Ep048: How to rewire your brain and help others build new habits with Meredith Bell

How to rewire your brain and help others build new habits with Meredith Bell on the TalentGrow Show podcast by Halelly Azulay

This week on the TalentGrow Show our guest is Meredith Bell, the co-founder and president of Performance Support Systems, a global software company. Meredith is passionate about helping leaders to develop strong, healthy, solid relationships that stand the test of time. On today’s episode, Meredith shares with us ways to impact company culture through change. She discusses why it’s hard to change long-held habits and how to rewire the brain to make new habits stick. Meredith also describes a specific series of coaching questions you can use to help those you lead to be successful at making a change. Meredith’s ideas are highly actionable for leaders like to you enact visible change and improvement in yourself and your workplace.

What You’ll Learn:

Listen to Stitcher
  • Adopting new behaviors is hard because old behaviors are ingrained. What makes behavior change so challenging? (6:17)
  • “The thing about the brain is there is no delete key.” (7:21)
  • In the workplace, we don’t come with a blank slate. How can we structure change in the brain? (7:32)
  • Meredith uses an analogy of a road to explain the difficulty of making new habits stick (8:21)
  • What does Meredith suggest to help you overcome the challenge of your brain wanting to revert to the comfort and familiarity of your old habits (10:52)
  • Thinking about habit change in terms of golf or tennis lessons from a coach – what’s similar? (12:30)
  • What’s a great tip that can help make change in the workplace – getting others to help you out. Meredith tells a story about the “Workplace Sentence Finisher” and how they helped him stop driving them crazy (13:07)
  • Halelly: “External accountability helps you stay the path [to change]” (14:28)
  • Why is immediate feedback crucial (but requires trust)? (15:00)
  • What can leaders do to help build and support new habits in those that they lead? (16:30)
  • What’s the difference between expectations and agreements and why is it important to focus on agreements instead of expectations for coaching others (17:10)
  • The best thing a manager should do is help guide their employee through a series of questions* where they draw their own conclusions, rather than merely give them the answer (17:51) [*see the questions in the RESOURCES section below!]
  • What’s Meredith's favorite definition of accountability? (23:14)
  • Make sure you check out Meredith’s suggestion for your next action – it’s a very specific question that she suggests you ask 3-5 specific people that will lead you to one habit you can start to build. She even suggests you can get support from those people for that new habit development. (25:40)
  • Why this action can help build not just you, but the people on your team by creating safety through modeling vulnerability – it sets an emotionally-healthy culture for innovation. Lead by example! (27:13)


About Meredith Bell

Meredith Bell has been an entrepreneur since 1982, and she’s an expert in helping companies develop the people side of their business. Meredith is co-founder and President of Performance Support Systems, a global software company based in Virginia. Their products are used by leadership consultants and coaches as well as talent development professionals to help managers become more effective leaders.

Not many people understand why it’s so hard to master a new skill or break an old habit. Meredith does. It takes a lot of PRACTICE and COACHING for a new habit to feel comfortable. Meredith and her two partners have created resources that address these two essential components – which are often missing in learning and development programs – to ensure follow-up and accountability.

One of Meredith strengths is building strong relationships. She and her business partners have worked together for 25 years, and many of their clients and resellers have done business with them for 20 years. She understands what’s required to build the loyalty and commitment that lead to repeat business and referrals. She takes pride in getting feedback like this, which is from a reseller who’s worked with her company since 1994: “Performance Support Systems is the epitome of the client-centered, high-integrity, high-support company with world class products. You could look for a lifetime and not find its equal.”


Announcer: Welcome to the TalentGrow Show, where you can get actionable results-oriented insight and advice on how to take your leadership, communication and people skills to the next level and become the kind of leader people want to follow. And now, your host and leadership development strategist, Halelly Azulay.

