A Q&A with Marshall Goldsmith
May 27, 2015
In our second installment with Thinker in Residence Marshall Goldsmith, we dig a little deeper into behavior change and how to use triggers in the environment.
"We can begin to understand the triggers in our environment that throw us off course and learn to become aware of them before they send us in the wrong direction. We can then anticipate potential triggers and either avoid the triggers or become aware and adjust our reactions to them when they occur."
Today, we continue our series with author and executive coach Marshall Goldsmith with a few particular, hopefully pertinent questions about his latest book, Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts—Becoming the Person You Want to Be .
Q: One of the things I love about the book is that, too often, when we think of "triggers," we think of an automatic, uncontrolled response to them. But what you suggest is that not only do we always have a choice, we have ultimate control and can choose to channel any trigger toward a more positive end, to create and control our environment—even if it's only our internal environment—by inserting a bit of awareness and "an infinitesimal stoppage of time" into our routine behavior. How do we do this?
MG: We can learn to monitor our behavior every day. We can then keep track of all of the times we "get off track" relative to becoming the person that we want to be. We can begin to understand the triggers in our environment that throw us off course and learn to become aware of them before they send us in the wrong direction. We can then anticipate potential triggers and either avoid the triggers or become aware and adjust our reactions to them when they occur.
Q: You describe 15 "belief triggers" that actually inhibit real behavioral change. I won't list them all here, but I'd love it if you could hone in on just one (that I found surprising) for our audience and tell us why and how it is counterproductive. The one I'm referring to is #2, that "I have willpower and won't give into temptation." All the other belief triggers I could see a fault in just from there initial description. This one seemed like such a positive force for change until I read on. Why isn't it, and how does it relate to belief trigger #5: "I shouldn't need help or structure?"
MG: In our society we tend to deify willpower and demean the need for help and structure. This is a form of misplaced ego and is one of the big reasons that we do not become the person we want to be. For example, in my classes I ask, "How many of you need to be a better listener?" Half of the room raises their hands. I then ask one person, "Joe, how many years have you needed to be a better listener?" Joe might say, "For 30 years!" I then say, "Joe, repeat after me. My name is Joe. I have been trying to be a better listener for 30 years with no success. Why should I think that I will fix this by myself tomorrow? I need help—and it is OK!"
In Triggers I devote two chapters to how we can use help and structure to get better. Every one of the top tennis players has a coach. Almost every movie star has a personal trainer. Every CEO that I coach hires me. Why? Because they want to get better! They are not so egotistical that they believe their "willpower" will solve any problem that they face. Without any help or structure—in the battle of "willpower vs. the environment"—the environment often wins!
Q: I love how you tell us to treat the environments we traverse as real, "flesh-and-blood" characters in our lives. Can you explain why, and how this helps behavior change?
MG: We grossly underestimate the power that triggers in our environment have in impacting our behavior. If we look at our environment as a 'flesh-and-blood' character, we quickly realize that we are facing a giant, not a Pygmy. We can begin to give the world around us the respect that it merits and better realize our own limitations.
Q: I was struck by the idea in "The Wheel of Change" chapter that "preserving can be transformational," especially because it seems that the "new," the "disruptive," and almost any form of "change" is always celebrated and considered desirable today, and almost all leaders try to lay claim to that mantle. When and how might the status quo actually be desirable?
MG: It can be so tempting to create positive change and chase after what we don't have, that we do not preserve what we do have—which might be much more important. For example, Wall Street is filled with people who get so focused on creating wealth that they forget about preserving their family relationships or even their health. Even when we need to change part of an organization, we need to remember what to preserve. In Triggers, I use the example of my great friend, France Hesselbein (winner of the US Presidential Medal of Freedom for her fantastic leadership skills) who completely turned around the Girl Scouts of America and used the saying, "Tradition with a Future" to continually remind people what to preserve as well as what to change.
Q: You don't talk about it much in the book, other than with regards to Peter Drucker's "empty boat" parable being an outward-facing form of it, but how has Buddhist philosophy or practice helped you and helped you help others—if, in fact, it has.
MG: I am a philosophical, not a religious, Buddhist. I have read about 400 books on Buddhism. My favorite author is Thich Nhat Hanh. My coaching revolves around feedforward—which comes from Buddhist philosophy. The entire sections in Triggers on AIWATT and "acceptance" are largely based around Buddhist philosophy. While Triggers builds upon Buddhist philosophy it is consistent with many other age-old beliefs. I work frequently in the Middle East. One of my clients is creating a list of "sayings from the Prophet' that shows how consistent Triggers is with his beliefs. The same could be done with the Bible.