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Don’t Get Boxed-In

​In the webpage on Why Coaching, Max remained oblivious to the need to become transformable in spite of what he later realized where growing signs of mysterious deficiencies accumulating for him, and you likely also notice these same amorphous “soft” success factors. While his habitual aggressive behavior and his inability to maximize the execution effectiveness of his team were serious problems, the deficiency that finally ended his executive career was his inability to make timely culture changes. Far from being an outlier, Max’s inability to make methodical culture changes is the norm for business leaders today because they have lacked an understanding of the opaque automatic mental processes involved.

Besides the auto-self activities that Max recognized in retrospect, you likely have heard about “thinking outside of the ‘box’.” This is yet another example of a strange phenomenon that business people and society discuss but you probably don’t understand well enough to manage effectively. Just what is this box? Where is it located? How do you go about changing the contents of this enigmatic box when business needs require us to “think outside of its current constraints”?

The “box” is just a colloquial name that indirectly identifies various ways in which auto-contexts manifest themselves for us. You will learn below about the nature of auto-contexts (of which business cultures are just one form) and how to manage them. As a business leader, you will increasingly become a Max or Maxine as the need to understand automatic human activities, and especially the many ways auto-contexts impact successes, inevitably escalates, including becoming able to manage the proverbial “box” directly.

Poorly understood and managed auto-contexts are responsible for many career derailments and most business failures because very few leaders know how to change cultures rapidly enough and that problem is increasing due to the explosion of technologies and the coronavirus pandemic. However, conquering auto-contexts provides the greatest opportunity for repeated career and business successes in the future.

Fortunately, with 2Selfs Theory, we now have the ability to understand and manage cultures and other forms of auto-contexts because two decades into the 21st century, business environments have crossed a critical threshold where directly managing auto-contexts has become imperative.

How Could We Have Missed It?

Auto-contexts are one of four types of auto-self activities identified by 2Selfs Theory. Most coaches either provide advice or attempt to transform counterproductive auto-behaviors. However, the business community needs to understand and accept that auto-contexts are even more determinative of future career and business successes than auto-behaviors because the unstoppable escalation of technology-driven disruptions in the business environment now requires that business leaders learn to make auto-context reconstructions ever more frequently. 


Auto-contexts are fundamental assumptions, beliefs, or certainties about the nature of the world about us. They provide the auto-self-based foundation upon which our thinking-self can normally solve problems and manage our business processes and strategies. When our situation requires that we solve novel problems, create disruptive business processes, or make revolutionary changes to our strategies, we must transform these foundational auto-contexts.

Since auto-contexts are determinative of successes, why have we failed to conquer these potent mental activities before now? We can identify two top-level properties of auto-contexts that previously caused this lack of control. First, along with other types of auto-self activities, auto-contexts are elusive – that is, they take place outside of our normal awareness and therefore we don’t directly notice their operations and consequences – they are not readily accessible to our thinking-self. Second, and even more devastating, auto-contexts are extremely illusive – that is, they frequently cause us to experience potent certainties that are untethered to realities outside of our mind or to our success needs.


The Auto-Self Property That Creates the Power of Auto-Contexts

Whereas the main auto-self property that creates the power of auto-behaviors and impedes their transformations is the Comfort Imperative, the equivalent auto-self property for auto-contexts is the certainty illusion. These insidious certainty illusions manifest themselves in many compelling ways including as theories, assumptions, beliefs, and assertions. They also appear in several forms including problem-solving worldviews, business cultures, personal and shared attitudes, and self-images. As you will soon see, if we narrow auto-contexts to theories with regard to problem-solving worldviews in the domain of science, we get what Thomas Kuhn called paradigms (in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions). Certainty illusions derive their power because they are the result of embedded auto-contexts so that even those who have them don’t recognize it. The deceptive nature of auto-contexts arises because people experience their certainty illusions independent of whether they actually correspond with anything outside of their internal mental state.