Halelly: Welcome back to the TalentGrow Show. I’m Halelly Azulay, your leadership development strategist and my guest this week is Meredith Bell, co-founder and president of Performance Support Systems, a global software company. Meredith and I discuss the ways in which you can change your brain to create new habits. This is really hard to do and Meredith has some pretty good insights about why it’s hard to do and how to be more successful at it. Furthermore, she shares with us really specific ways in which you can help the people that you lead create the right kind of habits and to introduce change successfully. Some really good questions – five questions – that you can use in coaching your people. So I hope that you enjoy this episode of the TalentGrow Show, and thanks for tuning in.

Welcome back, I’m Halelly Azulay, your leadership development strategist and this week my guest is Meredith Bell. She’s been an entrepreneur since 1982 and she is an expert in helping companies develop the people side of their business, which I love, because if you’ve ever looked on my website, I say that I develop the human side of work. Same thing! Meredith is the co-founder and president of Performance Support Systems, a global software company based in Virginia. Meredith, thank you for coming onto the TalentGrow Show. Welcome.

Meredith: Thank you Halelly. I’m so excited to be here with you today.

Halelly: Thank you, the excitement is mutual. Before we dig in – because there’s so much we can discuss about leadership and about coaching and building habits, I’m looking forward to our conversation, but to give people a little bit of a sense about you, why don’t you describe your professional journey as briefly as you can? Like where did you start and how did you get to where you are today?

Meredith: Oh thanks, and I will make this short. I always wanted to be a teacher, and so I started my career as a fourth grade elementary teacher. I found that the routine of that, it kind of bored me after a while, and I ended up getting my masters and then working in the school board office or what you’d call central office. After a few years of that in different school systems, I realized I was not cut out for bureaucracy or politics.

Halelly: Me either!

Meredith: So that is why, in 1982, I just kind of jumped off into my own. No safety net, no knowledge of the business world, but I knew I had these skills. I had been training teachers and helping them with communication skills and so that was always my passion, was helping people become their best selves. I decided to start a consulting and training business, and work with organizations around the people side. That meant helping people on teams get along with each other, helping leaders and just overall how does the organization serve each other better and serve the customers better by communicating well? Then I did that for a number of years and then met someone who became my business partner, Denny Coates, and we started collaborating on things and we ended up merging our two companies, bringing in a third partner to handle the operations, financial part, and the three of us have worked together now for 26 years.

And after a number of years of doing this training, Denny and I both felt the need to have a broader reach. And so we made a transition from being a consulting/training company to being a software company, and we did that in 1994, releasing our first software product, which was a 360-degree feedback tool. It’s still being used by organizations today. So my role in the company is the sales and marketing side. I’m the face of the company. I’m the relationship builder. I love building relationships over time. Some of our clients and resellers have worked with us for 20 years now and I’m really proud of that fact because it shows that they connect also with our values and our commitment to excellence.

Halelly: That’s true. And kudos on your success and on that partnership, because anyone who has ever tried to get along with another human being for an extended period of time knows that is no easy feat, right?

Meredith: That’s right. And you know what helped us is because we had, because we were teaching these skills, we used them with each other. We were able to give feedback. We were able to listen well. Because we are very, all three of us, very different. What’s happened over time is like a good marriage where you really appreciate the strengths that each person brings to the table.

Halelly: That’s great.

Meredith: We continue – I forgot to mention with our software – we continue focusing on the development of people and in particular leaders, who need to learn how to be strong communicators in order to draw out the best and inspire others to contribute their best work.

Halelly: Awesome. Thank you for the work that you do. It’s very aligned with the mission that I have, and the more the merrier people like us in the world who are trying to help people to be their best self and be good leaders that people would like to follow, as I like to say. So in your work, and in all of your experience, I know that one of the things you’ve seen is that when people try to adopt a new habit, or new skills or new behaviors, even first you have to teach them about it and get them to realize they want to make this change. But even once they do, it’s very challenging for all of us – I mean, myself included – it’s so hard to change. It’s so hard to adopt new behaviors, because the old behaviors are so engrained. So what have you found to be some of the reasons or the challenges behind people being able to change their behaviors?

