How to trigger change and better behavior

"We forget our intentions. We become tired, even depleted, and allow our discipline to drain down like water in a leaky bucket."

Bad Credit Loans and Financial Health (photo credit: PR)
Bad Credit Loans and Financial Health
(photo credit: PR)
For the 25 hours of Yom Kippur, many Jews fast and “afflict their souls” to atone their sins and resolve to improve in the coming year – but in fact, how many of them really change?
People of other faiths also usually make New Year’s resolutions to change an undesired behavior or trait, accomplish a personal goal or otherwise improve their lives, yet, their good intentions generally fade away as they become overwhelmed by the pressures of the present.
Many individuals regard themselves as being pleasant and cuddly as kittens most of the time, but if a vehicle suddenly and dangerously passes them from the right lane or grabs their intended parking place, without realizing it, they lose their tempers and turn into tigers.
Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts – Becoming the Person You Want to Be is a best-selling book (with a transformed tiger on the cover) aimed at helping people behave better and achieve positive, long-term changes in their lives. Written by Prof. Marshall Goldsmith (with Mark Reiter) and published in English two years ago, the 243-page, NIS 98 text has now been translated into Hebrew for Israelis by the Matar company (
Goldsmith is world-renowned executive coach whose other works have been translated into 28 languages and read around the world. The current volume looks at the “environmental and psychological triggers that can derail us at work and in life.”
Officially named the “world’s most influential leadership thinker (2011 and 2015), one of the top 10 business thinkers and the top-rated executive coach (in 2011, 2013, and 2015), Goldsmith was born in a small town in Kentucky, earned a degree in mathematical economics from Indiana’s Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and a master’s of business administration at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business in 1972. He earned his doctorate from the School of Management of the University of California at Los Angles and a PhD from UCLA Anderson School of Management was awarded to him in 1977.
He now teaches executive education at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business and, with a partner, established a management education company. He has worked as a coach with the chief executive officers of more than 150 major companies in the US and elsewhere; his unusual policy is to work to improve management and worker behavior and performance for 18 months and only then bill them if their improvement goals were reached.
Among his previous books (some with co-authors) were Managers as Mentors: Building Partnerships For Leaders; What Got You Here Won’t Get You There in Sales; Succession: Are You Ready?; Global Leadership: The Next Generation; and The Leadership Investment: How the World’s Best Organizations Gain Strategic Advantage Through Leadership Development.
Goldsmith, who describes himself as a “philosophical Buddhist,” lives in California with his wife Lyda, whom he mentions quite frequently in the book as a “monitor” of his own behavior.
Goldsmith argues that our reactions under pressure “don’t take place in a vacuum; instead, they are usually the result of unappreciated triggers in our environment: the people and situations that lure us into behaving in a manner diametrically opposed to the colleague, partner, parent or friend we imagine ourselves to be.”
These triggers, he continues, “are constant and relentless and omnipresent… Our phone chirps, and we glance instinctively at the glaring screen instead of looking into the eyes of the person we are with. So often the environment seems to be outside our control,” but even if that is true, “we have a choice in how we respond.”
It is very difficult for people to change, even after Yom Kippur or New Year’s Day.
“Knowing what to do does not ensure that we will actually do it. We are superior planners,” Goldsmith asserts, “but become inferior doers as our environment exerts its influence through the course of our day. We forget our intentions. We become tired, even depleted, and allow our discipline to drain down like water in a leaky bucket."
GOLDSMITH’S “SIMPLE SOLUTION” or “magic bullet” consists of daily self-monitoring based on “active questions” that the individual must constantly ask himself. They measure his effort at improving himself, not his actual results.
“There’s a difference between achieving and trying; we can’t always achieve a desired result, but anyone can try,” he writes. In his 22 chapters, Goldsmith provides tips on the six “engaging questions” that can help us take responsibility for our efforts to improve and help us recognize when we fail.
He presents a number of graphic images and diagrams, such as a “Wheel of Change” that contains a quadrant for creating positive elements preserving existing positive elements, eliminating negative elements that one wants to be rid of and preserving those negative elements that cannot be eliminated.
His advice is interspersed with stories from his work with some of the most successful chief executives and power brokers in the business world, including a senior executive in the Ford Motor Corporation. He even quotes the late US president John F.
Kennedy, who issued one of the most famous “calls of action” to the American people in his January 1961 inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
SOME OF his statements may sound like clichés, but Goldsmith puts meat on them instead of leaving them as bare bones.
“Fate,” he writes, “is the hand of cards we’ve been dealt… Choice is how we play the hand… Regret should be used to grow, embrace the pain and the message… We do not appreciate inertia’s power over us… Some people want to change, but they don’t… There is a difference between understanding and doing… Change doesn’t happen overnight… Success is the sum of small efforts repeated day in and day out… If we make the effort, we will get better. If we don’t, we won’t.”
Scoffers who don’t have the patience to follow through on Goldsmith’s pep talks may drop the book in the middle, but others who persevere may find it changes their lives.
