Shaping That Inner Voice

A topic that often comes up while discussing behavioral consequences with leaders is that of self-consequences. In other words, can a person provide consequences to themselves for their own behavior? The answer to that question is yes and in fact we each do precisely that hundreds or even thousands of times per day. Perhaps more importantly, those self-consequences are particularly powerful in terms of the impact they have on our behavior, in large part because they are immediate—they happen during or very soon after the behavior in question. Immediate consequences tend to have a stronger impact on our behavior.

Self-consequences are what we say to ourselves, either positive or negative about our own behavior, and are typically the most immediate source of feedback on the effectiveness of our actions. Oftentimes this form of feedback is called "self-talk," "covert verbal behavior," or "an inner voice."

A fair amount of what we do (and don’t do) is shaped by that inner voice—for better or worse. That inner voice can be exceptionally harsh and critical, providing a fairly high rate of negative consequences; or it can be fairly encouraging when we notice that something we did went really well or sounded good. Maybe we got a big laugh, or a great reaction and take a victory lap as we relive the moment in our heads. For most of us, each day is comprised of some combination of both positive and negative self-consequences throughout the day.

A fascinating thing about that inner voice is that it is often not exclusively our own. That inner voice actually begins as an external voice. The patterns of things we tend to say to ourselves are actually combinations of things we have heard others say to us—the things that we have heard parents, siblings, coaches, teachers, mentors, colleagues, bosses say to us about our actions and outcomes. In our lifetime, we accumulate hundreds of thousands of such comments and over time they form the bulk of what we say to ourselves about our own behaviors and results. The feedback we have gotten from others, consistently over time, often becomes the feedback that we will tend to give to ourselves as well. If we frequently hear what we are doing isn’t good enough, we start telling ourselves that as well. Similarly, if people around us often point out what we have done well, or what might have had a positive impact; we will start to notice more of that on our own. Our inner voice is very much a function of external voices in our immediate environment.

This is an important point about our leadership: The feedback we provide to others may impact both their immediate behavior as well as how they provide feedback to themselves down the road. In other words, we play a critical role in shaping their inner voice through the patterns of feedback we provide. If we are in the habit of frequently noticing what is wrong, broken, unsafe, or inadequate; we run the risk of shaping the inner voice of others to do something very similar. Conversely, if we are in the habit of providing a high frequency of positive feedback or catching people doing things right, there is a greater likelihood their inner voice does the same.

How we choose to prompt, remind, encourage, counsel, challenge, or exhort matters not just for the behavior in the moment, but also in the voice we leave behind in others. A little piece of what we say stays with them and becomes a part of their inner voice. It becomes part of the pattern of what they say to themselves when they feel they have done something well. It can shape their ability to notice when they have made progress or had an important impact on others, a process, or an outcome.

That inner voice has the ability to dramatically affect their behavior as much as any other source of consequences in their environment.

As leaders, we have incredible potential to shape current and future behavior by how we choose to shape the internal voice of others. We can shape an inner voice that tends toward recognizing progress or success, or one that focuses on worry, regret, or failure.

This is why trending toward positive reinforcement and encouragement (catching people doing things right) as opposed to criticism and finding fault, is important. When we spend more time catching people doing things right, we increase the likelihood of shaping an internal voice that recognizes what people are doing well, how they have made progress or improvement, or how they have contributed to making systems or processes better. We can shape an internal voice that taps into discretionary effort and pushes performers above and beyond what is expected. It promotes creativity, taking the extra step, and discovering new and better practices.

Perhaps the most powerful thing we can do as leaders is to shape a positive and productive inner voice.

Posted by Tim Nolan, Ph.D.

Tim Nolan is a trusted advisor to business and organizational leaders, partnering with his clients to achieve the outcomes they seek for themselves and for their businesses.