We use the term “certainty illusion” to identify the auto-context property of creating certainties independent of whether they correspond anything outside of the mind. When we want to be more specific, we can use certainty illusion to refer to an internal belief that people have not, cannot, or do not verify currently corresponds with something outside of the mind. However, an even more dangerous auto-context property exists in certainty delusions, which are internal beliefs that have been or could be verified not to correspond with anything outside of the mind or that do not align with success needs. 


A typical lifecycle of a business-model culture element is that it starts out aligned with business needs because shared auto-contexts automatically form in the leaders of a company based on initial business successes. This auto-context transformation is an implicit, comfortable construction process. 

Gradual, Imperceptible Construction of Culture Element Aligned with Successes


As time goes on, new competition forms, additional technologies emerge, and alternative business models gain ascendancy, but the culture element remains frozen. Eventually, this prevailing culture artifact imperceptibly becomes a certainty illusion that starts to become increasingly detached from business-success realities. 

Ingrained Culture Gradually Misaligns with Evolving Business Environment


As that process continues, the certainty illusion at some point can indiscernibly morph into a certainty delusion. That is the fate suffered by many companies. If you don’t pay close attention to auto-contexts, particularly in the form of cultural alignment with evolving business environments, this will likely be the fate of your company eventually.

Ingrained Culture Fatally Misaligns with Evolving Business Environment


When fatal misalignment finally happens, business leaders still harbor the deep belief that they are winning, but that certainty illusion eventually springs an innovation deathtrap that overwhelms them. That underlying process buries so many previously successful businesses, and you will see a couple of examples below. Business leaders must learn to take decisive actions to transform the relevant part of their business culture at this point, and that requires explicitly reconstructing shared auto-contexts.

The main principle to overcome the dysfunctional effects of the Comfort Imperative is to employ the counteracting principle, which uses feelings to counteract the feelings that are driving the dysfunction as opposed to using intentions and willpower. The equivalent principle for overcoming certainty-illusion dysfunctions is to focus on the accumulation of anomalies (outcomes that don’t match the theories prediction), which is a concept that Kuhn identified with regard to noticing the growing ineffectiveness of a scientific theory, which requires a “paradigm shift.”

We Desperately Need a Paradigm Shift
in How We Understand and Manage Paradigm Shifts

The best previous work on auto-contexts was by Thomas Kuhn in his seminal book mentioned above that he wrote nearly six decades ago. Kuhn’s paradigms and paradigm shifts are frustratingly vague, which is likely why his penetrating insights never created the widespread impacts we need. Also, his normal science vs. revolutionary science is unnecessarily restrictive. With 2Selfs Theory, we understand the underlying mental processes involved in these two distinct types of problem-solving, so we can now expand Kuhn’s paradigms in three ways.

It is now imperative that we create a revolutionary change in how we understand and manage revolutionary changes.

The first way to liberate paradigms from their six decades of purgatory is to notice that they have remained mysterious and underutilized because they reside in the automatic mode of human activities. We have lacked an adequate model of this part of the mind, but 2Selfs Theory now models paradigms as a particular manifestation of auto-contexts, which are one type of auto-self activities.

Once we recognize paradigms as a specific example of one type of auto-self activity – namely, auto-contexts, we can make much greater progress.

The second way to emancipate Kuhn’s paradigms is to extend auto-contexts beyond science to business and other human endeavors including politics. Thus, Kuhn’s normal science vs. revolutionary science becomes our normal problem-solving vs. revolutionary problem-solving. The first mode relies on thinking-self activities within a fixed problem-solving worldview; the second mode involves reconstructing the auto-context-based problem-solving worldview. In colloquial terms, this auto-context reconstruction allows us to think outside of the amorphous “box” by reconstructing the old box to become a new box.

The third way to unshackle paradigms is to expand auto-contexts beyond problem-solving worldviews to encompass other types of automatic human activities including for business and politics. In business, auto-contexts also control mission and strategy cultures, personal and group attitudes, and self-images.

