(By Lee Newman)
“We all have default behaviors. And when we are in the moment, trying our best to perform well, how we handle these automatic reflexes can be the difference between success and failure. It’s these moments that add up to the larger tasks and projects that are our work. Moments in which behavior – what we think, feel, say, and do – is the primary driver of performance.“
“It’s 9:00am, you’re across the table from a colleague who doesn’t like you or the changes you’re proposing, she’s pushing all your hot-buttons and resisting your efforts to get her to support the change. What’s your typical reaction?” I recently posed this question to a group of executives.
About two thirds of the executives admitted that their typical behavior is competitive: return the aggression and argue to win. The other third said they typically do the opposite: retreat, recoup, and try again later. But either way, it was a default reflex – not a strategic response.
We all have default behaviors. And when we are in the moment, trying our best to perform well, how we handle these automatic reflexes can be the difference between success and failure. It’s these moments that add up to the larger tasks and projects that are our work. Moments in which behavior – what we think, feel, say, and do – is the primary driver of performance.
I can remember a pivotal meeting after weeks of working with a team on a product idea. After presenting it to a colleague, I found myself fielding unexpected negative feedback. My default was to fight back, with facts. I’m an evidence-based manager, and this approach often works, and works well. But not this time. I hadn’t included this colleague in the process, and he was upset despite the facts. Unfortunately, my highly automated default behaviors were running the show. Had I paid more attention to his tone and body language, and been able to put a little mental distance between the “automatic-me” and the situation, I would more easily have seen what was happening. I had experienced a failure of attention and self-control.
Automatic behaviors do have their place – they save time and effort. When you continually face the same type of meeting, with the same people, with the same objective, what has worked for you in the past may work again now. So why not embrace these defaults? Wouldn’t our professional lives be easy if we could allow well-tuned default behaviors to take over at work, in the same way we can put our minds on auto-pilot while we drive there?
The problem with that approach is that the workplace is too dynamic. Situations rarely repeat. Human behavior is diverse, erratic, and often unpredictable.
As I experienced when arguing the facts with my upset colleague, and as I have seen over and over again with executives and management students, defaults are dangerous and too often lead to unproductive behaviors and outcomes.
We know this – and yet our defaults are devilishly hard to overcome.
Imagine you’re a judge, and you’re trying to decide whether a convicted felon should be given parole. What would be your default? One would hope that parole judges override their default behavior to think carefully before each ruling. In a study published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found that a group of highly experienced parole judges did reason more carefully – particularly at the start of the day and after every food break, when on average they granted parole to 65% of the felons. However, as judicial sessions wore on, favorable parole judgments fell to an astonishing 0% prior to each food break.
Research like this shows just how much evading our defaults requires self-control, and how much our level of self-control varies throughout the day depending on a range of psychological and physiological factors like how well we slept, the time since our last meal, how hard we’ve already worked to control ourselves. And critically, like those parole judges, we are often not aware of these fluctuations in self-control as we wend our way through the workday. When self-control wanes, our ability to catch and override default behaviors also wanes. Our more planful selves can lose control, giving way to reflex behaviors triggered on the spot.
So what you can you do to avoid unconscious defaults and provide yourself more behavioral flexibility in the moments of truth that matter most? Here are three suggestions that I have seen work well:
- Know your defaults: Make a list of the frequent “moments of truth” that populate your workday: the meetings, conversations, negotiations, conflicts, and other situations when your behavioral performance is of paramount importance. These are typically challenging interpersonal situations in which how you react, what you say, and what you do can be commandeered by defaults. Take your list, bring each of these situations to mind, and then identify your defaults. You will find them, and likely culprits will be behaviors such as interrupting, becoming aggressive or passive, taking ownership of ideas, micromanaging, and jumping too quickly to negative judgments of others.
- Anticipate and plan your overrides: Once you know your defaults, you can give yourself greater control by anticipating and planning ahead before these challenging moments of truth arise. Research shows that if you prepare and plan behaviors in advance and mentally rehearse them, you are 2-3 times likely to succeed in carrying out your plan. So in advance of your difficult end-of-day meeting, if careful listening is your goal — but frequent interruption is your default – rehearse a plan for better listening you’ll have a better chance of overriding your automatic reflexes.
- Design your days: Because self-control varies across a day and a workweek, it makes sense to track it and even plan your schedule around it. Why schedule high-conflict conversations before lunch, at the end of the day, or at the end of a tough week when your self-control is likely to be low? If an easy day has unexpectedly become difficult, consider shuffling your afternoon. You may very well avoid letting slip a snide comment you’ve held back or sharing half-baked criticisms that you know deserve more thought.
Too many professionals who are high-performers in their area of work pass through the behavioral situations of their day on auto-pilot, with defaults running the show. By getting to know your defaults and practicing working around them, you can take greater control over your workday and lead yourself and others more productively, moment to moment.