As we head into a new year with good intentions, we ask what successful habit change techniques could also apply to leadership development and behaviour change?
With 2019 underway many of us are resolving to make some positive lifestyle changes. But as everyone knows, new year resolutions can be hard to stick to. However, some people do stick to them so what lessons can we learn from positive habit change and which of these are helpful for leadership development?
The way we eat, exercise, interact with others and lead our lives is habitual. One of the functions of the brain is to reserve energy so we create pathways that mean we can lead our day to day lives almost without thinking. So, for us to change habits we need to change our thinking and create new pathways in our brain.
The three phases below can help:
- Diagnostic phase – spend time thinking about what we want to change and plan how we will go about this. This phase might involve setting goals and milestones. More importantly, getting clarity about what mindset or habits are driving your behaviour is more likely to achieve sustainable change rather than just resolving to go to the gym twice a week.
- Learning phase – understand and learn how to go about what it is you want to achieve. For example, reading a book or online article about how to lose weight healthily or researching the best training plan for an exercise challenge. Greater awareness of how our mindset is driving our habits enables us to learn how to manage ourselves more effectively to achieve our goals.
- Doing phase – finally putting our plans into action. The following activities summarise key findings from research to prevent derailing from our plan:
- Having intrinsic motivation which comes from clear goals and clarity about what achieving them will give us. Think about the benefits and how it will feel.
- Being flexible – being happy to try things out and change our plan if things aren’t working rather than being disheartened by the first hurdle we hit.
- Making a public commitment to do something helps to maintain motivation but also helps by winning other people’s support.
- Keeping a journal to reflect and learn on what is going well and not so well.
- Changing with others – there is lots of research that points to doing something different or new as part of a team or with someone else is more likely to stick than doing it on your own.
- Creating the right conditions – there is lots written about setting up your environment to make it easier to make changes to lifestyle such as getting rid of all sweet things from the kitchen cupboards to aid a diet or choosing an exercise regime that fits with your schedule.
If we think of sticking to new year’s resolutions as leading or managing ourselves more effectively let’s turn to how we might apply the strategies above to change how we lead others. Just like eating or exercise habits, the way we lead others can be habitual. Our leadership style reflects our personality and experiences. So, a diagnostic phase is important as it provides self awareness and raises consciousness about the impact leaders have on others and performance. Use of 360-degree feedback and psychometric tools are useful to provide this clarity. Setting achievable, clear goals about what they want to work on is also useful at this stage. Providing understanding of Emotional Intelligence (EI) is helpful. EI is about how we manage our personality so self awareness is a key element of leadership development.
The learning phase could consist of a formal leadership programme or coaching but it could also be more self-directed – so reading, TED talks or leadership forums. This stage typically provides leaders with information about how to lead, skills practice and feedback. More and more organisations are also providing development in EI learning to enable leaders to self manage in order to lead others effectively and create a positive climate.
So far so good – these first stages are the common elements of leadership development. The challenge is in the doing phase. Practice of new approaches, reflection and maintaining intention can be hard because of three main things:
- Our brain’s inclination to do things as we have always done them and insufficient incentive for leaders to go through the pain of changing their habits.
- Our concern about how others may respond to our new approaches.
- Barriers (perceived or real) in the organisation that mean new ways of working are hard to implement.
A good example of this is coaching. Many organisations provide coaching skills development for their leaders. Moving from a directive leadership style to a coaching style is quite a shift – one that requires us to think and behave in a different way. It will feel quite different for the people who work for us and many work environments don’t actively enable coaching.
Many of the things that help us make lifestyle changes apply equally well to leadership development:
- Fundamentally changing habits and sustaining change starts from the inside out. Awareness of underlying mindset helps leaders to understand what is driving their behaviour and how to adapt mindset to achieve their goals.
- Having clear goals – just as for lifestyle change, having clarity about how we want to be as leaders is a key enabler of behaviour change. These goals could be linked to organisational goals, but leaders also need to have personal goals, so they are intrinsically motivated to change.
- Just as you would approach a fitness regime as a process, seeing leadership development as a journey and not an event is key to success. Unfortunately, this can be where our view of leadership diverges from our view of fitness. There can be an expectation that a two-day workshop can transform leadership effectiveness. Just as a two-day boot camp might kick start a fitness programme, leadership workshops need to be part of an overall long-term programme.
- Keeping a journal and regularly reflecting learning is a useful tool as it enables leaders to draw valuable learning from day to day work.
- Being flexible – being happy to try things out and reflect is also important and for leaders’ regular feedback can really help as well as a way to reflect. Having a coach or a trusted colleague is useful for this.
- A public commitment – sharing what you want to change with your manager or your team will mean you are more likely to stick to the plan.
- Changing with others – leadership cohorts or forums provide moral support as well as powerful sources of learning. Research indicates that where organisations enable opportunities for leaders to share ideas and learn together, they are more likely to see impactful leadership development. Leaders learn a lot with and from others.
- Finally, just as changing habits in a way that works for your lifestyle, leadership development needs to be linked to the business context in which leaders are working. If leaders find themselves in environments which don’t align to the stated messages about leadership and development, then they will revert to old habits.