There is a certain way our dysfunction manifests itself that I believe is incredibly powerful and potentially destructive: False Beliefs. Beliefs are the things we know to be true but can’t prove. Beliefs drive our behavior; they can be big (like a belief in God) or little (like a belief that being a few minutes late to a meeting is no big deal). People have different beliefs, big and little, and our beliefs shape our behavior. Unfortunately, not all of our beliefs are helpful, good, or true. We can even hold beliefs that contradict our other beliefs. It gets messy down in that root system. Today I want to focus on how to identify and uproot those destructive false beliefs.

Often we are not aware of our false beliefs until we take time to reflect on our behavior. Once we figure out a false belief, we often understand that it’s not logical, but that doesn’t mean we stop believing and acting out of that belief. Here is a fictional example of behavior that, when closely examined, unearths a false belief:

Maria manages a team of six, including Mark, who has been underperforming since joining the team two years ago. Maria has spent countless hours training Mark, mentoring him, and coaching him. She assigns him fewer and less complex projects than his peers. He’s a really nice guy and wants to succeed at the job, so Maria continues to invest in him, hoping she’ll find the key to get him up to speed before too long. There is some resentment building in her team that he gets special accommodations and work-arounds from Maria, something she doesn’t do for anyone else.

After getting some tough but true feedback from her manager, Maria comes to understand that her behavior isn’t helping Mark, her team, her company, or herself. Two years is more than enough time for someone to become proficient in this role. It’s hard for Maria to admit that Mark might not able to succeed in this role. As she continues to reflect on what drove her to give him chance after chance, Maria realizes that she has a false belief about herself and about people: If I invest in someone long enough, I can make them succeed. This false belief has driven Maria’s behavior with Mark, and she knows that it has to change in order for her to grow as a leader and in order for her to truly help others develop. 

We all have false beliefs, and they are often really hard to change. In our story above, Maria has been acting out of this false belief for years, well before Mark joined the team. Perhaps she’s held this false belief most of her life. Simply becoming aware of a false belief is not enough to change that belief. But don’t despair. We are able to change even the most deeply held false beliefs once we become aware of them. It’s not easy, but it is effective, and I can sum it up with this phrase:

Belief follows behavior.

If you want to change a belief, you FIRST have to change your behavior. The process goes something like this:

  1. Identify the false, harmful belief that has been driving your behavior. Take some time to really think about how this belief shows up in your behavior, how it is hurting you or those around you, and the fruit that will come from changing this false belief.
  2. Identify the true, helpful belief you want to replace the false belief. This is the belief that you want to have—that you already understand logically. It’s in the trunk of your DoKnowBe Tree as knowledge, but it hasn’t filtered down into to your root system yet, even though you want it to.
  3. Behave in ways that support the true belief. I hate to break it to you, but this will be difficult and you will feel uncomfortable. Growth is uncomfortable. If it helps, remember that you are pruning your DoKnowBe Tree. You’re working hard to nurture and grow a new belief and uproot a false belief. That’s important but often painful work.
  4. Over time, if you consistently behave in ways that align with your desired true belief, you’ll discover that the false belief has withered away and has been replaced by that true belief. The logical understanding of the right thing to do has made its way from the trunk of the tree (KNOW), up through the canopy (DO), and finally settled in as a new belief (BE). How cool is that?

Let’s take a look at how this might play out for Maria:

Maria wants to replace her false belief (If I invest in someone long enough, I can make them succeed) with this more helpful, true belief: I cannot make everyone succeed. I lead more effectively when I have healthy expectations and boundaries for everyone on my team. Maria cares for Mark a great deal. She also suspects that he is not the right person for her team. She begins acting out of her new belief. She starts by having an honest conversation with Mark, apologizing for her part in their current situation. She and Mark create a development plan with clear expectations and milestones for Mark. Maria and Mark have regular check-ins on how he is progressing. Maria listens to Mark’s fears and concerns. She learns to sit with the uncomfortable feelings these conversations provoke in her. She doesn’t want Mark to fail anymore than he does.

Over time it becomes clear to both Maria and Mark that he is not the right fit for the position. Maria and Mark talk to HR and a new position is identified for Mark. He transitions out of Maria’s team and she hires someone new to fill the vacancy. Several months later, Mark stops by to thank Maria for everything she did for him. He’s happy and succeeding in his new position. Maria realizes that this process has helped her uproot that false belief and live into the new, healthy belief. Her team is more productive and more satisfied with Maria as a leader. Everybody wins!

Maria has a great ending to her story. Often, acting in ways that support the growth of a new belief isn’t quite this picturesque. However, I believe that it is worth wading through the mud and muck of your root system, changing your behavior in order to nurture a new belief and crowd out that false belief. This is part of what make good leaders great.

I hope you can take some time this week to reflect on your behavior as a leader. Where do you see hints of a false belief that is influencing your behavior in negative ways? What true, helpful belief do you want to take its place, and what behaviors do you need to start changing in order to change that belief? Welcome, once again, to the hard work of leadership.


Image by Jon Cornwell Photography. Used under CC by 2.0 license.