Leadership Development: Overcoming Limiting Beliefs and Behaviors

03/24/2017 11:30 am ET

Limiting beliefs and behaviors can be a major impediment to job performance and career growth. When transitioning into management and leadership roles, people need to enhance their capacity for self-reflection, dialogue, and projection of confidence and executive presence. This task can be daunting and overwhelming at times. Emerging leaders often don’t know where to start and can benefit from a structured, evidence-based approach.

A practical 5-step process, described below, can empower positive cognitive and behavioral changes in the workplace. The process has a meaningful mnemonic: PITTA. In the Ayurveda tradition, in which everyone has a distinctive combination of three major traits (doshas), pitta is the dosha that embodies life transformation. People can leverage their pitta character traits for transformational cognitive and behavior changes via this step-wise process that loops back upon itself:

1) Pause – The first step is to take a break from the usual flurry of activity, catch one’s breath, and notice one’s environment and inner experience. This intentional stepping back empowers people to calm themselves, take a fresh look at complex situations, acknowledge challenges and opportunities, and prime themselves for sound thinking and decision-making. Mindfulness strategies (such as meditation and yoga) – which focus on non-judgmental, present-moment awareness – are particularly helpful for people who need to “take stock” of difficult circumstances.

2) Inquire – The next step comprises "self inquiry" and "active inquiry" of others. When people pause mindfully, they can ask thought provoking, open-ended, agenda-free questions. Honest introspection and self-reflection help people to clarify their values, avoid tunnel vision, and chart a strategic course. Active, open-ended inquiry of others fosters positive conversations that deepen trust, collaboration, empathy, and team effectiveness. Self-reflection and active inquiry are indispensable skills that can improve with training, coaching, and practice.

3) Target – Pauses and thoughtful inquiry generate novel information and ideas. In this third step, individuals organize the resulting “data” and identify targets for cognitive and behavioral change. The targets may include self-limiting beliefs and counterproductive behaviors. The targeting process depends upon – and also enhances – “executive functions” such as attention, critical reasoning, organizing, planning, and sequencing. When a well-reasoned and focused action plan is established, the possibility of substantial change takes hold.

4) Transform – This step involves implementing the targeted action plan and bringing the cognitive and behavioral changes to fruition. Individuals now assume new leadership roles and companies enact innovative growth strategies. Proactive, intentional transformation of thinking and behavior patterns pays off in noticeable ways and the ensuing changes can enable significant growth. But because old habits die hard, one must pay careful attention to solidifying positive changes – and so a sustainability and amplification plan is essential.

5) Amplify – In this step, the transformed cognitive and behavioral patterns become good habits. Individuals now look beyond immediate circumstances and aim to overcome self-limiting beliefs and behavior patterns more generally. Organizations can amplify positive changes via training programs that promote relevant values and strategies to apply them. However, it is essential that people not overreach and use the techniques blindly or reflexively. Here is where the 5-step process loops back upon itself. It includes returning to step 1, pausing again, considering new situations mindfully, and proceeding again through the remaining steps.

An executive coaching client made strong use of this 5-step process when he was being vetted for promotion to senior vice president in a financial services firm. This client, who was an attorney, worked in a regulatory role and often had to “say no” to colleagues who proposed new product offerings for external clients. He was hardworking and knowledgeable but frequently rolled his eyes in meetings, cut people off, and came across as stressed, irritable, and oppositional. In a 360-degree assessment, colleagues noted that he “doesn’t listen to what other people are saying,” “speaks before he thinks,” “demonstrates frustration,” and “becomes combative when stressed.”

The 6-month coaching process, which helped him ultimately to attain the promotion the following year, incorporated the PITTA process. He started with a modest plan to pause regularly from work activities and employ a mindfulness exercise (controlled breathing) before entering a meeting. This behavior change positioned him to inquire more and pronounce less. Instead of making stifling and disrespectful comments like “the SEC will never allow that,” he calmly practiced asking constructive questions like “what are the regulatory challenges we need to address together”? Role-plays during coaching sessions allowed him to practice and prepare for inquiry driven conversations.

The inquiry process fostered collegial discussions that allowed him and his co-workers to target the hurdles they’d need to cross to bring new products to market. With coaching support, he wrote a 1-page development plan that noted his “limiting beliefs” about his role (such as “if I feel pressured, I should defend my position and try to win”), along with his “aspirational beliefs” (such as “it is often best to show patience and allow others to unpack and consider issues through their own process”). Concomitantly, he wrote a similar document that noted his “limiting behaviors” (such as “showing visible frustration via facial expressions, body language, etc.”) and “aspirational behaviors” (including “settle my voice and mannerisms before responding; ask questions so as to allow time to process”).

Weekly coaching sessions over several months helped to deepen and reinforce his adoption of aspirational beliefs and behaviors. Although he experienced periodic setbacks and lapses into old patterns, he steadily progressed and his boss and colleagues noted the improvements. His boss reported that he was now effectively engaging in healthy dialogues and debates with colleagues around shared goals. Rather than being “obstructionist,” many colleagues began to perceive him as “reasonable” and “collaborative.” As the coaching wound down, he defined ways to sustain the positive changes and regularly loop back to the “pause” step, in order to reexamine his interpersonal style and seek structured feedback from colleagues.

Successful leadership development of this kind can result from use of the 5-step PITTA process, which enhances cognitive and behavioral skills in the service of personal and career growth.

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