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Break your leaders’ bad habits in five steps

Melody Moore

A man chained to a ball

Stuck in a leadership rut? Melody Moore, consultant at Hay Group, shares how psychology and technology can help your leaders break bad habits

Breaking habits and changing long-established behaviours is difficult. Just ask heart-disease suffers. Ninety per cent of American heart bypass patients fail to change their lifestyle following surgery. Even though it would dramatically enhance their life expectancy, they can’t make new habits stick.

Habits formed in the workplace are no exception. The behaviour of leaders, in particular, can be extremely difficult to change. By the time people reach senior positions, their work habits are deeply embedded.

And yet Hay Group research shows that improving leaders’ behaviours can have tangible results on the bottom line.  The climate in which a team operates impacts their performance and the single biggest fact that influences this climate is the leader’s behaviour.

So how can you get rid of deeply embedded work behaviour?

Habits are recurrent, usually unconscious, patterns of behaviour acquired through frequent repetition. According to author Charles Duhigg, a habit is a process consisting of three key stages, which is driven by a craving.

The three steps to building a bad habit

  1. A cue – the trigger that stimulates the habitual behaviour
  2. A routine – the habitual response to the cue
  3. A reward – the satisfaction that the habit brings, which is what makes us repeat it

For example, many of us reach for the snooze button on the alarm clock before getting out of bed. The alarm is the cue, hitting the snooze button is the routine, and more time in bed is the reward. The craving is more sleep, or just the comfort of being in our bed.

Habits form because the human brain has a lot to deal with, handling 400 billion pieces of information every second. We’re only actively aware of about 2,000 of these, as we can’t consciously process every single bit. This helps us concentrate on the more complex matters we encounter every day.
The good news is that our brains can be retrained to respond to cues in new ways. But to get rid of an unwanted behaviour, we need to replace it with a new one. This requires us to make the subconscious conscious – to bring established patterns of behaviour from the back of the brain to the front of our minds in order to change them.

Psychology professor at the University of Rhode Island and developer of the Transtheoretical Model of Behaviour Change, James O. Prochaska, identified five stages people typically go through to achieve changes for the better.

Five ways to break bad habits

  1. Pre-contemplation – refusal to accept the need for change
  2. Contemplation – acknowledgement of the problem
  3. Preparation – translating contemplation into action
  4. Action – making the change
  5. Maintenance  - keeping up the good work and repeating the new pattern of behaviour

Each stage is marked by common behaviours, and individuals often move backward and forward between the stages before eventually changing their behaviour for good.

These insights can be used to instil the right behaviours in leaders. But using psychology can only go so far, which is where technology comes in. Technology can keep leaders focused on their behaviours. It can also ensure that if they move backward in their development they have a place to turn to in order to start moving forward again.

For example, the Activate Styles and Climate app helps leaders to become more conscious of their behaviours by enabling them to create their own personal development plans. It uses gamification elements to create “stickiness” and allows HR to monitor and assess leaders’ progress. This means people can make meaningful decisions about the impact they have on the performance of their teams.

Even the very best leadership development programs will only achieve measurable results if they alter day-to-day habits. This is difficult to do by relying solely on leaders to find the time to make the changes themselves or by putting the onus on HR to check in with leaders frequently to ensure they are making progress.  But combining psychology and technology can drive revolutionary new ways to develop better leaders, equipping them to work on changing their behaviours and improving their impact – any time, any place and over any device.


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