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LEADERSHIP HABIT-BUILDING EXPLAINED
How leadership habit-building helps leaders sustain behavior change
JUNE 21, 2022 | BRENDA VAN CAMP
In this 3-part blog series, “Leadership habit-building explained,” we explore and discuss the design practices, tools, and strategies that leadership habit-building uses to help leaders turn what they learn into lasting new leadership habits.
Lasting behavioral change is the holy grail of leadership development. However, making behavioral change stick is hard. Most participants will leave a training highly energized, inspired, and determined to change. But personal transformation is a treacherous path, filled with pitfalls and hurdles to upend a leader’s efforts to establish lasting behavior change. Hence, we must follow up with participants afterward to provide support, guidance, and encouragement to help them sustain their changed behaviors and overcome obstacles. Unfortunately, few leadership development programs currently do this.
Below we discuss three key strategies leadership habit-building deploys to help participating leaders sustain the behavior change.
Use defensive pessimism
A 2009 study by Stadler, Oettingen & Gollwitzer showed that people who spend time each day predicting possible fail points in maintaining a new habit performed twice as well in successfully changing their behavior as a control group that didn’t. This was true both in the short and long term. Dr. Kelly McGonical terms this approach “Defensive Pessimism” and encourages people to use their pessimism to help them change successfully.
Focusing on fail points sounds counterintuitive, as most productivity apps teach people to track their successes rather than their failures. Let’s face it. It feels better. However, studies show that focusing on success leads people to become complacent and less determined in the long run. Instead, becoming a detective of one’s potential failures helps people predict and preempt the possible causes of failure and increase their ability to develop new habits successfully.
Moreover, studies have shown that people who are optimistic about their ability to change tend to be more surprised and thrown off-course by any setbacks, causing them to give up more readily.
Leadership habit-building leverages these science-backed insights regularly, usually weekly, following up with program participants for an extended period after the training event – usually 3-6 months. Each check-in engages participants in a Defensive Pessimism exercise. These specially designed exercises prompt participating leaders to review what worked and didn’t work in the past week and also help them anticipate & solve possible fail points that could undermine their change efforts in the upcoming week. Such a proactive approach makes it easier for leaders to stick with their change efforts. Moreover, these regular check-ins by the program leader or coaches involved in the leadership program also work as an informal accountability framework that provides leaders with another incentive to stick with it.
Make it public
We all tend to be highly influenced by the people around us. As a result, the people around us can help or hinder our ability to change. Therefore, a successful leadership habit-building approach needs to involve a leader’s boss, select peers and colleagues, and family to help and support the leader through the change process.
One powerful tool leadership habit-building uses to do this is to set up transformation presentations for each participant with their respective boss, colleagues, close relatives, and friends. These presentations provide a framework for participants to proactively share the changes they are planning to make and to ask their boss, colleagues, relatives, and friends for support in doing so, both by holding them accountable to stick with their change efforts as well as to give them feedback and support along the way.
Measure the change
Another powerful tool to help leaders sustain behavior change is to measure it. Leadership behavior change is not as easily measured as, for example, weight loss. However, it can be done. In leadership habit-building, we do this by helping participants to set measurable behavior change goals and then use incident reporting.
For example, a leader who, as part of developing their leadership presence, wants to strengthen their ability to better master (modulate) their moods may set the goal of reducing the incidents of having a negative mood (e.g., feeling stressed, disheartened, disappointed, annoyed, etc.) to two times per day. Similarly, a leader who is working on strengthening their relationship with their direct reports may set a goal to meet weekly with each of them for a 45-minute 1-to-1s. Both of these are measurable leadership behavior change goals that they can track daily, and by the end of each week, fill out and share their weekly change tracker with the program leader.
This approach is highly effective in helping leaders sustain their change efforts because it provides proof of their change efforts – not just for themselves but also for others, such as their boss. Plus, it taps into their competitive streak – they don’t want to fail publicly.
Leadership habit-building is about designing and delivering leadership development that sticks. Hence, It’s an integral part of leadership habit-building to use tools, strategies, and tactics to support and encourage participants as they progress along their leadership behavior change journey.
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