Coaching highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students: For changes to stick, change both beliefs and behavior

December 8, 2013 by Joshua
in Blog, Education, Leadership, Tips

[This post is part of a series on Coaching Highlights from coaching Columbia Business School students. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

How do you start to plan?

You’ve figured out a change you want to make in your life. How do you start to plan? You’ve always done X and now you want to stop it. Or maybe you’ve never done Y and you want to start. Or you want to do something differently.

Coaching sessions with students often hit a break after we finish interpreting their feedback reports and they’ve chosen a leadership behavioral skill they want to work on and change. We’re about to begin the planning part. I usually point out something simple enough that almost doesn’t need saying, but if I don’t, people forget it.

I point out that for behavioral changes to stick, you generally need to change both behavior and beliefs, visually reinforcing what I say by putting one hand to one side, representing behavior, and the other to the other, representing belief. I then treat each separately, following up with how they interact.

An example

For example, if we talk about assertiveness, I might ask what they do when they aren’t asserting but could — do they sit quietly, do they wait and talk later, do they get impatient, etc? I also ask what they believe they are doing — are they keeping quiet because they’re gathering information to use later, do they believe they don’t have authority to talk, are they protecting themselves from saying something others might judge, etc? This shows their current behavior and beliefs.

Then I might ask them what successfully assertive people might do. Would they talk when something came to mind, would they wait and speak to people individually after the meeting, etc? This might take some time to get models of successful behavior they can envision. I might ask them to describe someone they’ve seen successfully asserting themselves that they could model themselves on. There are millions of ways to do anything, so we’re not comprehensively covering everything, but having a concrete model gives them a target. That covers the behavior side of the direction they want to go in.

Then I ask what someone might believe about how to interact with others to motivate that behavior. This question gets them thinking and forces them to realize others must have different perspectives and beliefs about the same situation that work better than theirs. Sometimes they hit on beliefs that make sense to them that they immediately want to adopt. If they don’t hit on new beliefs on their own, I might make a few suggestions to help. Once we find a belief or two that they can believe and would motivate the desired behavior, we work with those beliefs, finding ways to help them internalize them and use them when helpful. Adopting new beliefs doesn’t mean rejecting old ones, which may still work in other situations.

If we didn’t work on changing beliefs, adopting new behaviors would lead to internal conflict since their old beliefs motivate their old behavior, not their new behavior.

If we didn’t work on changing behavior, their new beliefs would at best take longer to result in new behaviors. Mostly they’d risk wanting to do something different but continuing the same habits they’d learned over decades, leading to frustration.

Working on both leads to their beliefs and behavior reinforcing each other. Earlier posts in this series described how, once we have new beliefs and behaviors, we practice them in the coaching session so they can make mistakes with me instead of with others.

Readers familiar with my Model and Method might wonder why I’m not talking about environment, the third lever arm in my Method for transforming parts of one’s life. In general I recommend working with all three elements. In coaching sessions with business school students we’re talking about work environments they choose to be in, so we’ve covered that element and are keeping it fixed.


  • After deciding what to change.
  • Look at both behavior and belief.
  • Understand current beliefs and behaviors.
    • Ask their current behavior — what do they do now that isn’t effective?
    • Ask their current belief — what motivates them to do what they do? If they aren’t doing the desired new behavior, what do they believe they are doing?
  • Think of new beliefs and behaviors that reinforce each other. This can take some time since the student isn’t used to either.
    • What behavior do they think would work better? Can they remember or think of models of behavior they want?
    • What beliefs would someone have that would motivate that behavior?
  • Practice them.

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