Leader at table with a coffee

Old Habits Die Hard

So what is the secret of sustained behavior change?

Our nearly 50 years of research and experience working with leaders has revealed one constant truth: leadership is hard. It always has been. We may not stop to think about it much, but we expect a lot from leaders, every moment of every day.

And while leadership has always been challenging, it has become even more so thanks to digital-age forces such as the pace of change, the uncertainty of disruption, and the increased complexity of work and organizations. Despite major investments, the vast majority of learners do not adopt desired behaviors over the long-term:

  • A 2018 HBR Survey found that only 33% of respondents felt that they have become much more effective as managers after taking part in leadership development programs.
  • What’s worse – these statistics are likely rosier than we’d like to admit. HBR found that only 24% of survey respondents did any form of leadership development impact measurement – with the most popular tool being satisfaction surveys.

Of course, high-quality leaders at every level remain critical, as more and more leadership moments occur among employees – especially among those without managerial responsibilities. Our traditional emphasis on hierarchy makes sense when the system is rules-based, and information and direction comes from the manager. Today though, most employees – especially ‘knowledge workers’ – must exercise a high degree of judgement as they encounter novel situations in their everyday work. They have to collaborate effectively in teams, not just to get work done, but to reinvent how work happens.

Why do genuine efforts to be better leaders fail so often? When it comes to behavior change, habit and environment eat know-how and desire for breakfast.

Digital age leadership is a team sport.

We need to shift away from the ‘manager-as-hero’ model to one of shared leadership and co-creation within teams. The collective knowledge and capability in teams makes them better positioned to deliver high-quality work, sense emerging problems and opportunities, create innovative solutions, and identify and enforce their own standards.

An individual approach to leadership rarely works. Even when we have demonstrated convincingly to someone why they should lead in a particular way, and they leave a program or coaching session intent to apply the new approach, they almost always revert back to their old style, if they attempt the new way at all.

The right work environment is critical.

Environment is especially important. Studies have shown that when star performers move from one environment to another, their performance typically plummets for years, if not forever.

Our work environments, including attitudes, physical space, processes, and culture, support the way things are typically done. After a leadership development experience, an employee has to operate in the old environment – one that may be tacitly and actively hostile toward the new approach. If you go on a diet but leave the cookie jar front and center on the shelf, you are unlikely to succeed. But if we modify the environment to support the new leadership behaviors (that is to say, if we replace the cookie jar with healthy snacks), we can empower leadership success and drive dramatically better results.

When it comes to developing leaders, we largely ignore environment. More people are successful giving up smoking than changing their leadership behaviors because at least ‘no smoking’ rules and societal norms tend to support that change.

Indeed, studies* tell us that in times of stress and anxiety, we tend to fall back on our habits – good and bad. If those norms are not our desired behaviors, we are most likely to lose sight of what we’ve learned – just when we might need it most.

Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics, draws a distinction between impulsive actions (when snap judgments are made without consciously processing information) and deliberate actions (slower, rational thinking). Our brains are adaptable and by modelling desired leadership behavior change, we build the neuroplasticity that enables our behaviors to become habit.

What we know about habit formation is that you want to make the behaviour easy to perform, so that people repeat it often and it becomes part of their daily routine.”

Prof Wendy Wood, University of Southern California

Peers are the most important part of our work environment.

It’s hard to maintain a positive behavior if the people around you don’t help sustain it. That’s a big part of why organizations need to teach everyone to lead effectively. Make inclusive leadership part of your culture. Create a common leadership language. Support all your people, not just the elite few – leadership is no longer a top-down game.

To truly achieve leadership success we have to make a change from the status quo.

At AchieveForum, our vision is to democratize access to the best resources so that every person can lead successfully in today’s constantly changing world. Access a selection of popular leadership development resources on our ‘universal access’ platform.

*Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2013

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