Conditioning and Change

By Elli Caldwell

In a recent blog post, I wrote about the necessity of practice in changing habits and behavior in order to become more effective leaders of our lives. If you’ve ever engaged in learning a new skill from scratch, you know how difficult practice can be. It takes time, breeds frustration and tempts us regularly to give up, walk away, and stay just where we are. And why not? It’s comfortable there.

Deliberate personal transformation and leadership skill building is the same way. Getting from where we are to where we’d like to be is no small feat. In my own experience, one step forward and two steps back has been par for the course. Despite my best intentions and dogged commitment, progress often feels elusive. In our work, we see this in others, too, so we’ve spent some time investigating what makes change, and the practice required to get there, so difficult.

Enter conditioning.

Conditioning is the unspoken, invisible set of rules by which we often make decisions, interact with others, think about ourselves and respond to the world around us. It contains the habits, assumptions and snap judgments that we often aren’t even aware that we are abiding by. We began developing this conditioning the moment we were born, so it is deeply rooted and incredibly strong. In a self-perpetuating loop, our conditioning both shapes and is shaped by our world views.

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This conditioning is not necessarily a bad thing. It teaches us to pull our hands away from a hot stove, to look before crossing the street and to duck when someone yells “Fore!” In short, it engrains in us the habits that keep us safe and functional in a world of diverse stimuli.

But in the more complex realms of social interaction and personal growth, this conditioning can become a barrier. It’s an important factor in determining and reinforcing our belief systems about people, places and things, and so can become dangerous when we have formed these beliefs, often unconsciously, based on incomplete or faulty information. Further, it is both innately developed and socially supported; in other words, our beliefs are the product of both nature and nurture. So, not only might we be unaware of the erroneous assumptions we are making, but these assumptions are reflected back to us in the people and situations we interact with most. In this way, our belief systems and the behaviors that they determine become what we see as “the norm.”

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The nature of change, including personal transformation and leadership development, implies a certain dissatisfaction or unrest with the norm. We see a gap between where we are and where we’d like to be, so we decide to attempt the leap. This is where things get tricky. Our habits run deep. Our beliefs are firmly held. Even when we want them to change, even when we deliberately will them to do so, our conditioning often does not budge. As we meet this resistance, change may take on a less attractive hue as the comforts of our familiar norms beckon us to return.

This is why change takes a rigor and a commitment to practice. The only match for the strength of our conditioning is the reconditioning we decide to undertake. The more we go to the gym and strengthen our new muscles, the less our conditioning has a chance of overpowering us. As we practice, we build new muscle memory, new habits, a new norm.

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These principles apply most obviously on the individual level, but what about groups, organizations, and systems? How does conditioning determine the behavior of these entities, and how might practice serve here as a worthy opponent?

 

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While they were saying it couldn't be done, it was done.
— Helen Keller