Uprooting bad leadership habits



The holy grail of leadership development is to drive lasting behavior change. New and existing leaders must first be inspired to let go of unwanted behaviors. Only then can they adopt more effective behaviors and new lasting habits to become better leaders.

However, most practitioners and leaders alike, are so focused on adopting the new desired behaviors that they skip over one critical step: addressing existing unwanted behavior patterns. Bad habits don’t just go away on their own.

Understanding existing habits is key to being able to unlearn them and replace them with new behaviors. So let’s dig a little deeper.

A little intro to the neuroscience of habits

A habit is by definition an unconscious behavior – i.e., it is an automatic behavior in response to a certain trigger, whether that is an event, emotion, situation, person, or thing. Such habitual behavior patterns reside in our basal ganglia, which is located deep within our brain.

In order to switch from acting habitually to acting in a deliberate way, we need the help of another part of our brain: the prefrontal cortex located at the front of the frontal lobe. The prefrontal cortex is the part of our conscious brain responsible for planning, ideation, logical thought, and decision-making. So, to change an unwanted existing behavior, we need to consciously decide to override our automatic response each time it gets triggered.

That is hard. Why? Because it means we need to be constantly on the lookout for the possible trigger of our unwanted habitual behavior. That requires a level of mindfulness that very few of us can muster in the long run.

So an approach to behavior change that relies on consciously disrupting and replacing old unwanted behaviors is not a path to sustainable lasting behavior change. Initially, when someone has just explicitly committed to changing an unwanted behavior and is most mindful of their behavior, they may succeed a couple of times. But over time, as their mindfulness wears off, they will revert back to their old, unwanted habits.

But what if a leader is extremely mindful? Fact is leaders cannot rely on their mindfulness to overcome unwanted habits because leaders frequently experience stress. And research reveals how our prefrontal cortex goes “off-line” during stress and instead strengthens the habitual responses of the amygdala and the basal ganglia. That is why we slip up just when the sh*t hits the fan. Because “reason” literally goes out the door and our basal ganglia and habitual behaviors take over.

Get to the root of bad leadership habits

So what are we to do? Is there no way to erase our unwanted behaviors? Thankfully there is.

First, we have to acknowledge that we behave in a certain way to serve a need or resolve pain. At some point, we learned to respond in this way and it worked for us. It resolved the pain or served the need. For example, imagine you want to improve your ability to handle conflict. At present, your unwanted behavior is to avoid or immediately diffuse any form of conflict in your team or with peers or superiors. To enable you to form a new habit on how to react to conflict or to change any other unwanted existing habitual behavior, you first need to unearth what’s driving your current habit.

To do so, we need to ask ourselves two key questions:

  1. When & how did I learn this behavior?
  2. What need is the behavior serving? Or what pain is it resolving?

Frequently our habitual behaviors are rooted in formative experiences in the past. Going back to our example above, perhaps you had a parent with an unpredictable temper which instilled in you a fear of conflict and caused you to truly master your conflict avoidance skills. Back then those skills kept you safe, but now as a leader, they are getting in the way of your success because conflict is a necessary part of any organization.

In a way, your brain still believes that conflict is an existential threat and that conflict avoidance is the best way to keep you safe. To have a chance of forming a new habitual response to conflict, we need to uproot this old belief and replace it with a new one.

To accomplish this, we need to turn to the scientifically based work of Timothy Wilson, the Sherrell J. Aston Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia. He proved that by redirecting the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world, so-called story-editing can lead to lasting behavior change. One of the general approaches he suggests to accomplish this is a simple writing exercise that asks you to reframe and reinterpret those events from your current position.

For the leader in our example, this would enable them to discover how they now, as an adult and professional, have both the power and skills to address such conflict and shift to a belief that drives them to proactively manage and no longer avoid conflict.

This may all sound easy, but it is not. Understanding the origins of our unwanted behaviors and uprooting them, takes effort and commitment.

Leverage the power of environment design

But redirecting the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world around us, is just a first step towards lasting behavior change.

Secondly, we also need to help ourselves out a bit. As mentioned above, despite our best intentions, our unconscious can run away with our behavior unless we can design our context in such a way that it mitigates the occurrence of the triggers of our unwanted habit(s).

Most of us are familiar with this approach when we want to stop ourselves from indulging in certain foods: We “design” our environment by keeping the food out of eyesight and perhaps even storing the food in a hard-to-get-to place.

But few of us realize we can apply this approach to design our context or environment as a leader in such a way that it mitigates triggering our unwanted habitual behavior(s). So, for example, our leader who struggles with conflict can proactively build a team culture that helps their team handle conflict productively. How? By focusing specifically on fostering dialogue as the conversation style within the team, teaching the team to practice extraordinary respect, and focusing on building and maintaining emotional trust between its members.

So, changing our deep-seated unwanted behaviors for good is extremely difficult and no quick-fix, one-size-fits-all leadership workshop will help your leaders do so.

However, it is possible when we re-imagine leadership development as a personalized, continuous development program that helps leaders both unlearn their unwanted habits and adopt the necessary new ones to become better leaders.

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