Optimize Your Behaviors

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 10, Issue No. 11
February, 2012

By Dan Coughlin



There are two ways to look at organizational performance. You can start with a strategy and work your way toward a plan with tactics, then to a schedule of activities, then to execution of those activities, and finally to the behaviors of individuals within your organization. The other perspective is to focus on the behavior of the individuals in the organization and then the activities they select to do and how those activities can work together in a focused manner to improve results for the organization.

The truth is all those components are important. The question is what do you emphasize first and foremost, the organization’s strategy or the individual’s behaviors?

Recently I stepped back to look at the content of my work, which involves keynote speaking, seminars, executive coaching, writing books, and writing articles. What I found is that my focus is primarily on impacting individual behaviors. My belief is an organization can achieve great long-term success if each individual behaves in effective ways. Of course, they have to be working on activities that together will produce value customers will pay for at a profitable margin, but I believe success begins with individual behaviors as opposed to beginning with a great strategic insight.

My experience has been really good organizations develop effective strategies that evolve from the people in the group rather than announcing a strategy and then going out and finding the people to support that strategy. It’s one of the reasons why it’s very difficult to generate long-term success purely through mergers and acquisitions. Oftentimes after a merger or acquisition the strategy gets developed by people in a board room who are not only removed from the people in the field, but who also don’t know what behaviors are effective in the field.

Two Essential Categories of Individual Behavior

Of all your behaviors, there are two categories of primary importance: your strengths and your toxic habits. Your strengths are the things you do better than anything else that you do and your toxic habits are the things you do that ruin your performance and/or the performance of a group. This is true not only for you, but also for every individual in your organization.

Take out a sheet of paper and on one side write down what you believe your strengths are. On the other side write down what you believe your toxic habits are. This is purely a starting point.

As time goes on, stay on the alert to gain a better sense of what you do well and what you do that hurts performance.

In my work as an Executive Coach, the very first thing I do is to ask the person I’m coaching what he or she sees as his or her strengths and toxic habits. I then ask for the names of twenty people who know him or her very well in work situations. I then ask three simple questions of those twenty people, “What makes this person effective in his/her role? What makes this person ineffective or gets in the way of his/her ability to be effective? What could this person do to become more effective?” With this information as a starting point, I begin the real Executive Coaching work.

However, we can’t all get someone to go out and conduct twenty interviews about us. Consequently I encourage you to be on the alert to continually gain a better understanding of your strengths and your toxic habits.

Your strengths don’t have to be world-class. They might be as simple as, “A really good listener. Can capture the essence of another person’s message and move into action quickly. Ability to be candid in a caring way.” Even though you’re reasonably good at something, it may not be one of your strengths. Of all the things you do, what are the three or four things you do better than anything else? Those are your strengths.

Your toxic habits don’t have to be horrible acts against thousands of people. They can be as simple as, “Constantly intervenes with too much advice. Gossips about people behind their backs. Believing you have all the answers and have nothing left to learn from anyone else.” A toxic habit is not a mere weakness. Being poor at spelling is not a toxic habit. Being poor at directions and getting lost when you are driving is not a toxic habit. Those are weaknesses and they are annoying, but they don’t ruin performance. You don’t want a list of every one of your weaknesses. Just focus on your habits that ruin your performance and/or the performance of your group.

Awareness, Acceptance and Action

Ultimately, there are three steps to take toward optimizing your behavior at work. (This is true at home as well, but I’m just going to focus on work for now.)

The first is to be aware of your strengths and toxic habits. Once you see what you do well and what you do that ruins performances, you have to decide if you can accept that as part of who you really are. If someone says you are a rude person, you have to decide if that’s who you really are. If you accidently stepped in front of someone in the lunch line and got called rude for doing so, it may not be who you really are. If five of your co-workers give you feedback that you are rude, you will have to decide what to do with that input. One key to keep in mind is that perception is reality for other people. Whether or not you think you are a rude person, if that is the feedback you consistently receive, then you may want to consider if it really is part of who you are.

Once you’ve decided what you are willing to accept as being true about you, you have to decide what to do about it. In other words, you have to take action, you have to do something, you have to behave in some way.

If you get feedback that people see you as being a very charismatic speaker, you have to decide what to do about it. Can you use that strength in some way to add value to other people? Or do you choose to not use that strength? If people tell you consistently that you interrupt people when they are talking, you have to make a decision. Will you continue behaving in a way that annoys other people or will you change that behavior?

You’re not a puppet. Your behaviors are still up to you. You don’t need to change every one of your behaviors just because you are now aware of them and have accepted some of them as being part of who you really are.

Operate at the Intersection of Greatness

To optimize your behaviors, carefully consider each of your strengths and how you can use each one to add more value to other members of your organization and your customers. Then carefully consider each of your toxic habits and decide which ones you are going to let go of, which could include all of them. However, just not doing a toxic habit is not necessarily enough. You have to replace a toxic habit with a new habit. If you don’t, you will have a vacuum and the old habit will likely reassert itself.

Powerful strategies are wonderful, but they are only successful if the people in the organization optimize their behaviors. Otherwise, a lack of applying strengths and the debilitating effects of toxic habits will destroy an otherwise high-potential business from succeeding.

The greatest performers in history all had weaknesses, but they spent the vast majority of their time applying their strengths toward improving their highest priority desired outcomes. This was true of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Warren Buffett, Walt Disney, Harper Lee and a host of other great performers.. They were also able to minimize the impact of their toxic habits. Don’t be concerned with all of your behaviors. Narrow your focus to your greatest strengths and your most damaging toxic habits. Use the former and avoid the latter.

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at dan@thecoughlincompany.com with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

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