Awareness: The Secret Sauce To Changing Behavior

Are you self-aware? Do you know anyone who you consider to be really self-aware? How is that working for you? … the other person? My guess is that it’s served you well in life. People who are considered to be self-aware tend to have a realistic understanding of how they are perceived by others and are in-touch with the aspects of their behaviors that could use a bit of attention and improvement. That “awareness” is the secret sauce in figuring out what behavior needs to change and helps identify what replacement behaviors would be better.

I’m currently reading a great book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg. It’s interesting because Mr. Duhigg describes a process I’ve used with my coaching clients for years to help them replace a bad habit/behavior with something else to improve relationships/interpersonal skills. The author talks about the “Habit Loop” as a Cue –> Routine –> Reward.

One example he noted was a woman who bit her nails so much they bled and she had scars on her fingers. She wanted to stop biting her nails so her doctor had her begin a practice of keeping a notebook where she would make a hash mark each time she felt the urge to bite her nails and a description of what triggered that urge. That urge was the “cue” or “craving.” Her “routine” was the biting of her nails. The “reward” for her was a sense of accomplishment or completion. She discovered through the notes that her cue was to would rub her fingers across her nails and if she felt any rough edges, she would start to bite them to remove the rough edges. Once she started with one finger, she had to finish all ten fingers so that she felt that reward of completion.

There is a ton more detail in the book, but bottom line is this: to change a habit, you keep the old cue and reward, but insert a new routine. The highly successful football coach, Tony Dungy, prescribed to this philosophy and turned the Tampa Bay Bucs and Indianapolis Colts into winning teams. Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, used this approach in a similar manner.

So how can this help you change a behavior that may be holding you back in your career? Becoming AWARE of what is triggering the bad behavior is the first and most critical component. I use an exercise with my coaching clients to help them understand the triggers that are prompting the specific behavior they would like to change. For example, poor listening skills. Regardless of the behavior to be changed, here are the questions you may want to ask yourself:

  1. When does it happen? Is there a time of day your ability to listen is worse than other times. Maybe morning is tough for you or you hit the wall between 2:00-3:00.
  2. Where does it happen? In what situations do you notice it most? Maybe particular meetings or topics put you in the “I’m not listening” zone.
  3. Is there a particular person or type of person that makes staying focused and tuned-in difficult? It could be that Sally talks non-stop and so you begin to tune her out or interrupt her. Does Bob go into such granular detail that you just lose the point and cannot wait to get him out of your office?
  4. What drives you to use this behavior when these triggers occur? What is the “reward” for you? Perhaps you want to stop wasting time and get on with your “real work.”
  5. What different behavior could you use to replace this bad behavior? How about standing up and meeting the “talker” at your door so they don’t come into your workspace and settle in for a long chat … plus moving away from your computer could prevent you from multi-tasking, another behavior that prevents you from listening! Or, for those meetings that put you into day-dream land, maybe begin taking meeting minutes so you have to pay attention and stay engaged.

By making a genuine effort to really observe what is happening, you increase your awareness to the situation and notice when those triggers occur. I typically ask my clients to begin to make a hash mark or some sort of note in their notebook every time a trigger occurs and then describe what they did. Did they respond with the old or new behavior? Over time, the new, more desirable behavior will begin to become the new habit. It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time and diligence but the payoff can be huge!

Is there a behavior you’d like to change? Begin by observing what is happening that triggers that behavior by asking the questions above. You’ll be amazed what you discover with your new-found AWARENESS!

Martha Duesterhoft is a Partner with PeopleResults. Follow her on Twitter @mduesterhoft or connect with you by email at