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Change Work December 2007

Are you on the right level?

Next time you find yourself "tut-tutting" about someone else's behaviour - or even shouting at them to change it - just ask yourself, "Do they actually know how to behave differently?"

Sometimes undesirable, negative or ineffective behaviours may be a symptom of a lack of capability.  In these circumstances addressing the behaviour - with advice, inducements or threats - can't work. They may stop doing what you don't like but they won't be able to do what you want - or what might be better for them.

It's very useful to be able to think of aspects of human learning and change as taking place at different levels. In this context, behaviour and capability are two of the levels in a hierarchy.

This construct is sometimes called the "Neurological Levels" - although they're not really neurological, and perhaps not levels either!  However, it's a well-known label and a very useful conceptual model.

Listed from the top down, the levels are:

Spiritual - The broadest as well as the most profound level, to do with the big questions about the meaning of life and how we connect to everything else.  Changes at this level are likely to affect all aspects of your life and well-being.

Identity - Your sense of self and your mission.

Values / Beliefs - What's most important to you and those things you hold to be true - perhaps without ever really questioning them - and that guide you all the time. Beliefs can push you forward or hold you back.

Capability - What you know how to do.  Practical knowledge and unconscious strategies that you use every day.

Behaviour - What you actually do and say.  Behaviour can't exceed capability but it can be considerably narrower if you don't use all your know-how.

Environment - The things and people that you interact with - and that are often blamed for the state we find ourselves in.

As we've seen in the case of behaviour / capability, a problem appearing at one level is often caused by a limitation at a higher level.

For example, you find yourself unhappy with the work you're having to do (environment):
Have you told your boss or are you signalling acceptance through the way you do it? Have you demonstrated your aptitude for anything else?  All of these are aspects of your behaviour, not your environment.

If you identify that you need to broaden your capability, but find you just can't learn a particular skill, then perhaps the issue is in what you believe about the situation or about yourself. This can stop you putting theoretical knowledge into practice.

For example, "I've never been any good at taking the lead" may be an accurate description of your past performance but tends to reinforce the belief that you never will.  So you give yourself permission to accept that state and avoid the need to learn and to practise!

Any change you make at a particular level is likely to have an effect at all of the lower levels.  But change doesn't usually propagate upwards.

You have to be careful about jumping too far up the hierarchy though.  For instance, we very often use "identity" language to describe a problem that actually exists at a lower level.  So, if I do something badly (behaviour or capability) I might well say to myself "I'm useless" - which is clearly a statement about who I am, about my identity. And criticism at this level is usually painful and damaging. It's also self-defeating because we think of identity as unchanging. Therefore if there's something bad about your identity then you must be stuck with it!

And when you're in a judgmental frame, you may observe (or suffer) someone else's behaviour and then draw inferences about the "kind of person" they are - their identity.  Whereas, as we've seen, it's more likely that they're doing what they have to do, limited by their capabilities and, perhaps, their beliefs.  So, it's more resourceful for you to address them at these levels than to attack their core being!

Coming to the highest level, "spritual", I have to admit that I haven't ever needed to get into this area with any client so I can't give any insights based on experience.  Now this probably reflects my own limitations and lack of time spent thinking about it.  So I'd be very interested to hear any reader's ideas about what it means to them and how it completes the picture.

Maybe that's a good place to leave the Christmas edition of Change Work - whether you celebrate the festival or not - and I'll be back with more ideas to ponder (and to put to use) in the New Year.