Knowing Resized 2.0

How to Close the Knowing vs. Doing Gap

Over the years, I have have had the opportunity to coach many successful and talented people whose underlying thoughts and assumptions held them back.  Their inner beliefs (both conscious and unconscious) undermined their career advancement, compensation, health and personal happiness, among other things.

For example, I worked with a high performing leader who lacked the executive presence required for a senior-level position at his firm.  In his own words, he was “playing it small” and hurting his chances for promotion to the next level.

“Just Do It” Doesn’t Always Work

In our coaching sessions, we identified a number of ways in which he could enhance his executive presence.  Some of these new behaviors were easy for him to implement and could easily fall into the “just do it” category.  However, one new behavior was not so comfortable for him to implement.  It required him to speak up more and advocate for his opinions at executive committee meetings.

At the end of each coaching session, we always identified new behaviors for the client to try out in between sessions.  While he was quite good at following up and taking action, one of the new behaviors never seemed to get addressed – the one about speaking up at executive committee meetings.  He knew what he needed to do, but he couldn’t just do it.

As a result, we made speaking up at executive committee meetings a priority for our coaching and explored where his resistance was coming from.  Using the “immunity to change” methodology developed by Kegan and Lahey, we found that when presented with opportunities to speak up at high stakes meetings, the client would remain quiet.  He was letting great opportunities to influence others’ perceptions of him slip through his fingers.  But why?

Being a good coach, I probed the client about the gap between what he said he wanted and what he was actually doing (or not doing, in this case).  What we uncovered was the presence of fear and assumptions that were undermining his effort to implement new behaviors.  In this case, the client acknowledged he was afraid that “nobody will want to hear what I have to say.”  Further, his assumption was “I’m not as smart as everyone else in the room because I didn’t get an advanced degree from a top business school.”

Once we were able to identify his self-limiting beliefs, the client was able to challenge and modify them.  Our coaching work included testing new behaviors, achieving some wins, gaining confidence and, ultimately, changing behavior.  This client no longer plays it small.

Close the Knowing vs. Doing Gap

As we can see from the above referenced business example, people resist change even when they know what they must do.  In fact, we will strive to maintain the status quo even when changing our behavior could be a matter of life or death.  In this regard, Dr. Edward Miller, former dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine has been widely quoted as saying:

If you look at people after coronary-artery bypass grafting two years later, 90% of them have not changed their lifestyle. And that’s been studied over and over and over again. And so we’re missing some link in there. Even though they know they have a very bad disease and they know they should change their lifestyle, for whatever reason, they can’t.”

This is the essence of the knowing vs. doing gap.  We know what behavior we have to change, but we can’t actually get ourselves to do it.  When you are struggling to bridge the gap between knowing and doing, that’s a signal for you to pause and ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What is my goal?
  2. What behaviors prevent me from achieving my goal? This includes both things I do and things I don’t do.
  3. What are the fears that drive my behaviors (both action and inaction)?
  4. What are the beliefs and assumptions that underlie those fears?

Based on our values, beliefs and experiences we all have assumptions about the world.  Which assumptions are getting in your way?  Which one assumption, if you were able to change it, would have the most dramatic positive impact on your career and life?

Ed Franzone is an executive coach and leadership development consultant.  For more information, please visit

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Avoid the five most common failures that can derail your career.