Getting to the Bottom of Destructive Behaviors


Many of our most destructive habits can be changed through coaching or training. But not all troubling behaviors are so easily solved.


Even when bad habits show early signs of shifting, some reappear over time. Despite well-intended efforts, pressures and triggers can cause us to slide right back into familiar, though unwanted, behavior.

The most change-resistant behaviors are often rooted in traumatic experiences that we store in our brains as memories. When I confront resistant behaviors in my clients, I aim to help them access the past experiences shaping their unwanted behaviors. It’s an approach I call “origin stories.”

If you have struggled to change chronic destructive behavior — anything from freezing up in high-risk moments to asserting excessive control under stress — uncovering the origin stories behind them may help you break through. The process involves four steps:

Write down the origin stories: I normally ask my clients to recall scenes from their formative years in which the importance of the behavior in question started to appear. Take the case of Andy, the division president of a global accounting firm. He was affable and articulate, but his positive qualities were counteracted by a need to be right and in the spotlight at all times. I asked Andy to write down stories from his formative years centered around times he learned that being right and in the spotlight became critically important to him.

Identify the inner narrative: The origins of destructive behavior are almost always attached to well-formed narratives through which we make sense of the world. One of the stories Andy wrote was about the social struggles of changing schools when he was 10. Andy was a stutterer and suffered from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. His new school required him to attend “special education” classes. For two years, Andy would walk past jeering peers to what they called the “stupid classroom.” I asked Andy to identify in one sentence what that vulnerable season taught him. The narrative Andy wrote down was: “Unless you can prove otherwise, everyone will see how stupid you are.”

Name the need the behavior is serving: The anchor that holds troubling behavior in place is the need it serves. Chronic, destructive behavior is usually an attempt to resolve the painful experience that initiated it. When I asked Andy to tell me what he ultimately wanted, he said, “I want to feel like I belong just by being me.” The problem was that he learned early in life that he couldn’t both belong and just be himself. As a result, he chose to concoct a new version of himself.

Choose a new narrative and alternative behaviors: Once someone has identified the deeper needs that his troubling behavior serves, he can begin the process of change. Sometimes the work of a trained therapist is best employed for this phase. But, to start my clients off, I always ask them to take a stab at writing down a new narrative. For his new narrative, Andy wrote, “I am liked, smart and safe even in silence.”

A divorce, a loved one’s fatal illness or being bullied can leave lasting marks that shape who we become. And even though troubling behavior isn’t excusable, we shouldn’t dismiss a person whose efforts to change have fallen short. Sometimes we just have to dig deeper to help those struggling if we want to see them flourish.


Copyright 2019 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

Topics: Leadership

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