Culture Changes – Reconstructing a

Company’s Mission/Strategies

We can observe how making timely culture changes often leads to future successes, and why not making them frequently leads to failures, by examining the video-rental industry. Video rentals started with mom-and-pop stores renting VHS videos. Then, Blockbuster emerged with a different business model that relied on standard-looking storefronts, franchises, and volumes of scale that included early access to new movies. They then made the easy technology-driven culture change to DVDs. However, Netflix created a different business model that mailed DVDs to customers and did not charge late fees but worked on a subscription plan based on the number of simultaneous DVDs you could have.

Blockbuster was not able to make the culture change to respond to Netflix because they had invested heavily in brick-and-mortar and because their culture provided a certainty illusion for them that their business model would continue to work effectively. Then Netflix made a huge culture change in switching to a streaming service. That also represented a problem-solving worldview change because they used an emerging technology to alter the way they delivered videos.

Blockbuster may have survived the culture-lock problem of sticking with storefronts and late-return penalties as opposed to the mailing of a fixed number of DVDs of Netflix, but the failure to respond to the culture change of video streaming buried them. So stuck in their storefront business model were they that they even passed when Netflix offered to sell themselves to Blockbuster for $50 million in 2000 (how’s that for certainty-illusion myopia, Netflix market cap at the end of 2020 was $239 billion and Blockbuster has long since gone bankrupt). The articulated reason for culture lock in cases like this is that if they started streaming, it would eat away at their current business. But the real reason is the certainty illusion that their business model must be right because it had been working so well for them. After all, it was not difficult for their thinking-self to figure out that the streaming business model was going to eat away at their business, only someone else was going to get the new business.

That same culture lock took place several years earlier with the long-time iconic camera and film processor Kodak where they had tremendous internal digital-imaging capabilities but their leaders failed to launch the digital business because they claimed it would eat away at their film business, which of course happened anyway. Again, those are usually the external rationalizations – the real reasons are people feel certain they are correct due to the auto-context-based certainty illusion. I had some personal touch points with Kodak, and you can see my analysis of what happened to them in the following article:

Both of the above cases are examples of succumbing to the innovation deathtrap, which results from the inability to understand the mental straitjacket of certainty illusions. Unfortunately, as technologies become broader and come at us faster, innovation deathtraps will become increasingly ubiquitous. Business leaders must find systematic ways to overcome this certainty-illusion-caused innovation-deathtrap problem.

We can identify major differences between the establishment of the initial business culture and the realignment of it with the new business environment. The initial establishment is a gradual, automatic, comfortable auto-context construction process in the leaders of a business. It operates when the pattern of successes, along with the strong positive feelings those create, imperceptibly migrates to an auto-context. When a business reaches the point where it is fatally misaligned with the business environment, the recovery process works much differently. This time, the process must be visible and deliberate. It is not the construction of a new auto-context-based culture element, but rather the reconstruction of an existing one, which is very difficult to accomplish because it violates experienced certainties and the reconstruction process creates discomfort. As a result, this process takes explicit, focused interventions.

Annual Culture-Reconstruction Retreats


An excellent mechanism to escape innovation deathtraps is to turn the strategy formation activities into something that consistently produces valuable business results. The real value of an annual strategic planning retreat does not come from identifying incremental (normal) improvements; each operating unit and functional area is quite capable of achieving these thinking-self-based improvements within existing auto-contexts on their own. An annual retreat of top management can serve an enormously useful function if it focuses on searching out disruptive (revolutionary) processes, technologies, products, and marketing concepts within the company and using the auto-context-reconstruction processes to ensure that the culture change occurs so that the best ones get turned into new profit streams for the business. Accordingly, identifying these annual gatherings as Annual Culture-Reconstruction Retreats can focus on the real deep and quite possibly company-saving purpose. These culture-change retreats are difficult to execute effectively, so companies would do well to engage an experienced culture-change coach to facilitate the first one or two until they can sustain the process using internal resources.

