Today’s Big Idea—Research identifies six stages of change people pass through when trying to change their behavior. Leaders need to understand these stages in order to make changes in their own lives, and help others grow.

For almost 10 years, I worked as a psychologist in a maximum-security prison. And during that time, I spent most of my time working with inmate-patients in Security Housing Units (formerly known as solitary confinement).

Some of them were highly motivated to change their lives, some not at all.

One of the inmates—I’ll call him Dave—had a gift for causing problems, even from his highly secure cell.

Among many challenges he posed for the prison administration, he had a rare gift for smuggling cellphones into the prison, which he sold to other inmates. He also managed to run an escort service in the community from his prison cell—using the cell phone he was not permitted to have. If only he had directed his persistence toward constructive goals!

On one occasion, he even obtained a staff phone list, which he used to make calls to staff members. He posed as a correctional officer and was so convincing that he actually got several staff members to give him their credit card numbers, which he used to order packages that he had delivered to his prison cell!

Still another time, he demonstrated that he could take his handcuffs off in about two seconds and declared, “Don’t worry Doc, if I see anyone try to mess with you, I’ve got your back.” I never knew what to expect when I would go see him, but it sure made our appointments exciting.

Needless to say, Dave was not in the mental health system to make positive changes in his life or get help with major mental illness.

If I had expended all my energy on the Dave’s of the prison system, I might have neglected true patients that desperately needed help.

In fact, it was painful to watch less savvy clinicians expend all of their time and energy on inmates just like Dave—and quickly burned out in the process.

Research on stages of change

In 1994, a team of psychologists released their bestselling book—Changing for Good –that summarized their research on the stages people typically pass through when attempting to make changes in their lives (Prochaska, Norcross, and DiClemente). Several more books have subsequently been released in 2012 and 2016 with updates to their approach.

This approach has been called “arguably the dominant model of health behavior change” (although I should note there are critics of the model).

It was originally developed for highly ingrained behaviors such as smoking and weight loss.

Below are the stages they identified:

  1. Pre-Contemplation—no intention to change, denial about problem
  2. Contemplation—aware of problem, but no commitment to action
  3. Preparation—person intends to take action
  4. Action—active attempts to change
  5. Maintenance—sustained new habits
  6. Relapse—falls back into old behavior

They argue that interventions should be appropriate to the specific stage of change, or one’s level of readiness and commitment.

Don’t try to take everyone with you

Let’s go back to Dave for a moment—he was clearly in Pre-Contemplation—i.e. no intention to change and did not see anything wrong with his behavior.

As a leader, I think this model can also serve as a powerful tool for deciding when, and with whom, to invest your energy.

Leadership expert John Maxwell frequently says that spending time investing in your team is the single best thing you can do to extend your influence, create more impact, and ensure the success of your organization in the future.

But after 40 years of experience mentoring others, Maxwell issues a clear warning—“Do not try to take everyone with you on the journey.”

Life is short, and time is precious. So be selective about who you take with you on your leadership journey. Because who you choose to invest in will determine the speed and scope of your impact.

I want to add one caveat. I believe that part of living a good life is helping people who are stuck in destructive behaviors, and they may not realize it (more on this later using Motivational Interviewing).

However, if you invest all of your time with people who aren’t interested in changing at all, the odds are high that you will burn out and see very little return on your investment.

I would encourage you to find ways to balance your investments in people so that you can stay energetically buoyant—so that you can bring your best self to work and home.

Turn information into action

  1. Identify the stage you or your team member might be in.
  2. Leverage strategies and energy that are appropriate to the particular stage. (Example—you might provide articles to read or group training to a team member who shows little motivation to grow or change, but not invest much one-on-one time).
  3. Invest more time in the people in Preparation or Action stages, and above.
  4. When you are assessing up and coming leaders, try testing their commitment and motivation by giving test assignments—and see how they respond.
  5. If you want your leader to invest time with you, make sure you demonstrate behaviors consistent with the preparation or action phase!

Have a great weekend!

Parker

*If you have enjoyed Parker’s blog, check out The Next Peak Podcast that Parker co-hosts. We interview successful leaders and discuss research-based principles that help people win in the workplace without compromising the things that matter most—relationships, a life of purpose, and health.

Suggested resources

  1. Changing For Good—A Revolutionary Six-Stage Program for Overcoming Bad Habits and Moving Your Life Positively Forward: Prochaska, Norcross, and DiClemente
  2. The 360 Leader—John Maxwell

Parker Houston

Dr. Parker Houston is a board-certified Organizational Psychologist and Leadership Performance Coach. His personal mission is to improve the way people live and work by helping them apply science-based strategies for personal, family, and workplace leadership—in that order. *Opinions expressed are the author's own.
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