The futility of New Year’s Resolutions

Most of us fall into one of two categories. Some of us still make resolutions at this time of year, with genuine intentions but very little optimism. Others don’t make resolutions, mainly because we know that we almost always fail.

I’ve long been puzzled about why you’d choose the first of January over any other date to make changes in your life. Sure, it’s the start of a new year but, if you’re serious about the change then why have you waited until then?

More importantly, what makes you think that you can change alone?  


Independence Day?

None of us are independent entities. Our environment shapes our behaviour, our thoughts and even our beliefs. You’d think differently about smoking, eating or drinking if you were sitting amongst starving refugees in a camp escaping a war zone. It’s an extreme example, I know, but it illustrates the point.

Each of us is enmeshed in a web of relationships. These relationships play an important part both in helping us to change and also in keeping us stuck. Sometimes this is simple and obvious. I once knew someone whose attempts to stop smoking were consistently undermined by her father making a point of constantly offering her cigarettes – even when he knew she was trying to quit!

Our relationships also influence us in much more subtle ways. Some of our behaviour is normalised by those around us. Either explicitly or implicitly we get messages that tell us that certain things we do are OK – or are even to be encouraged. Equally, we get lots of signals, of varying strengths, which tell us that behaviour is unacceptable or which discourage us from some courses of action.


Polishing Fish

One of the reasons I work with teams is that I became frustrated with coaching individuals. Coaching a person is wonderfully immediate and can create powerful changes. It can also be very dispiriting.

Many people I have coached are struggling with environments, and people, which are toxic. Sometimes this is a generally unhealthy system, other times it’s just that the characteristics of their environment drain their energy or bring out the worst in them. Either way the human cost to the individual is high. The cost to the organisation is a key person who can’t give anywhere near their best.

Too often, I’d come away from a coaching session having only helped the person cope better with the toxic system. They felt better, and were more equipped to deal with the challenges – but that never felt enough to me.

My great friend and colleague, David Parton, puts it like this:-

“It’s like having a fish swimming around in a tank of filthy water. You take it out, polish it up and then put it right back in the same tank…”


Behaviour = Individual x Environment

This simple equation from the world of social sciences sums it up. If you want to make changes to behaviour, working on the individual only is leaving a vital piece out of the equation.

This is one of the main reasons why New Year’s resolutions fail. It’s also why developing teams has so much more impact on an organisation, and on results, than coaching individuals alone.


From ugly duckling……

Colin worked for a technical consultancy firm. They were structured, disciplined and efficient. He was different. He is sensitive, flexible and a little chaotic. He was also by some way, the best relationship manager in the firm. His interpersonal skills and ability to drop everything to help whoever is on the phone are hugely valued by his clients. Those same traits, though, were driving his colleagues mad. His filing was never done, his fee forecasts were always late and his invoicing was always behind.

Things were nearing breaking point. Relationships between Colin and the rest of the directors were bad and getting worse. He was under huge pressure to ‘sort himself out’. He’d genuinely tried to operate as they did – but just couldn’t make it work. He was on the point of leaving. Many would have been happy to see him go…

Tom, the MD, was also in despair, but didn’t want to lose him. When we talked about Colin, the discussion progressed to other issues. Their finances were in poor shape and this was exacerbating the tensions in the team. In particular, their poor performance on winning new accounts and some recent issues with unhappy clients was concerning Tom greatly. Tom, who had initially wanted some coaching for Colin, agreed that we should start with a discussion in the team.

The first workshop started stormily. Fingers were pointed and voices raised. Frustrations were aired. I took the team through our process for clarifying Ambition, Priorities and Relationships. As we worked through them it became increasingly clear that Colin’s skills were being undervalued and underutilised.

As their thinking developed, the raised voices were replaced with reflective silences. Then, energy grew and they began excitedly building on one another’s ideas.  One of the key changes that emerged was the creation of a Client Relationship Director. This would have responsibility for business generation and the management of existing relationships. Everyone agreed that Colin was the obvious candidate.

The change was transformational. Within three months, Colin won two new major clients and satisfaction amongst the existing key accounts improved dramatically.

Colin was a changed man. His personal organisation remained an issue, but a combination of reduced amounts of it and increased admin support helped greatly.  His energy and endless enthusiasm, which had been a key reason for recruiting him, returned. He is now a key player in the team and was the top performing director in 2013.


Use your system

So if you’re wrestling with making a personal change, Get Help! I don’t mean coaching – although that might be useful. I mean that you should engage the others in your system. Who is playing a part in keeping you stuck – and whose support do you need to change?


If the change you are seeking is at work (whether in yourself or someone else), try reframing it as a team challenge. Get the team in the room, get their wants and needs on the table and start work!

Most teams benefit from some facilitation to do this. If you’d like to discuss how we might be able to help then please call on 0845 519 7871.


Read more

Please visit our website to read more about The Six Conversations Leadership Team programme or download our article, the Seven Illusions of Leadership which shows what it looks like in practice – based around a real case study.
Better still, give us a call on 0845 519 7871 to explore your issues further or to arrange a free Strategy Session.

Chris Henderson