He summarizes his book in three sentences:
• “A trigger is any stimulus that reshapes our thoughts and actions [for good or bad].”
• “We don’t know how to execute a change; there’s a difference between motivation and understanding and ability.”
• “Most of us go through life unaware of how our environment shapes our behavior.”
As an example of an environmental trigger that produces bad behavior, he gives the surroundings during air travel today. Instead of serenely watching the scenery from above the clouds and upon landing at one’s destination or making up for missed sleep, Goldsmith says that today, there is constant noise from video films from the screen on the back of the chair in front of you, from the work on your laptop or iPad and many other interruptions. One gets off the plane in a “state of war” and becomes irritable, lashing out later at colleagues at work or family members.
There are also fake cues in the environment that cause people to behave badly. He recalls being invited to London in 2008 to train a Pakistani-born business executive named Nadim who graduated from the London School of Economics.
He was brilliant and pleasant but had “cracks” in his image among employees, such as exploding with anger when close to Simon, one of his colleagues who liked to make nasty statements about him at executive meetings. These were the triggers that made him believe Simon was a “racist” and caused Nadim to dislike his colleague.
Goldsmith investigated and found that the charges were not true; Simon made sarcastic statements to people whatever their skin color. Goldsmith managed to eliminate Nadim’s negative triggers and change his behavior.
THE BOOK contains “Five Big Ideas”: 1. “If we do not create and control our environment, our environment creates and controls us.”
2. “Feedback – both the act of giving it and taking it – is our first step in becoming smarter, more mindful about the connection between our environment and our behavior.”
3. “A feedback loop comprises four stages: evidence, relevance, consequence, and action.”
4. “The Daily Questions announce our intention to do something and, at the risk of private disappointment or public humiliation, they commit us to doing it.”
5. “Self-discipline refers to achieving desirable behavior. Self-control refers to avoiding undesirable behavior.”
A positive trigger that he constantly keeps in his mind is a photo of him as a 35-year-old visitor in Mali, where he witnesses African children suffering from starvation. A Red Cross worker next to him is measuring the circumference of the arms of children to see if it would “worth” giving them enough food because very thin arms indicate they would not survive and less-thin ones mean they will survive on their own. A moderately thin arm means the child can be given extra food and kept alive.
This picture, writes Goldsmith, is an omnipresent positive trigger in his mind to be grateful for what he has. When facing annoyances that can pique his anger, he just thinks of the image of the poor child who won’t get extra food because he is probably doomed.
Other pearls of wisdom that the author provides are: “Inertia is the reason we never start the process of change. It takes extraordinary effort to stop doing something in our comfort zone (because it’s painless or familiar or mildly pleasurable) in order to start something difficult that will be good for us in the long run.”
“If you want to be a better partner at home or a better manager at work, you not only have to change your ways, you have to get some buyin from your partner or co-workers.
Everyone around you has to recognize that you’re changing. Relying on other people increases the degree of difficulty exponentially.”
“What makes positive, lasting behavioral change so challenging – and causes most of us to give up early in the game – is that we have to do it in our imperfect world, full of triggers that may pull and push us off course”.
“Our inner beliefs trigger failure before it happens. They sabotage lasting change by canceling its possibility.
We employ these beliefs as articles of faith to justify our inaction and then wish away the result. I call them belief triggers.”
He also lists common misconceptions: • If I understand, I will do. But just because people understand what to do doesn’t ensure that they will actually do it.
• I have willpower and won’t give in to temptation. In fact, we not only overestimate willpower, we chronically underestimate the power of triggers in our environment that lead us astray.
• At least I’m better than… But we award ourselves a free pass because we’re not the worst in the world.
• I have all the time in the world.
But there are two opposing beliefs that we simultaneously hold in our minds and mash into one warped view of time – that we chronically underestimate the time it takes to get anything done and that we believe that time is open-ended and sufficiently spacious for us to get to all our self-improvement goals eventually.
• My change will be permanent and I will never have to worry again.
However, if we don’t follow up, our positive change doesn’t last.
The technique of the person consciously asking himself questions every day can be an important device to forge commitment to change, Goldsmith continues.
The questions “announce our intention to do something and, at the risk of private disappointment or public humiliation, they commit us to doing it. They are also serious because they force us to express what we really want to change in our lives.
Self-discipline refers to achieving desirable behavior. Self-control refers to avoiding undesirable behavior.”
The daily questions, he explains, “force us to take things one day at a time. In doing so, they shrink our objectives into manageable 24-hour increments. By focusing on effort, they distract us from our obsession with results (because that’s not what we’re measuring). In turn, we are free to appreciate the process of change and our role in making it happen.
We’re no longer frustrated by the languid pace of visible progress because we’re looking in another direction.”
Just as having an exercise coach helps make people who find it difficult to stick to it, having a loved one or friend to whom you must report your progress could actually make you change for the better as outlined in this book, more than a New Year’s resolution.
If you succeed, even in fighting one bad trait, the money you spent at the bookstore will be worth it.