Where Do Habits Lead?
One thing that is very clear for me is that the actions, habits and behaviors that got us to the point we are today, will not move us to and through the next level of complexity.
Habits are an artifact of the past. Most of us likely have habits that were developed when we were young, and we are still “sticking” to them. We learned habits early on in our life so we would attain success. We found something we were good at and started to develop skills and techniques to maintain success. What a fantastic approach! Likely these skills and techniques created a pathway for us to become who we are today. The process that created our “super powers”, or our genius, is within us!
Those behaviors have worked for many years and we have likely enhanced them on the job, been promoted and so forth. Allow me to share an example:
George is a civil engineer and has used his mathematical prowess to solve many problems. As a result, he was given more complex problems and he solved those as well. Eventually, George became so good at solving problems he was promoted to the position of Senior Civil Engineer and began solving others’ problems or helped them to solve their problems. Because George was so successful at his work, he was given a big raise and promoted to become the Engineering Department Manager. George is a problem solver of processes, equations and engineering challenges. As George tries to utilize these same skills with people, he fails. Why? The habits (albeit great habits) that worked to solve the problems associated with soil, rock, and structures don’t translate as effectively to people issues, challenges and growth. The habits that got George where he is are not the same habits that are going to get him through the next level of complexity.
Today, we find ourselves facing new problems and situations that none of us have encountered. The old habits that got us here, won’t take us through to the next level. We need to break through (or adapt) from a lower level of thinking, behaving, and interacting to solve our problems. From a leadership perspective, we must be more effective as leaders of people.
What do we do? How do we let go of our old habits? What new habits do we need to form? How do we develop new habits?
Habits, ways of thinking and default behaviors can be very difficult to recognize. Since we are so good at doing these things, we may not even think about it when we are doing them. Take the example of driving a car. I imagine that most of us have had the experience of traveling along the freeway when suddenly we sort of “snap out of it” and wonder what happened driving the last ten minutes or how did I miss that exit (while I was talking on the phone)? We are so good at something that we go into an unconscious mode of operation. A very dangerous activity when we are responsible for a 2000+ pound vehicle moving at 70 mph!
The process of change or adapting from one form of behavior to another is not easy. I would recommend we consider the following steps to intentionally work through the change:
Step 1 – Recognize the Behaviors to Change
You may recognize that the behaviors to changed or left behind might not be very effective; the behaviors might be fine but will not help in progressing to the next level; or feedback provided indicates a change is necessary. Some potentially “detrimental” leadership behaviors might be…raising our voices to our children, being critical of others’ performance or micromanaging how our associates do their work. Each can have an impact that is not showing effective leadership behaviors. Each of these behaviors is likely rooted in fear. Those fears (reactive behaviors) may show up as language we might hear in our own voices as follows:
- I might fail
- They might do it better than me
- It will take me longer to show you how to do it, than to do it myself, I will just do it myself
- I don’t want to let go
These behaviors have a tendency of silencing or shutting down individuals or potentially creating in them a defensive reaction. These are not the reactions or state of being we want others to be in as this will limit their creativity and production.
The recognition (or self-awareness) could come from direct feedback to you, a 360 assessment or a coach interviewing those with whom you work. Getting the feedback (however it comes) is a gift! It provides you with information that will likely change the course of your life and in turn those you lead.
Step 2 – Focus on One “Behavioral Habit” that Might be Holding You Back
Figure out and discuss the one area that you “need” to let go of and change in order to become more effective as an individual, an associate and as a leader. You likely could work on and change a host of things, but in our busy world you should start with one and get that thoroughly figured out before you move on to other areas.
Identify and consider the following: When does this behavior show up? What triggers it to come out of hiding? Why is it an ineffective behavior for me? What would it be like if I didn’t engage in this behavior? What will be the effect if I continue with this behavior?
This is when the hard work begins…as you focus in on that one behavior, as you stop or hold back from engaging in that behavior now what…?
Step 3 – Focus on a Creative Behavior to Replace the Old Habit
Determine what creative behavior you would like to adapt as a new way of acting. This should be an area for which you have passion and desire. The more passion, the greater the likelihood that you will stick with it. An example might be…if I always sought perfection from my staff and I engaged with them to make sure what they were doing was right, I might be micromanaging them and controlling the situation. If that is the reactive “habitual” tendency I want to let go of…maybe I would want to replace that with a creative behavior of mentoring and developing others. If so, what does that look like for you? How would you implement that approach? What are the actions that would need to precede mentoring and developing someone? What are the outcomes for them? What would be the outcome for you?
In replacing one behavior that is not necessarily serving you or others well with a more effective behavior, it will ultimately be beneficial for you (as you can scale your leadership vs doing all the work yourself). It will lift burdens and set you free from a great deal of time and stress.
Step 4 – Practice, Learn, Test, Learn, Practice
Have I mentioned that this is not easy? The expectation as you adapt and change is to observe yourself in the old habits, feel the triggers coming on, control the behavior and then understand and experiment with new behaviors. Know that it will be awkward. It will not feel comfortable. The habit has been a part of you for many years and you will likely not be able to turn it off in an instant. It may take weeks, months, or years before you have it mastered. The phrase “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is not true, but it is difficult to make changes when your brain has been wired for so many years to do it a certain way. I have some habits that I’ve had from 30 and 40 years ago that still pop up at times, even though I am conscious of them and continue to adapt to the new and better way of being.
You will likely find that your mind is defending, justifying and rationalizing the old way of doing things as it is much easier than the work you need to put in to change. Our minds are powerful tools and prefer the status quo. In order to move above and breakthrough from the old habits and adapt to a more effective way, it will require consistent effort and a view that this new more effective way is what is needed.
Where do habits lead? Old habits lead us to the same place we have been. New more creative habits help us to lead others more effectively, create opportunities for us to scale our leadership, create an environment in which we and our staff can be more productive and effective. Bill Adams, one of two authors of Mastering Leadership (2015) and Scaling Leadership (2019), said, “Effective leaders outperform ineffective leaders every time”. Is your path leading you to being more effective? Are you constantly growing and learning and working on effective behaviors? What is your intention?
If you truly want to change your habits and see a need to move to a state of being that is more effective, can handle greater complexity, and operates in a more collaborative way, then this approach is a proven successful path. It is not easy and usually is more difficult with a longer duration when done alone. Utilizing a leadership coach in the process will enhance your self-awareness, speed your process and allow you the opportunity to ensure your scalability and success.