Meredith: Well, as you just mentioned, we all have these established behaviors that we’ve adopted over time and what is actually happening, Halelly, is that our brains are hard wired. We actually have these physical connections in the brain related to specific habits that we have. And whether it is how we hold our tennis racquet or golf club or play a musical instrument or how we listen or don’t listen to others, all of that is wired. And so the first step is really understanding that’s what’s going on, so we have this challenge to replace what we have now with something else and the thing about the brain is, there’s no “delete” key. We wish there could be. Erase that and let’s put in something else. It doesn’t work that way. And in the workplace, none of us is coming with a blank slate. We have these habits that we’ve developed over a period of years. And so where we really started studying and learning about this is when we were doing training programs ourselves and people would be so excited and then they would go back to their jobs and nothing changed. And as we realized what was happening here, we had to devise a way to structure things differently.

One of the things that we have to do is first recognize the reality of how our brains operate. Then we need to figure out what is it we want to do differently and realize we don’t instantly create a new super highway. In fact, if I could use the road analogy, I think that would be helpful for people to understand why it is so hard. The way that we’re currently doing something, think of it as the familiar road you follow maybe from your commute, from your home to your office. You hardly have to think about it it’s so comfortable, it’s well-worn. The problem is, you start getting some bumps in the road and that particular way of doing things isn’t working well. So you decide, “All right, I am going to change.” And what you’re starting out with, with that new change, is the equivalent of a dirt road or a gravel road where you don’t have the pathways yet. It’s challenging. It’s difficult to switch over to that other way. Because it isn’t engrained yet, to use the word you mentioned earlier. So what we have to do is practice over and over again in order to develop that gravel road or dirt road into a super highway.

But here’s why it’s so hard. It’s because that other comfortable road is parallel to that gravel road, and every now and then it gets real tempting to just hop over onto that convenient road instead and revert back to the old way, because that’s comfortable. What makes it so challenging is that new way is awkward, it’s uncomfortable, it’s causing us to get out of our comfort zone from what’s familiar. If we don’t have the practice and reinforcement over time, then it’s very easy to revert back to what we’ve always done.

Halelly: So it sounds like what you’re suggesting is in addition to mapping out where you want the new road to be, and then you have to begin to take that road, but then by practice you mean keep going on that road, despite the attraction to the old path, and despite the awkwardness of that new road. Keep traveling that road. Are there any other things that people can do to help them stay on that very uncomfortable new road? As you said, your body, your brain, everything about you is so oriented toward comfort and familiarity of that old way that it’s going to pop up all kinds of barriers that will try to maneuver you onto that tried and true path. What do you suggest, or what have you seen work for people to stick to it?

Meredith: Well, first of all, you have to be aware that you want to move from this way of doing things to the other way and then you have to make the commitment to do it. Sometimes it’s that, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired. This other way isn’t working. It’s creating enough discomfort or pain for me that I’m motivated.” So you need to find out what does the better way look like? Find out what is the new model that I want to adopt and then make a commitment to it? So it’s a decision point that you say, “I’m going to go with this and I’m not going to get discouraged when I can’t do it correctly, 100 percent of the time.” Because just like learning anything, it takes that practice and setbacks to find out, okay, what worked here and what didn’t? If you recognize that those kinds of … and I don’t want to label it with a negative word, but when it doesn’t go as well as you hoped or you fall off track, you recognize this is normal. So you don’t expend a lot of negative energy beating yourself up, letting that inner critic jump in and start going, “You should have done this, why didn’t you do that?” Just saying, “Okay, here’s what I learned from this,” and then get back on track with it.