Dysfunctional Attitude: “They Deserve It”

Auto-contexts impact career and business successes in other ways besides for problem-solving worldviews and business-model cultures.

William was the CEO of a mid-size design and manufacturing company. He was extremely effective at most aspects of his leadership role, but he had the dysfunctional habit of publicly humiliating his employees if they did something that displeased him.

While the common approach to transforming errant auto-behaviors is to go through a direct process as outlined in the Behavior Transformations webpage, sometimes it works better to reconstruct the auto-context-based attitude that drives a dysfunctional behavior. In probing how William experienced his overbearing behavior, he finally was able to realize that it felt to him like “they deserve it” because he paid them a lot of money and they should not make such mistakes.

I led William through understanding whether his rude behavior was getting the results he desired. “How do your outbursts empower your leadership team to do better next time?” “In what ways do your eruptions motivate or demotivate the people you deal with?” How are the recipients of your behavior likely to hear and understand what you say when their focus is on their own discomfort?” “Tell me about the candor you are likely to receive regarding questions and concerns if others fear your wrath.” After a series of such uncomfortable open questions, William decided to establish an explicit intention to change his attitude so he could stop his counterproductive behavior. This is an example of making auto-context-based certainties explicit and then searching for anomalies by using the thinking-self to evaluate correspondence, or lack thereof, with success goals.

Coaching William to construct a new auto-context to replace his dysfunctional one empowered him to stop his old dysfunctional behavior and replace it with a new empowering behavior. William actually started calling his new approach “coaching people” rather than bullying them, and this was the key process that enabled him to achieve two of his Grand Goals – reducing turnover and increasing productivity.

Unrealistic Self-Image: Shock at Receiving 360° Feedback

We discussed above the auto-context innovation-deathtrap issue of when leaders need to make a culture (or attitude) change and can’t because of the certainty illusion. This time, we are not interested in reconstructing the auto-context-based self-image that is loaded with anomalies when compared to the combined assessment of many raters. Instead, we want to align, through coaching, the actual behaviors with the leader’s rosy self-image to make that leader more effective.

Hal was a senior technical contributor at a multi-site engineering and manufacturing company. He wasn’t formally a manager because many people found it very difficult to deal with him, but he still had considerable influence because of his excellent technical capabilities. The head of HR asked me to coach Hal. It turned out that Hal had a special relationship with the CEO because he grew up in the company with him, and the CEO had very high regard for Hal’s technical expertise. I suspected that after having successfully coached several leaders in the company, the head of HR wanted me to try and fail with Hal so that he could convince the CEO to consent to firing him.

Hal and I got off to a very rocky start indeed. His 360° survey was a perfect bull’s-eye – that is, he was in the first quartile of every success factor compared to thousands of others who had taken the same survey, so on the circular graphic chart, it looked like a bull’s-eye. When I gave the feedback to Hal, he erupted. He screamed at me and chewed me out. I calmly pointed out to him that those weren’t my opinions and that I was just giving him the feedback from those who work closely with him. He was so agitated that he said he was going to the CEO and resign if that’s what all the people thought of him. 

I spent considerable time trying to calm Hal down and telling him that he would just take those issues that others identified with him to his next job, so he would be better off staying since the company was willing to invest in a coaching program for him. I urged him to accept the feedback and start the coaching process. After a long, agonizing, and apparently unsuccessful session with Hal, I retreated to my hotel because I was out of town and had to fly back the next morning.

