December 2012 | Leadership
Athletes do it all the time: golfers change their swing, pitchers learn new pitches, and runners adjust their stride. But how do they do it, replacing one automatic response with another in their muscle memory? That question intrigued Charles Dwyer, associate professor in the Educational Leadership Division at the University of Pennsylvania, as he looked for a simple method to help people replace not swings or pitches, but behaviors, thoughts, and emotions. He saw over time that negative outcomes could be avoided by making changes in automatic responses that seem unavoidably “hardwired” in our brains, and sought a way to help others easily make those changes.
What Dwyer learned from athletes was relatively simple: it all comes down to rehearsal. “An athlete who is working to change his or her muscle memory practices the new action until it’s committed to muscle memory. We can do the same thing with our brains, ‘rearranging the furniture’ by rehearsing new behaviors, thoughts, and emotions until the new three-part program becomes our automatic response. A lifetime of focusing on the problem and putting negative labels on others can be undone to great effect in just a couple of weeks.”
For leaders, Dwyer’s method, called Self-Design (he’s thinking of renaming it Self-Empowerment), can have an almost immediate impact. Because power and influence are all about how our behavior and our communications are interpreted by others, the ways in which a leader behaves and communicates thoughts and feelings ultimately shapes followers’ responses. Dwyer notes, “If you want people to do what you ask them to do, recognize first that you determine whether they follow through or not. You have control over how much influence you have, so if you want to improve, you must identify your shortcomings. To become a more effective leader, what should you change? What recurring negative situations do you want to avoid?”
Armed with knowledge of muscle memory, Dwyer discovered the work of clinical psychiatrist Dr. Maxie Maultsby. Maultsby’s practice focused on helping “normal” people manage their emotions and behavioral habits more successfully. Based on 35 years of longitudinal data, his short-term methods create long-term results. Dwyer applied Maultsby’s work to create a simple method for changing unwanted thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. He determined that through rehearsal, Self-Design could change the way the brain works in 2-3 weeks. The Self-Design method has since been taught at the University of Pennsylvania and in Wharton Executive Education’s Building Relationships That Work and Leading and Managing People.
“In both of the Executive Education programs I teach in,” says Dwyer, “I encounter leaders who are looking for new ways to improve performance. Janet Greco and I provide them with a number of tools and methods, including Self-Design. The same executives who tell me the method has been transformational are often the ones who are resistant to it initially. But you don’t need to believe that it will yield positive results in order for it to work — you just need to do it. Over the course of two to three of weeks, you can — just as athletes do — create a new automatic response.”
How does it work? Dwyer is careful to point out that simply changing what you think isn’t enough. Everyone knows, for example, that exercise is good for them. They know the health consequences of a sedentary lifestyle, including conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke, arthritis, and depression. But a majority of people continue to resist exercise. Simply thinking something different doesn’t change the behavior. Behavioral change, says Dwyer, comes only when cognition (knowledge or belief) and emotion (feeling) work together.
“Let’s say someone you work with makes you angry or impatient. When you put that person in mind, your brain goes to the place it always does, and you feel that anger or impatience. With Self-Design, you instead insert new beliefs about that person. You envision yourself encountering them and feeling calm. In other words, you see yourself as you want to be. Go through this ‘mental rehearsal’ a few times a day for two to three weeks, and you can commit the new behaviors, thoughts, and feelings to memory.” (See Dwyer’s Nano Tool for the Self-Design how-to.)
“The Greeks had it partially right,” says Dwyer. “The Oracle at Delphi urges ‘Know Thyself.’ Socrates stated ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ But what if you discover things about yourself that you want to change? You need a method to help you make those changes.” The executives who have used Self-Design have called the results transformational, and Dwyer’s students are working on an app to help bring the self-empowerment tool to a wider audience. “Imagine being able to break the cycle of negativity in your life and in the world,” says Dwyer. “What goes on in your head does not have to be a function of what goes on outside of you.”
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