselves, or wasting the opportunity and being created by external forces instead?”

Preserving. We rarely ask ourselves “what in my life is worth keeping?” When we face the choice of being good or getting even better, we instinctively opt for the latter, and risk losing some desirable qualities. “We rarely get credit for not messing up a good thing. It’s a tactic that looks brilliant only in hindsight —and only to the individual doing the preserving.”

Eliminating is our most liberating action —but we make it reluctantly. (…) We’re all experienced at eliminating the things that hurt us, especially when the benefits of doing so are immediate and certain. (…) The real test is sacrificing something we enjoy doing that’s not ostensibly harming our career, that we believe may be even working for us (if not others).”

Accepting [what we cannot change] is most valuable when we are powerless to make a difference. Yet our ineffectuality is precisely the condition we are most loath to accept. It triggers our finest moments of counterproductive behavior.”

The Power of Active Questions

Goldsmith discovered the power of active questions from her daughter Kelly, Ph.D. from Yale in behavioral marketing. Passive questions lead people to think of what is being done to them rather than what they are doing for themselves.

Along with apologizing, asking for help, and optimism, Goldsmith considers active questioning one of the “magic moves” in his coaching practice.

The problem with usual questions —passive questions— is that when people are asked passive questions they provide “environmental” answers. The employee seldom looks within to take responsibility, assigning blame elsewhere. Active questions, on the other hand, challenges the employee to describe or defend a course of action.

Consider, for example, the common employee survey passive_question: “Do you have clear goals?”. The response leads the employee to consider if her boss is giving clear directives, while the employee herself adopts a passive stand. Compare it to the _active version of the same question: “Did you do your best to set clear goals for yourself?”

It’s not only about the company’s responsibility in employee’s engagement. It’s about what the employees are doing to engage themselves.

After 79 studies with 2,537 participants, Goldsmith came to a list of six “Engaging Questions”. In every study, for a period of time, participants were asked to use the questions at the end of each day. The results are impressive: 37% of participants reported improvement in all six areas, 65% improved on at least four items. Only 12% didn’t change on any items.

For years, Goldsmith has been using a set of questions that he calls “the Daily Questions”. to measure his own progress. Your daily questions, he says, should reflect your objectives. You can use whatever works for you. The only considerations should be: a) are these items important to my life? b) will success on these items help me become the person that I want to be? The important things is that the daily questions should be active questions. Injecting the phrase “Did I do my best to…” triggers trying. “

Trying not only changes our behavior but how we interpret and react to that behavior. Trying is more than a semantic tweak to our standard list of goals. It delivers some unexpected emotional wallops that inspire change or knock us out of the game completely.

Planner, Doer, and Coach

At the highest level, a coach is a source of mediation, bridging the gap between the visionary Planner and short-sighted Doer in us.

We resist coaching, says Goldsmith, because of our need for privacy (some pieces of us are not to be shared with the world). But also because “we don’t know that we need to change. We are in denial, convincing ourselves that others need help, not us. (…) Then, there’s the successful person’s unshakable self-sufficiency: we think we can do it all on our own.”

If we use the Daily Questions, we eventually get better. Not only that. With practice, as we become more efficient at the process of getting better, we get better faster. Eventually, we learn. We become our own coach. “That’s the moment when the Planner and Doer in us are joined by the Coach in us. We don’t need an outside agency to point out our behavioral dangers zones, or urge us to toe the line, or even hear our nightly scores. We can do it on our own.”

The First Principle of Behavioral Change

Goldsmith closes this part of the book by introducing what he calls the “first principle of behavioral change”: Am I willing, at this time, to make the investment required to make a positive difference on this topic?.

Every endeavor comes with a first principle that dramatically improves our chances of success at that endeavor. (…) I have a first principle for becoming the person you want to be. Follow it, and it will shrink your daily volume of stress, conflict, unpleasant debate, and wasted time. It is phrased in the form of a question you should be asking yourself whenever you must choose to either engage or “let it go.”

When we confuse disclosure with honesty, when we have an opinion, when our facts collide with other people’s beliefs, when decisions don’t go our way, when we regret our own decisions… all these are opportunities to apply this first principle. This first principle “is the delaying mechanism we should be deploying in the interval between trigger and behavior —after a trigger creates an impulse and before we may regret.”

More Structure, Please. We Do Not Get Better Without Structure

Imposing structure on parts of our day is how we size control of our environment. Structure limits our options so that we’re not thrown off course by externalities. It’s about the power of constraints. The Daily Questions, says Goldsmith, is the core structural element of his book.