Although I long ago trained myself to withstand aggressive behavior during the feedback report or while coaching aggressive clients, that doesn’t mean the biological fight-or-flight response doesn’t create discomfort for me. As I was decompressing from the day’s ordeal with Hal and dealing with my disappointment that I hadn’t moved him forward more effectively, my cell phone went off at about 10 PM. It was Hal, and I braced myself for additional aggression from him. However, to my pleasant surprise, Hal told me that he had calmed down and that he wanted to engage in a coaching program. He further revealed that he had phoned his wife super agitated and she told him not to come home until he settled down. As we worked through what happened to him, he told me he had a bit of an epiphany because normally when he gets angry with others, they scream back and he feels quite justified in blaming the dysfunctional interaction on them. He noted that during several hours of interactions, I steadfastly avoided hollering back at him and I did not storm out of his office to avoid his onslaught. He said he had to face the fact that much of the feedback was correct because he repeatedly displayed some of the aggressive behavior his raters said he did, and he just couldn’t find a way to blame his screaming on me.

Hal provides a very dramatic case of how we just don’t see our auto-behaviors. I have given 360° feedback to a very large number of business leaders, and I have never had one who did not get upset at some of the results – even the ones who had mostly outstanding ratings. That should not surprise us because we do not see most of our automatic activities while others not only see them but experience them and often painfully. The reason people get so upset with their feedback is because important aspects of their self-image reside in an auto-context that creates a certainty illusion, which causes cognitive dissonance when challenged by organized evaluations.

Because of the process I use to have clients log hits and misses with respect to their behavior-change intentions that we work through in our next session, both Hal and I recognized that he was making excellent progress in his behavior transformations. More importantly, on my monthly visits to coach Hal face-to-face, I would sometimes meet with Hal’s two bosses and the head of HR where we would compare notes on his progress. The magnitude of Hal’s changes surprised them. They said they didn’t expect to see any progress much less the level of positive changes he was making. Even though they were extremely impressed with Hal’s improvements, they said they expected him to revert to his old ways as soon as I stopped coaching him.

Similar to attitudes, people sometimes imperceptibly construct auto-context-based perceptions of others, so it takes an accumulation of anomalies to these perceptions before they automatically reconstruct them to align with a person’s new behavior patterns.

Fortunately, Hal stayed with me for the whole year and continued to make progress. When I did a follow-up survey with the same raters one year after I stopped coaching Hal, his combine ratings were in the 2nd to 4th quartiles, even including for his two bosses and HR, so the improvements he made endured. I checked back informally a couple of years later and received confirmation that indeed his changes were permanent.

Once Hal recovered from the trauma of the cognitive dissonance he experienced between his auto-context-based self-image (his own personal certainty illusion) and the combined ratings of his two bosses, his peers, and a group of others he interacted with, he threw himself into his coaching process with the same gusto he attacks technical problems. The results changed his career and his life.

The Future Belongs to Transformable Leaders

Whether they recognize it or not, business leaders today are facing a fork in the road caused by the massive technology-driven disruptions in the business environment. The immediately comfortable, normal, path will rely chronically on continuous incremental changes, which will cause many and probably most leaders to suffer career derailments like Max experienced. These failing leaders will also likely contribute to the demise of the businesses they help lead. The other, revolutionary, path requires venturing into unfamiliar territory where you need to understand and manage “soft” success factors including counterproductive habits, obsolete cultures, and periodic reconstructions of technology-driven problem-solving worldviews ever more rapidly. That is the transformational path for leadership accomplishments, career promotions, and repeated business successes.

The chances for a successful leadership career and for repeated successes for businesses continue to diminish as the technology disruptions caused by what the business community increasingly calls the Fourth Industrial Revolution (you can see the devastating consequences of this technology tsunami here: relentlessly crash over the business environment. In addition, the ripple effects of the coronavirus pandemic will reverberate through the business world for quite a while. These factors and many others, including the continuing rise of global competition, will require ever more frequent culture changes to business models and worldview changes to operating procedures – future leaders must become transformable to accommodate these realities.

At the minimum, successful future leaders must receive training to handle the Comfort Imperative so they can prevent themselves and those they lead from falling into the seduction traps of simplistic solutions and to learn how to overcome the increasingly debilitating impacts of certainty illusions. These two advances are fundamental components of becoming transformable leaders who can achieve repeated successes in the future.

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