This story starts with a neighbor - a friend's father who lived across the street from my childhood home. He was smart, educated, funny, and very, very biased. When we were idealistic teens, my friend and I were convinced we could help him become more open and tolerant. We appealed to his logic by showing him statistics. He would counter with alternate statistics. We took him to movies and introduced him to friends who didn’t fit his beliefs. He countered with articles, people and examples that did. Although his viewpoints softened as he got older, to my knowledge, they never really changed.
Over the past few months, I have had several conversations with a client about one of his direct reports that caused me to think about my neighbor. Although my client's team member wasn't biased, he did have unproductive beliefs that were hindering both his, and the team's, performance and relationships. By all accounts, this employee was very strong technically and was respected for his expertise. But his beliefs led him to behave in a way that caused many others to avoid him, or even work against his recommendations. He was viewed as a roadblock. Unfortunately, no amount of my client's coaching or counseling made a dent on his beliefs, or his behavior, and eventually he was let go.
When a person has a pattern of acting unproductively, it's helpful to look past their behavior to their underlying beliefs.
Why beliefs are so resistant to change
First, a bit of theory. I promise it will be brief. The reasons behind this employee's (and my neighbor's) beliefs, can be summed up by Chris Argyris’s Ladder of Inference. Start at the bottom and climb the ladder one rung at a time. In life, we:
observe information (data, facts & experiences) in the real world,
select some of what we observe to pay attention to and ignore the rest,
add meaning to the information we select by interpreting it through our cultural, personal, and environmental perspectives,
draw conclusions about the information based on what it means to us,
form beliefs over time as our conclusions solidify
take action based on our beliefs
There’s a feedback loop as well. Our beliefs come back around to influence the data we select in the future. We look for, and pay attention to, facts that confirm our beliefs. We ignore information that doesn’t fit with our world view.
How this plays out in organizations
Let’s look at this in a business context. We’ll depict it as a circular loop because the behavior and resulting beliefs reinforce themselves.
Start at the top with ‘my beliefs’. Once beliefs are formed, they guide our actions. This much was covered in the Ladder discussed above. But what happens next?
We don't act in a vacuum. Other people form opinions (‘Others’ perceptions') based on what they see and hear us do and say, not only about our actions, but about us as people. In other words, they develop beliefs (‘Others' beliefs’) which lead them to behave towards us in a way that is consistent with these beliefs (‘Others’ actions’).
But it doesn’t end there. The way they behave towards us can reinforce our beliefs about them individually or about people (or a certain category of people) in general.
Let’s look at a simple example with a hypothetical employee, Pat.
Start at the top of the gray cycle on the left and you can follow how her belief system impacts her behavior. This leads to her team members forming an opinion and developing their own beliefs which, in turn, drive their behavior. Inevitably, their behavior reinforces her beliefs.
And Voilà. We have a self-sustaining cycle. This is also known as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Act as if something is true about someone and inevitably, they will not disappoint.
It explains why beliefs are so resistant to change.
But understanding is one thing. Dealing with it is quite another. Below are a few ideas.
What to do about it – Improve Your Self-awareness
Recognize that you have blind spots – We all have habitual ways of behaving that were originally based on things we observed, assumed, interpreted, and concluded. Take the time to work yourself back down the ladder - from your actions to your underlying beliefs, to your conclusions, and so on. At each stage, ask yourself what you’ve been thinking and why. In this way, you can begin to recognize some of your blind spots. You may find you have underlying motivations that run contrary to your self-image and stated goals. You may find that you’re drawing conclusions too quickly or using beliefs that no longer serve you well.
Reflect on your decisions and actions – You can use this information as a framework for structuring and evaluating your thinking and decisions. Ask yourself questions like:
Am I drawing the ‘right’ conclusion?
Is this conclusion based on objective facts or my beliefs?
Are my beliefs based on my current 'reality'?
What interpretations and assumptions am I making that led to my beliefs?
What led to these interpretations and assumptions?
We can increase our self-awareness and our ability to make thoughtful, conscious choices in the future.
Explain your thinking and ask for feedback – Encourage an open dialogue with others and ask them to tell you if they disagree with your rationale. Being transparent about your interpretations, assumptions and conclusions will give them the opportunity to ask questions and present alternative perspectives. In this way you can be better informed and make better decisions.
What to do about it - Improve your Interactions
Ask questions – Keep in mind that this cycle typically plays out unconsciously. There is usually a belief system behind what others do that makes sense to them, but that may not be clear to anyone else. When someone isn’t behaving in a productive manner, ask questions like:
Can you help me understand your thinking on this?
What information or data are you basing your recommendation on?
What are you hoping to achieve by taking this action?
What alternatives have you considered?
It’s important to ask these questions in a neutral, non-judgmental tone of voice. You don’t want to put anyone on the defensive. Make it clear that your goal is to bring their reasoning to light so that you both can figure out a way forward.
Take responsibility for initiating change – Blaming others for their beliefs will not lead them to change their mind. Likewise, waiting for them to change will not lead to an improved outcome, enhanced collaboration, or a better relationship. If any of those are your goal, start by thinking about what actions you can take to give them new experiences. Think about how you might enhance or broaden their beliefs - not change them outright. Adding color and nuance by providing them with multiple new experiences can begin to open their eyes (and hopefully their minds) to possibilities they may not have previously considered. Repeated instances where the other person has the opportunity to see things differently may eventually lead to new interpretations and conclusions... the first step to a change in beliefs.
Listen carefully – See if you can hear the underlying assumptions or interpretations others are making during discussions and decisions. Bringing underlying reasons, both yours and others who are involved, into the open is often the best way to move towards understanding. Having an open and honest discussion can lead to agreement on how to move forward, even if you continue to differ on beliefs.
 My apologies to OD professionals who read this. I’ve simplified Chris Argyris’s original model for illustrative purposes. This model was also discussed by Peter Senge in his excellent book, The Fifth Discipline