The best leaders believe in their people: that they’re capable and motivated to make change. So it can come as a surprise when they encounter individuals who believe the opposite: not that they don’t have the skills to work differently, but that they can’t. These individuals believe they’re not good at change, or that they’re too old to try something different; or even doubt that they have anything of value to contribute to the organization.
If leaders doubt their ability to change, this can set the tone for an organization: “why should I change if my leader won’t even try?”
This occurs when an individual has limiting beliefs: a self-assessment that restricts them in an effort to prevent potential future pain. They commonly stem from:
- How they were raised. Frequent criticism from parents or other authority figures can influence their beliefs in their own capabilities.
- Past failure. If they’ve attempted to make change before and failed, they may be more hesitant to try again—especially if the organization punished them.
- Imposter syndrome. They feel like they’re constantly faking it, or haven’t truly earned their role, and feel change could reveal this position or make the situation worse.
- Fixed mindset. They think that certain qualities or skills are innate, rather than abilities that can be practiced and improved.
Unfortunately, this can also happen to leaders themselves as organizations transform: after years of success, they may find themselves in a completely alien situation, and question whether they’re capable of adapting to new ways of working. And if leaders doubt their ability to change, this can set the tone for an organization: “why should I change if my leader won’t even try?”
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Whether it’s a seasoned leader or a new and untested individual contributor, there are some approaches to help them realize they do have the ability to change:
- Assess their true abilities. If an individual is skeptical of their own ability, ask them about their evidence and assumptions behind that statement: what makes them believe it to be true? Is that a fair assessment? If a colleague provided similar evidence, would the individual agree or disagree that they could change?
- Encourage experimentation. Often change feels daunting because it is either large or unfamiliar. Framing the change as something to be experimented with, or something that can be done with incrementally, can help it feel less intense.
- Remind them of past success. People often need an ego boost before they can change, so remind them of examples of times they have changed, or accomplished a major goal.
- Encourage a growth mindset. Rather than thinking of people as “good” or “bad” at change, position change as a skill that can be developed and improved with practice.