Book advises on jumping career ruts

'Change Anything' offers strategies for breaking free of all kinds of bad habits at work and at home

Top-performing employees worldwide do three things well and consistently that set them apart and that can be emulated by anyone else who wants to succeed in their careers, according to a recently published book, "Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success." And willpower -- often held to be central to whatever changes we seek to make in our lives and careers -- is not part of the equation.

Top employees put effort into the technical aspects of their jobs, contribute to work that is critical to their company's success and are known for being helpful. But what keep it from being quite that simple are the outside influences that can reinforce bad habits at work and at home.

"[You have to] step back, acknowledge that willpower isn't going to do it and look for the influences that are in power today" in your life, said David Maxfield, who along with Kelly Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler co-wrote the book, published by Business Plus. The strategies they present in the book are based on psychological and medical research as well as a study involving more than 5,000 people conducted at the Change Anything Labs in Utah, which is a division of the consultancy and training firm VitalSmarts.

Their research shows that individuals do not have as much control over their own behavior as they might think they do, that many of us fall into "the willpower trap" of thinking that if we don't break bad habits we simply lack the motivation to do so. What we need instead are new skills and a new approach to achieve success. The same methods can be applied to career advancement, weight loss, relationship issues, breaking addictions and getting out of debt and staying that way, according to the authors.

The first step is to figure out the "crucial moments" in which you fall into bad habits. Those could involve certain times, places, people or, for instance, when you're feeling stressed out or tired. The next step is to establish rules to follow when such challenging moments arise. For instance, if you have a hard time completing the work tasks you need to get done because you are unable to say "no" when asked to take on less-important duties then you have to learn new skills. That could involve assertiveness training or enlisting the help of your boss or colleagues for support.

And then it's important to use what the authors call "six sources of influence" in your favor rather than letting them work against you. Those are: personal motivation, personal ability, social motivation and ability, structural motivation and structural ability. While the first two are self explanatory, the third involves using social networks for encouragement, while structural motivation involves bearing in mind the costs of not advancing in your career -- less income, lower morale -- and the latter means making changes in your environment to make it easier to keep at better work habits.

The book's chapter on career advancement tells the story of Melanie R., an accountant in danger of being laid off because of flagging performance. When she felt herself sliding, Melanie focused on her long-term future and her goal of buying a house and of being respected by others at her company.

In "Change Anything" parlance, Melanie was "both the scientist as well as the subject" of her own experiment in breaking bad habits. Taking that approach is helpful when it comes to setbacks, because breaking bad habits always involves those. "When you turn down a blind alley, don't get depressed, don't get down. Say, 'that's interesting, I had a setback today' and then try to understand it as a scientist would," Maxfield said. "We are very ineffective when we are depressed."

It's also important in breaking bad habits that stymie career advancement to stop blaming the boss. A study at the Change Anything Lab found that 87 percent of those surveyed said it's their boss' fault they hadn't gotten promotions they wanted and were sure they deserved. Often, workers say they want to change but they don't think they can because of that obstacle, "so they end up not even trying," Maxfield said, adding that research at the lab has also found that while 70 percent of those studied were aware their bosses were not happy with their performance, they could not identify what they were dong wrong at work or what they could to do change their situations.

And then there is that old strawman of an excuse: I don't have time. That one is often trotted out when it comes to training and staying up with necessary skills, Maxfield said. High-tech employees in software or hardware development, for instance, have to maintain a high level of technical expertise to advance, he noted. People make time for the things that are important to them, he said, shooting down the time excuse.

So, what should an employee do if they use the methods described in the book and they still can't get ahead because of a supervisor who puts up roadblocks to advancement?

"See if you can use their opposition to learn more about their priorities," Maxfield said. That requires skill in communicating with the supervisor, being persistent in asking questions and trying to initiate a dialogue. "Do it by listening," he said. Often, it's a matter of having the conversation in the first place to find out where the other person is coming from and what their needs are that you can help them to meet, he said.

Once on a better track, it's important to challenge yourself. "People forget that how you get better at work, you practice," he said. "Don't just do your job -- it's not just can you program Java, but can you program this type of Java in 20 minutes or less."

The book overall continually emphasizes that "we have a lot less control over our behavior than we think we do. We're way overly optimistic in relying on willpower and it fails us. So our book is meant to give the influence back to people -- what is pulling against you that you can bring over to your side so that it can work for you," Maxfield said.

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