Also, recognizing that it’s going to take repetition and practice. You didn’t get here overnight with the other way of doing it. It’s something you developed over years. If you think about it, if you ever get lessons from a golf coach or a tennis pro who shows you how to do something correctly, well, after they’ve shown you that, you don’t automatically do that great every time you go to hit the racquet or hit the ball or swing your golf club. You’ve got to keep practicing that, and that old way keeps wanting to creep back in, so it’s that persistence with just doing it and practicing it, and I think in the workplace, Halelly, one of the key things is letting other people know what you’re going to be working on. I’ll give you a real example. Among our partners, one of our partners wanted to interrupt or finish sentences and it was driving the other two of us kind of crazy. What we did is, he said, “I really want to work on this,” and so we just came up with some signals like holding our hand up if he started to jump in, or just say, “Please let me finish.” It was a cue to him to remind him, “Uh oh, I’m jumping in and interrupting.” So if you’re making a commitment that you want to improve a particular aspect of how you communicate with others, then I think being up front with them and telling them, “Here’s what I’m working on,” and asking them to support you as you’re working on that, so you become more aware of instances where you might tend to jump into your old way of doing it. It’s extremely valuable, because then you feel supported and not frustrated with yourself or with other people.

Halelly: That’s a great suggestion. I think it addresses a couple of other needs that you have, not only to feel supported, but a lot of times external accountability helps you stay the path, because the main ways you mentioned that people can really do this is that sort of internal self talk. You’ve got to commit to it and you’ve got to persist, even though it’s hard, and that’s stuff on the inside. We’re all human, so sometimes you feel weak or you feel like you want to give up. So having something external helps to fortify you when maybe your inner voice is not doing enough. The other thing I can hear in that suggestion is also that there are studies that show for learning, getting immediate feedback is one of the things that helps people learn the best. So when someone else is watching, like I love your example, when you are giving your third partner that signal, that’s in the moment performance feedback. So it helps to immediately correct, and the tennis coach would do the same. They would not just let you keep doing it wrong for a long time and then later say, “Hey, by the way, for the last half hour you’ve been doing it this way and that’s not the way.” You’d give immediate feedback so the person can immediately course correct.

Meredith: Yes, and I think that takes a certain amount of trust between people, where you feel confident they have your best interests at heart. It’s a mutual commitment to each other and it helps you to not take it personally. You don’t let your ego get in the way and go, “I was right about this.” It’s not a right or wrong. It’s how can I be present with this person and interact in a way that’s going to help us move along in a positive way in our relationship and in the results we’re trying to achieve?

Halelly: I agree, that’s so important. So let’s say our listeners, many of them are currently leading others, or aspiring to lead others, so as you’re thinking about it, so far we’ve talked about how to change yourself. But as a leader, a lot of times you’re coaching others and helping them learn new skills, adopt new behaviors. So what would you suggest to leaders that they can do to help build and support the development of new skills and habits in those that they lead?

Meredith: Oh, I love that question, because it is so important to be in that coaching role where you’re helping to guide people in their development. So one of the things is just thinking about being clear up front and reaching agreements on what is going to be done. I love the contrast between expectations and agreements, where in an expectation, you’re setting yourself up to be disappointed because often you have not had buy-in necessarily from the other person. So up front, getting agreement with the other person about what it is they want to change or do differently and what would that look like? So you’re both really clear on what the person is going to start doing or stop doing, whatever the area is. And then inevitably, there are going to be times when the person doesn’t quite meet that performance measurement. And so I think a key thing that they manager can do is guide the person through a series of questions that allow them to learn from the experience. And this, again, it becomes a new habit, often times for the manager, because sometimes managers feel that we’ve got to provide the answer, the solution, and save time, be most efficient. Where in reality, the best thing we can do to help that person going forward is help guide them through a series of questions where they draw their own conclusions and learn from that experience.

So, I can share the specific questions that we recommend people go through, either for themselves, but also in coaching others, if you think that would be helpful?

Halelly: Oh yeah, definitely. The more specific the better.

