Reshaping leadership habits that get in the way of high performance
Written on the 23rd of May 2012 by Sue Langley and Sophie Francis
The higher an executive is promoted in an organisation, the more vital their strategic and interpersonal behaviours are to the success of their organisations and teams. Often success strategies that worked well on their way up need reinvention to achieve and sustain optimal performance in their new positions. To become a different kind of leader they often need to change ingrained habits and learn techniques to foster greater flexibility in others.
At the 2012 International Congress on Coaching Psychology, Dr Lew Stern, leader of Harvard Medical School’s Institute of Coaching, highlighted common habits  he encounters that can derail high potential leaders. These include:
Impatience, intimidation and disrespectfulness
Over-talking and under-listening
Closed-mindedness and stubbornness
Over-pleasing or lack of assertiveness
Long-windedness or thinking out loud
Inappropriate use of humour
Changing ineffective leadership behaviours and learning better ones requires effort and focussed attention. Our brains tend to resist change even if we know it is in our best interests.
Planning for change
Stern advises that leaders who want to change their behaviour work with their organisation, manager and a coach to put in place a robust development plan. To get a thorough overview of what they are doing well and not well, how it impacts others and what is sustaining the behaviour, Stern recommends first collecting data from a wide range of sources. This can include drawing on organisational surveys; conducting personality, psychometric, emotional intelligence and strengths-based tests; observing the behaviour at work, and eliciting 360-degree interview feedback.
When EIW works with organisations to shift leadership behaviour throughout the organisation or in individuals, we often recommend eliciting 360 feedback through custom or standard tools and/or activities that allow people to give and receive feedback in a personal, safe way.
Emotional intelligence tests are particularly useful for developing awareness and responsibility around behaviours—Mayer-Salovey-Caruso EI Test (MSCEIT) because it is abilities based, and Genos as it elicits 360 feedback from peers, direct reports and managers. Both assessments highlight underlying emotional drivers and can give an often startling and impactful insight into what triggers behaviour and how others experience the consequences. Each is debriefed in a one-on-one conversation with a coach or trained professional. This can set the stage for a deeper commitment and motivation to change, clarify goals and provide tools the leader can integrate to support change on a daily basis.
Strengths-based assessments (eg Realise 2) are more motivating and effective in raising performance than assessments that generate a majority of negative data. Often what needs to happen is for the leader to select one or two habits to work on, develop a clear picture of the behaviour they want to be doing, agree ways to track improvement and plan specific action steps towards that goal. This should happen in tandem to developing strengths. Trying to set too many goals or focussing only on development opportunities won’t marshal the inner resources and brain power required to persist in achieving lasting change. Intractable or damaging habits may require targeted techniques to shift patterns, for example social contacting for interpersonal conflict or referral to a specialist practitioner.
Support and ongoing feedback is vital throughout the change process. To help leaders who undergo training apply new skills and knowledge at work and persist with targeted behaviours, EIW incorporates structured, individualised follow-up. A coaching programme is most effective to increase uptake of learning. Post-training debrief calls help ensure goals and actions are being integrated.
One technique our coaches employ to sharpen leaders’ awareness about their target behaviour and track changes day to day is to encourage them to keep a log. The coach and leader then review it in coaching sessions, explore emotional reactions behind the behaviour, discuss insights and consider new ways to expand and reinforce positive change.
People embarking on any kind of habit or behaviour change can use this tactic to stay on track. A mood meter is also very helpful to assess how we are feeling moment by moment and expand our emotional vocabulary giving us detailed information we can use to better manage emotions and behaviour.
Encouraging people to find techniques and rituals that suit their natural style is important. A person who is very visual might choose to remind and reinforce desired behaviour with coloured post-it notes (or our Inspire Action Cards) by their desk. Someone who is trying to adopt a more succinct communication style might set up an agreement for a colleague to signal when they are going off track in meetings.
Stern, Lew (2012). Beyond just strengths: Practical coaching techniques to reshape leaders’ ‘bad’ habits. Proceeding at 2012 International Congress on Coaching Psychology, Australian Psychological Society, Novotel Manly, 10 May 2012.
Sue Langley is a sought-after speaker, facilitator and master trainer in emotional intelligence, positive psychology and the neuroscience of leadership. Sue has studied positive psychology at Harvard and is the first person in Australia to undertake the Masters of Neuroscience of Leadership. Considered one of the leaders in Australia in the practical workplace application of these fields, Sue is CEO of Emotional Intelligence Worldwide and the author of “Positive Relationships at Work,” in Positive Relationships by Sue Roffey (Springer, 2012).
Sophie Francis is a learning and development writer, consultant and coach with a background in positive psychology. Marketing Manager at EIW, Sophie is currently studying a Masters in Business Coaching.
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