Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Dealing with limiting beliefs

We often encounter that Limiting Beliefs are holding us back from achieving the goals we want to achieve, from doing what is right, from becoming who we want to be. So - if we know this, why aren't we changing our beliefs? Because, very often, our beliefs define who we are, and change is hard. But there is hope. What could we do?

Limiting Beliefs

Let's start by defining limiting beliefs - a belief confining us, or reducing our options in some way. We all hold limiting beliefs, and there are some of them that we shouldn't even change. So - when exactly are limiting beliefs an issue? A simple and quick answer: when we should be doing something that's hard or impossible because of a specific belief we subscribe to.

Let's use an example to illustrate our case:

Say, Tom is a manager and he believes that: "Developers can't test their own software." This belief is limiting, because it stops all beliefs, decisions and actions built on the idea that "developers do test their own software.

The problem with limiting beliefs

As long as Tom holds this belief, he can't support the ideas of, for example, TDD or Continuous Delivery, because these are in conflict with his belief. And beliefs aren't like clothes - we can't change them at whim. Here's what we're dealing with:

Belief networks

Limiting beliefs don't simply stop one change, they are often part of a complex web of other beliefs that reinforce the limiting belief, and which would be incomplete, incoherent or even inconsistent if that limiting belief was changed - so we can't just replace one belief without examining its context: "Why do you hold this belief?

Supporting beliefs

In Tom's example, we might find other supporting beliefs - such as the Theory X idea, "Without being controlled, developers will try to sneak poor quality into Production, and then we have to deal with the mess."


Tom is probably a reasonable person, and his belief was most likely anchored by a past experience - there were major incidents when developers did cut corners, and these incidents forced Tom to adopt a policy of separating out development and test, and that ebbed the tides.

Negative hypothetical

Let's ask Tom, "What would happen without a separation of development and test?" - and he'd most likely refer back to his anchor experience, "We would have major incidents and wouldn't get any more work done because of continuous firefighting." - and it's hard to argue his case, because it's consistent with his experience.

Conjunction Fallacy

Let's ask Tom an inconspicious question to figure out what Tom thinks is more likely: "Which scenario do you think is more probable: that a developer creates a mess, or that a developer who tests their own code creates a mess?" - Tom will probably answer that it's the latter. This, however, is fallacious, because developers testing their own code are a subset of developers, a special case: if that was Tom's answer, he would (probably unknowingly) subscribe to the idea that developer tests increases the probability of poor results!

Confirmation Bias

Now, let's assume that we manage to convince Tom to make an experiment and let developers take control of quality - we're all human, and we all make mistakes. Tom will feel that the first mistake developers make confirms his belief, "See - we can't. I told you so.

Selection Bias

Of course, not everything an autonomous developer will deliver is going to be 100% completely broken, but Tom will discount or dismiss this, because "what matters is the mess they created and that we didn't prevent that from happening." - Tom will most likely ignore all the defects and incidents that he currently has to deal with despite having a separate Test Department because these aren't affirming his current belief.

Changing limiting beliefs

Given all these issues, we might assume that changing beliefs is impossible.

And indeed, it's impossible to change another person's beliefs. As a coach, we can't and shouldn't even try to do this: it's intrusive, manipulative and most likely not even successful. Instead, what we can do is: support the individual holding a limiting belief in going beyond the limits of their current beliefs.

Here's a process pattern we could use to help Tom get beyond his limiting belief:

1 - Write down the limiting belief
When you spot a critical limiting belief in coaching, write it down. Agree with the coachee that this is indeed the limiting belief they're holding.

2 - Ascertain truth
Truth is a highly subjective thing, it depends on beliefs, experiences and perception. What we want here is not "The truth," but what the coachee themselves asserts to be true: "Do you believe this is certrainly true?" - "What makes you so sure it's true?" - "Could there be cases where this isn't true?"

This isn't about starting an argument, it's about getting the person to reflect on why they're subscribing to this limiting belief.