Meredith: Oh great. Yes, because people can jot these down and use them. They don’t have to be used in this rigid order, but you want to cover these main elements. And the first two questions get at both the left and right brain. The left-brain question has to do with, “Tell me what happened?” Here you’re trying to get the sequence of events so you understand the facts of this situation. But then you also want to be sure to ask, “How did you feel about that?” So, you get them, because they can describe the facts, but if you don’t find out what their emotional reaction was to that, there’s an element missing there. So it’s important to get at both aspects of it. Once you have that, then the next question would be, “Why did it happen that way?” So, you’re drawing out from them what maybe their motivations were for why they said what they did or took the action they did. And so it just kind of peels it back a little bit, deeper than just the surface facts. And then looking at, “Okay, so that’s why it happened that way. Now, what were the consequences? How did it turn out? What was the outcome?” And getting them to think about is that how you wanted it to come out?

Because that kind of analysis is so important, again, for processing the whole situation and learning from it for the next time, because the next question is, “Based on what we’ve talked about, what would you do differently in a similar situation in the future? How would you handle that?” So it gives them the opportunity to do the analytical thinking that’s so important, because what happens too often is we don’t do this kind of processing and learning from our experiences, and so we go from thing to thing to thing, repeating the same mistakes and guess what? That means reinforcing that habit we have of doing it that particular way. Whereas if we pause and take time to analyze it, this is a way of supporting that reprogramming of the brain. So we’re learning a new and different way to do it that we can try next time and now we’ve got this support of this other person who has not only asked us these questions, but hopefully has contributed some things as they’ve listened to us to help us come up with an even more effective approach the next time.

Halelly: I want to tie this back to what you were talking about being clear about expectations. Do you do that before these questions or are the expectations set after you ask them?

Meredith: Well, you know, it could actually be both. Because when you think about a person’s performance and getting back to how can someone help coach someone else, well, first is establishing agreements. Whether it’s the beginning of a new project or if it’s a new person coming on, taking on additional responsibilities in their job or a new employee, to sit down and together agree upon those basic ways of being or the outcomes that are expected in terms of the results they’re going to be producing, so that together, when you’re setting up with someone what you want them to do, and what they’re going to do, you give them a chance up front to say whether they feel like they have all the resources they need, if they’re going to be able to make the deadline. So you talk about that up front and then you have the project going on and things happen along the way, and that’s where you can ask these questions as you encounter situations where there’s been an obstacle or a setback or a deadline missed or something that didn’t go well. And so that’s where you can sit down and analyze this and maybe at the end of it, you’re coming up with a new agreement. Because circumstances have changed and they require you to make adjustments, whether it’s extending the deadline or getting more staff to help with whatever it is. But it’s keeping that communication open and helping the person feel like you’re there for them. You know, Halelly, my favorite definitely of accountability is count on me. Because it goes both ways. The person who is performing is saying, “You can count on me to get this done,” but then the manager who is coaching the person is also saying, “You can count on me. I’m in your corner. Yes, I’m going to be checking on you and making sure you do the things that you committed to do, but I’m here to support you.” And I think asking questions like these help the person feel supported as they are processing situations that have not turned out well.

Halelly: Got it. Great, thank you for sharing those questions. I think that’ll be really helpful to folks. Before we wrap up with your one specific action people can take and also we’ll talk about how to learn more and stay in touch with you, what’s something new and exciting on your horizon? What’s got you most energized these days?

Meredith: You know, some of the folks that I’ve been meeting on LinkedIn are just remarkable people. I used LinkedIn a lot to build my network and I just get the greatest excitement introducing people to other people where it’s a potentially tremendous benefit to both parties. Whether it’s introducing a guest to a podcast host or someone who has developed an important program that I think would benefit this other organization that I know, I just love connecting people. So that’s one piece and the other part of meeting wonderful people is discovering folks who really become passionate about what we’re doing, which is using an online coaching and development platform to help create stronger leaders who actually do change their behavior over time because of the way we’ve got our program structured, where they interact differently with the people who report to them, and there’s nothing, I guess, that gives me a greater sense of satisfaction in my life and in my work than feeling like I’m really helping people form better, stronger relationships.

