Breaking the bad habits of leadership traps |

Breaking the bad habits of leadership traps

Teresa Martin

Business leaders know that they’re responsible for establishing strategy, but how many are skilled in setting expectations so the plan actually gets executed? Few business owners lead well, even if they are brilliant. Why? Because deeply-rooted behaviors exist that are often subconscious defense mechanisms used to avoid conflict and protect egos, especially one’s own. In addition, research indicates that up to 40 percent of human behavior arises from habits. Some routines are helpful otherwise our brains would overload and we’d be incapable of doing anything; but other recurring actions are not as beneficial.

Many organizational customs are destructive, even while seeming to maintain balance and the status quo. It often seems easier to take the path of least resistance, and most people do so unconsciously. They create truces, such as those between executives competing for power or divisions battling each other for resources. These armistices appear to ensure that rivalries don’t destroy the company but, in fact, they can do just the opposite. An example was a hospital where nurses avoided conflict with physicians by saying nothing even when speaking up was justified. Although this approach appeared effective, it led to a series of operating room mistakes that nearly destroyed the hospital’s reputation.

Once we understand where the pitfalls lie and how habits work, with some planning and determination, we can change them for the better. No leader wants to admit they lack insight into their own behavior, which only serves to make the problem more insidious. While most organizations appear to employ rational decision-making, in truth, long-established behaviors of individual employees over many years actually may be driving the operation.

Here are 4 behaviors that are all but guaranteed to set you up for failure:

1. Not establishing clear expectations.

* Announcing a project or objective but failing to provide specifics.

* Reprimanding staff for mistakes and missed deadlines although no specific goals or explicit actions or timelines were defined.

* Communicating in a vague manner that gives staff a built-in excuse for failure, such as “Do your best to get this done” instead of “I need this report by Friday the 5th at 5 p.m.”

2. Excusing staff from working toward achieving the company’s overall goals.

* Creating a culture in which the business’ leader is the only person who has an accurate overview of the strategic plan, thereby giving staff permission to delegate up.

* Failure to foster and demand from every employee a sense of personal responsibility to meet overall goals.

* Allowing managers and subordinates to focus on their own department’s performance to the detriment of the overall company’s focus.

* Giving in to managers and staff who cite critical problems or prohibitive workloads as obstacles that prevent them from full participation in the organizational objectives.

3. Unintentionally conspiring with internal SMEs (subject matter experts) and outside consultants.

* Allowing internal and external experts to work on projects without assuming responsibility for outcomes.

* Failure to provide measurable objectives to in-house experts and consultants.

* Not realizing that the consultant does not share ultimate responsibility to the customer or project stakeholders.

* Not playing an active role in a project’s design and implementation.

4. Not stepping in when a project seems to be going nowhere.

* Failure to recognize that endless preparation, while providing the illusion of progress, does not actually achieve results.

* Allowing managers and staff to act on the assumption that they’re already doing the best they can with the available resources.

* Not correcting the pervasive notion that the new goal or project requires new equipment, new software, or increased staffing levels.

How can you overcome these traps and the patterns that are behind them? The first and toughest step is to recognize the behavior in yourself. You as a leader must be willing to do the soul-searching work necessary to overcome your own resistance. Charles Duhigg, author of “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business,” is correct when he says, “Wise executives seek out moments of crisis or create the perception of crisis and cultivate the sense that something must change, until everyone is finally ready to overhaul the patterns they live with each day.”

Identify the elements of your habit loops. Start by thinking about recent experiences and identify instances in which you fell into any of the described snares. Isolate the habitual cue. What sparks the routine that you follow and triggers the action? This may not be easy to identify, nor be what you first think it is. Research suggests most cues are drawn from: where you happen to be, the time of day, your emotional state, other people, or something that happened immediately before the action. You may need to force yourself outside your comfort zone, experimenting with more effective leadership methods until you reach the desired outcome.

Second, experiment with new practices and rewards. Review what is driving the customary action, both in yourself and your employees. If you substitute a different reward, what happens? Try breaking down that one large, unwieldy goal into two or more manageable projects. Then test actions and rewards until you identify those that produce tangible results in a short period of time and demonstrate a clear link between the behavior and the result.

Finally, draw up a plan to change the routine based upon the results of your internal experimentation. And write it down! It is a proven fact that written goals have a much higher level of realization. Then you can quickly expand your goals and multiply your successes.

Have the courage to look honestly inside yourself and your organization for unproductive habits, set clear goals and expectations, empower your team, and maintain an ongoing dialogue with your employees, and you’ll be rewarded with innovation, energy, and the results you seek.

Teresa Martin is the principal of The Profitability Solution LLC in Reno. Contact her at or 775-825-1568.