Lessons learned in prison

Cay Villars is a management consultant, executive coach, and facilitator with over 20 years of marketing, sales, and business development experience. She coaches executive teams to inspire, focus, and align high-yield behaviors to increase engagement, revenues, and profitability. She honed her skills in setting minds free and changing behavior as a volunteer coach for inmates in Wisconsin prisons.

I began my executive life in marketing and business development conducting market analysis, writing plans, and working with teams to execute plans. Anyone who has written a business plan knows it takes fortitude and commitment. The execution is even more demanding because of the coordination of human effort required to achieve the plan.

I finally reached the conclusion that how well people worked together (or not) to achieve the plan was as important as or even more important than what was happening in the market.

It seemed I was constantly working with other leaders to influence the behavior of colleagues in order to deliver results outlined in the plan. When not directly working to influence behavior, we sought ideas about how to change behavior by consulting others (e.g., HR and peers). We invested an inordinate amount of time in reading books, attending training programs, and using our imagination to conjure up ideas on how to get an employee to do something that he or she was not currently doing. Outside of work, the investment continued as we attempted to influence the behavior of kids, spouses, siblings, friends, and parents. Behavior (or lack thereof) was a consuming topic.

The substantial investment in behavioral change is shared by all organizations. The processes and methods used to influence behavior are legion and come in a multitude of flavors (e.g., feedback, mentoring, rewards and recognition, coaching, training, talent management, discovering your strengths, change management, appreciative inquiry, crucial conversations, planning and goal setting, performance reviews, and improvement plans). What it means specifically for companies is there is constant striving to focus and align high-yield behaviors to achieve increased revenues and profitability. At home it may mean trying to get kids to clean their rooms. Sometimes processes are effective, and at other times executives (and parents) fear they amount to difficult busy work that has minimal impact.

Given this overwhelming investment, ultimately I had to ask and answer the question for myself, “What is the easiest way to sustainably change behavior? Is there a better and faster way than what we are doing now?” Fifteen years ago I decided I would commit to learn all I could about behavioral transformation, with over seven years of the journey dedicated to influencing the toughest behavior imaginable. I taught and coached sustainable behavioral change for inmates as a volunteer in Wisconsin prisons.

When I share that I’ve coached in prison, some executives freeze and think, “That has nothing to do with me.” I understand how they feel. “Those” people in prison engaged in destructive behavioral choices. What I found is that there are times when we are all prisoners in our own minds. Our subconscious beliefs and attitudes limit our thought patterns and thus our behavior. Beliefs and old conditioned responses run fast and strong like a train on a well-oiled track.

Have you ever observed a colleague “stuck” in a state of frustration or anger? Or locked down on an idea in a meeting, unable (or unwilling) to let go? His or her emotional state and story about a situation may loop endlessly, perhaps for years. That is a miniature version of “prison of the mind.” Other examples include conflict avoidance, stress, procrastination, underperformance, unproductive meetings, and resisting new processes or change. Even the most valuable leaders may resist quickly adopting new behaviors essential to helping the organization grow. The truth is that the “prison of the mind” list in organizations is long.

The critical role and responsibility of leadership is to help free minds in order to shift behavior. The challenge with the most prevalent behavioral change “methods” is that they attempt to overlay “change management” over existing embedded train tracks, which are the beliefs and attitudes that exist in individuals and organizational culture. As a result, individuals as well as entire organizations rapidly fall back to running on the old track. Thus, in order for leaders to help free minds, they need to have the skills to take up the old tracks and/or use bypass mechanisms that can help minds jump past the old track to the new one. To quickly change an entire organization, it is essential to take up and rebuild the tracks/beliefs for the entire organization.

While my initial intent was to teach inmates how to free their minds to change behavior, I was surprised to find that the experience freed me to see the extraordinary potential that is imprisoned in the minds of people in organizations. During one of the classes in prison, a social worker exclaimed, “I have never seen anything like this (behavior) in 20 years in the prison system.” At times they were solving team challenges faster than some leadership groups on retreat. Executives might be surprised to find that these results were achieved by helping participants tap into their gifts and talents to lift and reset the old behavioral tracks. If these results can be achieved in prison, how much more can be achieved by people who have so many more gifts, talents, and resources? It stunned me to realize that most organizations have not even begun to tap into the wellspring of their employees.

In this blog, I’ll share what going into prison taught me about giving myself and others the freedom to engage in behavior that more fully expresses our gifts and talents. I’ll review stories and methods for taking up and/or bypassing old tracks and creating new tracks that are more likely to reach the desired destination. I’ll discuss “Coaching to the Gift,” a powerful method of asking for help, providing feedback, and inspiring employees to use their gifts, experiences, wisdom, and values to rapidly open the gateway to behavioral change. Ultimately, these methods will increase the probability that leaders will more quickly and easily align and focus high-yield behavior to achieve sustainable results for the organization. And along the way, perhaps some readers will find ideas to influence the behavior of their parents, children, and possibly their in-laws.

Idella Lamden contributed to this article

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