Halelly: Love it. Great. Meredith, what’s one specific action that listeners can take today, tomorrow, this week, that’s going to move them in the right direction in terms of ratcheting up their leadership skills? What would be one thing you would suggest they do?

Meredith: I suggest that they identify three to five people that they could go to and ask this one question – what one thing would you like me to do differently that would help make our work together a more satisfying experience for you? Or a more enjoyable experience for you? Because we all have blind spots, and whatever it is that they learn from those individuals, then take that and come up with one habit that they are going to work on to become more effective with those folks and then on an ongoing basis, as they learn a better way to do it, and start practicing it to enlist the help of those same individuals, to keep them on track as to how they’re doing with it. It’s amazing how changing one small thing can make a huge difference, simply because we weren’t aware that what we were doing was causing problems for others.

Halelly: And what a virtuous cycle that creates, because you’re enlisting people in giving you the feedback, then you’re enlisting them in helping you develop the new skills and keeping you accountable, and so it gives those people the satisfaction to see that you really do intend to follow-up on what they’ve given you and making that effort. I think it just builds everybody up, no matter where they stand in that.

Meredith: And it does, and you know what else it does? It really enhances, if this is with people on your team, it helps build the team and makes them feel safe, because they see you being willing to be vulnerable and humble. Acknowledging that you’re not perfect, so it makes it okay for them to not be perfect. It just sets for me a very emotionally healthy culture where people feel free to try things and innovate and not be concerned about, “Oh, what if I make a mistake?”

Halelly: Great. Lead by example. I love it. Meredith, it’s been fun talking to you and I appreciate you sharing your insights with our listeners. How can people stay in touch with you, learn more about you?

Meredith: The best way is probably to go to my LinkedIn profile because I’m on LinkedIn quite a lot. And I would love to connect with them there. To learn about our specific online coaching and development tool, the website is strongforperformance.com.

Halelly: Okay, and I will put those links in the show notes as well as a way to get the questions that Meredith shared with us, and so I appreciate you. Thank you for your time on the TalentGrow Show, Meredith, and everyone listening, thank you for listening.

Meredith: It was my pleasure to be with you Halelly. Thank you for having me.

Halelly: Absolutely. I hope that you found that beneficial and that you will take action based on Meredith’s suggestion. I appreciate that you’ve been listening to the TalentGrow Show and I hope that you’ve joined our community on Facebook. It’s a growing community of TalentGrowers, people who listen to this how and are interested in taking their leadership skills to the next level, and I want you to be a part of that community. We support each other, we help each other grow, and you can contribute and benefit from it. If you haven’t heard yet, I’m really proud that the TalentGrow Show has been selected to be featured on the C-Suite Radio Network of podcasts. These are podcasts from the world’s leading business podcasts for C-Suite leaders, business executives and entrepreneurs, and it features premium content from top thought leaders, designed to increase knowledge, deepen understanding and build skills to enhance your personal and professional lives. So check out C-Suite Radio at c-suiteradio.com. And if you’re not receiving my weekly newsletter, please come on over to the show notes page where I have links to everything we mentioned in this episode, as well as how to keep in touch with Meredith, plus a very easy way for you to sign up. You will receive my free download which is “The 10 mistakes that leaders make and how to avoid them,” and that will sign you up for my free, fun, short and very actionable newsletter. So that’s over on TalentGrow.com/podcast/episode48. Thank you for listening to the TalentGrow Show. I appreciate you. Until the next time, make today great.

Announcer: Thanks for listening to the TalentGrow Show, where we help you develop your talent to become the kind of leader that people want to follow. For more information, visit TalentGrow.com.

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