3 - Clarify the emotional impact

Let's ask Tom, "What does holding this belief do to you?" - and he may answer: "I know what I need to do, that gives me confidence." - but likewise: "I am upset that we can't trust developers on their quality."

We hold onto beliefs both because and despite how they affect us. There's always good and bad, and we often overlook the downsides. Most likely, Tom has never considered that he's carrying around some emotional baggage due to his belief. Until Tom comes to realize that this belief is actually limiting him, and also negatively affecting him, he has no motivation to change it.

4 - Clarify consequences

 Next, we'd like to know from Tom where the limiting belief will put him in the long term: "When we look back, 10 years from now - where will you be if you keep this belief?"

We would like Tom to explore the paths he can't go down because of his limiting belief - for example, "We still won't have a fully automated Continuous Deployment - and I will be held responsible for this." Tom needs to see that his current belief is going to cause him significant discomfort in the future.

5 - Surface the Cost of Not Changing

We're creatures of habit, and not changing is the default. We first and foremost see the cost of change, because that's immediate and discomforting. And we ignore the cost of not changing, so our default would be that we have no reason to change anything.

Tom must see the costs of persevering in his current beliefs, so we ask: "What's the cost - to you - in 10 years, if you don't change this belief?" - a mindful Tom might realize that he'll get passed up for career opportunities, or might even get replaced by someone who will bring new impulses. The more vivid Tom can paint the upcoming pain, the more determined he will be in wanting to change.

And that's the key: As long as Tom himself has no reason to change his belief, he won't. But we can't tell him what his reasons should be. Tom has to see them by himself, and in a way that is consistent with his other beliefs.

6 - Paint a brighter future

Tom may now be depressed, because in his current belief system, he's doomed: there's no hope. So let's change Tom's reality. Let's ask him, "If you change this belief, what would you be and do?" - Tom might be skeptical, but will tell us some ideas on his mind, "I'd give devs permission to test their own code." - "I wouldn't enforce strict controls on developers." - "I wouldn't be known as the only person in this company insisting on stage-gating.

We can then follow this up with, "How would you feel if this could be you?" - if we get positive responses like, "Less stressed, more appreciated" - we're moving in the right direction. If we get negative responses like, "Stupid, Unprofessional" - then there's another, deeper rooted limiting belief and we have to backtrack.

7 - Redefine the belief by its opposite

Let's ask Tom, "What's the opposite of this belief?" - and Tom would answer, "Developers can test their own code." Tom needs to write this down on a card, and keep it with him all the time.

8 - Reinforce the new belief

Every day, Tom should read this card and look for evidence that this opposite belief is true. For example, Tom can find out which people hold this opposite belief, and how it works for them. 

At a minimum, Tom should just take a minute and sit back in calm, take out the card and read it to himself - and then repeat this new belief to another person.

As coach, we can challenge Tom to repeat the new belief back to us frequently, and to provide small stories and anecdotes about what he has said and done based on this different belief.

9 - Reflection

After one month, reflect with Tom what difference thinking and acting based on this opposite belief has made, and how often he lapsed back into thinking and acting based on his limiting belief. Under ideal circumstances, Tom will have success stories based on his new belief - these are a great basis for reflecting whether this new belief can serve him better than his former, limiting belief.

Even if Tom sees no difference, he already has evidence that his original belief may not be true.

If Tom is still struggling, he may need more time to be convinced. 

Closing remarks

Even with a formal process for belief change, we're not guaranteed to rewire or reeducate others. We respect and enjoy freedom of thought and differences in belief, and the best we can do is highlight consequences, reinforce and provide feedback.

If we see that people choose to cling to old beliefs and habits despite all our attempts at supporting them, we have to ask at a meta level what the difficulties are, and whether our support is even desired. We're not in the business of messing with other people's heads - we're in the business of supporting them in being more successful at achieving what they want, and in coming to realize what that actually is.

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