Emily Marsh January 14 2020

How to build new leadership habits in 2020

New year’s resolutions show us how challenging habits can be, and helping leaders to form new habits is no different.

Did you know that 80% of people fail to stick to their new year’s resolutions?

By mid-January, it seems most of us lose our resolve to eat better, save money or learn a new skill.

We may have the best intentions to adopt a new behaviour, but statistics show that the majority of us fail to turn those intentions into long-term habits.

Many organisations find themselves coming up against this same challenge when trying to develop their leaders. New year’s resolutions show us how challenging habits can be, and helping leaders to form new habits is no different.

So, what’s the secret to developing new leadership habits that stick?

Set goals, not resolutions

One of the biggest reasons we fail to stick to our new year’s resolutions is because they tend to be broad and vague. Goals, on the other hand, are much more actionable, and this makes them more effective.

So how do we turn our resolutions (our intentions) into goals?

First is being clear on what you want to achieve.

As a new year’s resolution, “Get more organised” is simply too broad. To build habits you need to be much more specific. What does getting organised actually look like? “Being on time to work”, for instance, is a much more specific goal.

Then think about why this is important - so you show up to work feeling less frazzled, you perform better as a leader, and you set a good example for your team.

Now think about how you can make it happen. Maybe it’s leaving ten minutes earlier each day, packing your bag the night before, or Marie Kondo-ing your wardrobe.

The more your leaders can break down their intentions into clear goals, the more likely it is that they’ll accomplish them.

Use If-Then thinking

Research shows that deciding in advance under what conditions we plan to implement a new behaviour can significantly increase our chances of actually doing it.

Psychologists refer to this approach as “implementation intentions”. It involves reframing our goals into “if-then” or “when-then” statements.

These statements can be situation-based. For example, if your leaders want to reduce anxiety around making difficult decisions, they can tell themselves: “If I start to feel anxious, then I will take three deep breaths and focus on feeling calm.”

Or they can be time-based. If your leaders want to increase the efficiency of team meetings, they could tell themselves: “If I am holding a meeting, then I will set an agenda and share any material in advance of the meeting with enough time for people to read it.”

Each time your leaders practise a new behaviour, they strengthen the neural pathways in their brain, until eventually, the link between the “if” and the “then” becomes strong enough to transform the new behaviour into a habit.

Identify your own groundhog pattern

One of the struggles we have when changing our behaviour is going round and round in circles doing the same thing, having the same reaction, and not achieving different results.

It’s the feeling that every day is groundhog day. We may not be waking up to Sonny and Cher on the radio and reliving the same days' events again, like Bill Murray’s character in the cult 1990s movie, but many of us find ourselves making the same mistakes time after time.

Let’s say your new year’s resolution is to get fit. You go to the gym on Monday and Tuesday, but come Wednesday you’re so tired that you don’t go again for the rest of the week. Monday rolls back around and you’re ready to give it another shot - but again, you overdo it the first couple of days and it wipes you out for the rest of the week.

You repeat this same pattern every week, each time expecting that you’ll make it to the gym at least once or twice in the latter part of the week, but each time failing to do so.

The key is to identify your own groundhog pattern, the moment of truth that triggers it, and the one action you can change to get a different result.

Go to the gym Monday, but give yourself a break on Tuesday. You’ll be ready to go again on Wednesday, and if you keep giving yourself a rest day in between workouts, maybe you’ll make it to the gym four times rather than two.

Your leader’s goal may be to become a better listener so their team feel more valued and appreciated. They decide to make the effort to really listen so that they can respond appropriately, but the moment of truth is when they realise the team still don’t feel like they are really being listened to.

So what’s the one action they can change? Maybe it’s adopting a “listen first” rather than a “listen to respond” approach. Asking their team outright, “What do you think could work?”, could be the one action to break them free from groundhog day.

By supporting your leaders to identify their own groundhog day and what they could change to escape it, you can support them to build habits that will have a positive impact on themselves, their team, and the organisation.

So what's your goal for 2020?

When supporting your leaders to form new habits; encourage them to turn their intentions into goals, to make new behaviours specific to a time or a situation, and to avoid getting stuck in their own groundhog pattern.

The same applies when thinking about your new year’s resolutions for 2020. Be one of the 20% that turns their good intentions into habits.

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