The transformative power of “Oh @#&!” moments


Person having an oh @#&! moment and realizing they should make a behavior change

“Oh @#&!” moments. We’ve all had them. What if I told you that without them, you might not grow and evolve as a leader? It’s true. 

The ultimate goal of leadership training is lasting behavior change. However, as both research and experience have proven, again and again, traditional leadership programs rarely create lasting personal transformation. Why? Because telling people what they “should do” doesn’t spur them to make the change, much less stick with it.

Just think about it. We all know what we should do to be more effective, productive, etc. Yet, despite knowing all that, we too often don’t follow through on these insights in our actions and behaviors. Maybe if we were rational beings? Well, we’re not.

If we were rational beings, then the simple act of knowing that a specific change in behavior would drive better results should cause us to change our habits. Harvard professor Dr. John P. Kotter, who studied change theory, described this in his book “The Heart of Change” as the ANALYZE, THINK, CHANGE sequence. 

But, we’re not rational beings. So what does it take to help people move beyond knowledge transfer to commit to changing their behavior? That is something we at Upwardley needed to solve as part of our quest to re-imagine leadership development. And both through research and experience, we discovered the power of creating “Oh @#&!” moments to help kickstart behavior change.

Table of Contents

Make it personal

First of all, knowledge and insights conveyed to us remain just abstract facts unless we can see how it is important to us personally. To consider changing our behavior, we need to see and feel how a change in our behavior might affect us personally. Kotter coined this the SEE-FEEL-CHANGE sequence.

Kotter change sequence@3x

If we want to encourage people to change their behavior, it has to start by helping them SEE the reality of their current behavior or mindset because most of us are unaware of either or both. Our routines obscure them. We don’t actively choose or consider them daily because they have become automatic. They’re part of our normal day-to-day experience so we don’t SEE them.

Traditionally, in leadership development, organizations have used 360 assessments ahead of leadership training programs to try and make people SEE how others perceive and experience their behaviors and help the participant SEE what they need to work on. Unfortunately, in reality, many do not accept the results of these assessments as accurate reflections. Instead, they spend their time trying to rationalize any critical comments and waste their energy trying to second-guess who said what.

At Upwardley, we believe it is all about prompting people to SEE and FEEL the reality and impact of their actions for themselves. And to do so effectively, we carefully navigate two forces that frequently hinder or altogether stop people from deciding to change their behavior.

Mind the resistance

First, many of us become defensive when we’re confronted with the reality of our behavior. We blame others, excuse our behavior or rationalize our actions. We fail to accept the insights we just had about our behavior. Why do we do that? Our ego gets in the way and stops us from really being brutally honest with ourselves about our abilities, motives, and feelings because they’re incompatible with the conscious image we have of ourselves. 

Second, we may balk at accepting a call to change because we lack confidence in our ability to make the change or fear the amount of effort required to make the change. 

Thus, when we SEE and FEEL how a change in our behavior might be needed, those two forces pull us back at the same time – potentially hindering or even stopping us outright from committing to changing our behavior.

So to help someone kickstart actual behavior change, we need also to generate an opposite, stronger force that pulls them forward towards the desired behavior change. We need not just help them SEE and FEEL, but we actually need to make them feel PASSIONATE about their need to change. Their DESIRE TO CHANGE must outweigh their ego’s resistance to the change. 

Opposing forces - edition 1 - creating leaders@3x

And that is why we believe in the power of creating “Oh @#&!” moments. These are moments that make it crystal clear why we absolutely need to change, irrespective of how hard that might be. “Oh @#&!” moments force us to see the reality of our actions and see & feel the reality of our future if we fail to course-correct. “Oh @#&!” moments give us the power and wherewithal to overcome our resistance to change and do what is necessary.

And how do we do that? By appealing to what matters most to us: our sense of identity. 

Identity-inconsistent behaviors: Using the stark light of the type of person we want to be

When prompted to reflect on an aspect of our behavior, we might momentarily see more clearly how we act, how it impacts others, and how we might consider changing it to improve our leadership effectiveness. Yet, our ego is strong and will usually counter that feeling with plenty of reasons why we can ignore that call for change. 

Instead, everything changes when we’re asked how that aspect of our behavior reflects on what type of a person we are. Why? Our sense of identity is our anchor. Our pride and ego will go to great lengths to defend any attack on it. As such, challenging someone’s behaviors as part of their overall identity is the perfect lightning rod to create a transformative “Oh @#&!” moment.

This approach is based on the Identity Based Motivation model that Professor Daphna Oyserman developed. The model is based on the premise that people use their self-concept and personal & social identities to interpret the world around them and to direct their choices and actions. As a result, people prefer to act in ways that are consistent with their identity rather than inconsistent. 

Identity with colors@3x

And that is why asking people to reflect on their current behavior within the context of the type of person or leader they want to be is exponentially more powerful than just asking them to reflect on an aspect of their behavior. Because if this reflection shows them as acting inconsistently with their self-concept and identities – the person or leader they want to be – then this provides a powerful motivation to commit to changing their behavior. 

A helpful metaphor that I often use to explain this approach is Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” The story remains popular because its key messages are as relevant today as they were in the Victorian era. Scrooge is visited by the three spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come, who make him SEE and FEEL the reality of his past and present, as well as how his future might unfold if he doesn’t change his ways. Dickens delivers Scrooge an “Oh @#&!” moment if ever there was one, ultimately leading to a life-changing transformation. 

Though not as dramatic as Dickens’ set-up for Scrooge, at Upwardley, we have embedded this identity-based motivation approach into our contextualization exercises. These exercises are a core building block of the learning design of our leadership habit-building platform and part of Upwardley’s secret sauce. Following each lesson on our platform, we use these exercises to help people SEE and FEEL how they might be struggling with that issue in their everyday leadership experience. 

First, we use a series of reflection questions to make it personal. And then, we make them care by further prompting them to evaluate how this aspect of their behavior is consistent or inconsistent with the type of leader they want to be. Voila! that results every so often in a transformative “Oh @#&!” moment that kickstarts real behavior change – the holy grail of leadership development.

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