Not any structure helps, however. Whether the target is an organizational goal or a personal one, “it has to be structure that fits the situation and the personalities involved.” The right structure increases the chances of success, and makes us more efficient at it.

Goldsmith cites the studies of social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, who coined the term ego depletion:

We posses a limited conceptual resource called ego strength, which is depleted through the day by our various efforts at self-regulation —resisting temptations, making trade-offs, inhibiting our desires, controlling our thoughts and statements, adhering to other people’s rules. People in this state, said Baumeister, are ego depleted.

Not limited to self-control, depletion applies to many forms of self-regulated behavior, for example, our decision making. When we reach decision fatigue, we make careless choices, or surrender to the status quo and do nothing.

For example, in a 2011 study of an Israeli parole board, researchers discovered that prisoner cases reviewed early in the morning were granted parole 70% of the time. In contrast, cases reviewed in the afternoon had a 90% rejection rate.

Depletion is a silent enemy. “Until someone invents a body gauge to tell us we’re running on emotional empty, we can’t measure it, so we don’t appreciate how it’s grinding us down.” Goldsmith comes back to one of his central arguments about the environment’s influence over our behavior. Depletion, says Goldsmith, is an environmental hazard.

Recognizing depleting events can provide us with a clearer picture of how diminished we could be in terms of willpower, and anticipate, avoid, or adapt accordingly. However, the real key to avoid depletion is structure. “In an almost magical way, structure slows down how fast our discipline and self-control disappear. When we have structure, we don’t have to make as many choices; we just follow the plan. And the result is we’re not being depleted as quickly.” Discipline requires effort. “If we provide ourselves with enough structure, we don’t need discipline. The structure provides it for us.”

The Trouble with Good Enough

Good enough isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In many areas of life, chasing perfection is a fool’s errand, or at least a poor use of our time. (…) The problem begins when this good enough attitude spills beyond our marketplace choices and into the things we say and do. (…) In the interpersonal real —we’re talking about how a husband treats his wife, or a son deals with an aging parent, or a trusted friend responds when people are counting on him —good enough is setting the bar too low.

Four environments that trigger ‘good enough’ behavior are:

  • Marginal motivation makes us vulnerable to mediocrity. “Skills is the beating heart of high motivation. The more skill we have (…), the more we enjoy it, the higher our motivation to continue doing it.” But we forget that insufficient skill, if we cannot improve it, leads to low motivation. Marginal motivation produces marginal outcome.

The takeaway: If your motivation for a task or goal is in any way compromised— because you lack the skill, or don’t take the task seriously, or think what you’ve done so far is good enough— don’t take it on. Find something else to show the world how much you care, not how little.

  • Working pro bono. By pro bono, Goldsmith means not just not getting paid but rather any voluntary activity that is a personal choice. “We create casual equivalences between volunteering and our level of commitment. (…) This is how our fine and noble intentions degrade into good enough intentions. This is how our integrity gets compromised. Integrity is an all-or-nothing virtue.”

If you thing doing folks a favor justifies doing less than your best, you’re not doing anyone any favors, including yourself.

  • Behaving like amateurs. “A professional shoots for the higher standards. An amateur settles for good enough. (…) Most of us fall into this amateur-versus-professional trap each day without knowing it. (…) We are professionals at what we do, amateurs at what we want to become. We need to erase this devious distinction —or at least close the gap between professional and amateur —to become the person we want to be.”
  • Compliance issues. “When we engage in noncompliance (…) we’re thumbing our noses at the world, announcing: the rules don’t apply to us. Don’t rely to us. We don’t care.” People “think they have a better way of doing something”, or they are “unwilling to commit fully when it means obeying someone else’s rules of behavior.”

The Hazard of Leading a Changeless Life

While we probably find it difficult to imagine at a personal level, when it comes to our interpersonal behavior and our resistance to changing how we treat people, “we wear changelessness as a badge of honor. (…) When we prolong negative behavior, we are leading a changeless life in the most hazardous manner.”

The author ends the book by encouraging the reader to think about one change that he or she won’t regret later on, and commit to it.

  1. Hersey and Blanchard’s premise was that leaders need to adapt their style to fit the performance readiness of their followers. Readiness not only varies by person, it also varies by task. Followers have different levels of motivation and ability for different tasks. 
behavioral-change marshall-goldsmith

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