Habits are like tools: Are you using the right tools for the job?

We’ve all done it, started that New Year resolution only to get a month in and abandon our convictions to convenience. That new workout, quitting a bad habit, whatever “it” is, we have to be aware of our natural proclivities. This is especially true when it comes to our leadership habits.

Habits Are Like Tools or Catalysts

Our leadership habits influence much of what we do at work and how we do it. Leadership habits impact how you structure your organization, how workflows are formulated, and strategies are built. Your habits, no matter how mundane or simple, can and do impact your professional life. The patterns that produce successful results are reinforced and become a part of everything that you do. Habits are like catalysts in that they help expedite our lives—for instance, consider your morning commute. You are in the habit of driving, but you don’t consciously think about many of the processes that allow you to get in your car, fasten your seatbelt, start the engine, check your mirrors, shift gears, and apply your foot to the gas pedal; yet, you get to work every day on time. Getting to work on time and efficiently is a habit that is born from another habit– driving. But not all habits apply to all situations. This is especially true during times of change, where new habits must be formed to meet the current demands. 

In the realm of business, there is always a drive to remain competitive, and those who are successful have beneficial habits that got them to where they are. As companies grow and change, old habits that once delivered successful results may need to change as well. Old habits impact where we focus our attention, how we engage with others, how we think about ourselves and others, how we formulate decisions and take action, and whether or not we are fulfilled by the work we do. To realize which habits are helpful and which practices need to change, we have to begin with perhaps the greatest of all habits– the habit of self-reflection. Some of the most successful people in the world will continually question their line of reasoning, how they engage with risk, where they draw their inspiration from, and what might be impeding future successes. 

The Head-down Habit

While several good habits transcend change, for example, the habit of being punctual, hygiene, being friendly, etc., that inevitably produce the same good results regardless of the environment, other habits can be detrimental to your success. For example, working with your head down, being consumed with getting everything done, rushing to meet deadlines all the time are all habits that can squash creativity that transforming a business requires. These kinds of habits create an environment where we often find ourselves working alone. This prohibits team approaches and leaves no room for others to contribute. When you are an island unto yourself, you miss out on the personal and professional growth which occurs when engaging with others to overcome business challenges. 

The Authority Habit

Another habit that limits success is saying that you want input from everyone within your organization but only seeking information from your peers on matters that drive the business. Executives that view themselves as the authority will often view new ideas as being impractical or uninformed. This habit can stifle ideas that come from other sources such as low-level employees, stakeholders, customers, and the like. Being the authority is one thing, but authority and aristocracy are not the same. As leaders, we must draw inspiration from all the moving parts within our organization. Some of the best ideas come from those who are in the trenches. 

The Know-it-all Habit

A habit that may influence the limiting behavior above may stem from another limiting habit, assuming that you know more than others. There is a fine line between being an authority, demonstrating confidence as a leader, and creating an environment where your direct reports don’t question you, offer feedback, or even pushback. In the leadership book “Outliers: The story of Success” author Malcolm Gladwell points out how traditions or habits that limit feedback can be disastrous. In chapter 7 of the book, Gladwell points out how air traffic disasters can come into play when subordinates are made to feel as if their input is useless. If you are a “know-it-all,” people are less apt to offer you information because they feel that their contributions will fall on deaf ears. Assuming that you know more than others can actually lead to defeat. The best leaders will use the best ideas regardless of the source. The problem with being a know-it-all is that others will treat you like one and not offer that idea that could be the game-changer for everyone. You may be a very resourceful and intelligent person, even genius, but when you start thinking that you know more than others, you soon discover how much you don’t actually know. Good leaders draw out the good in those they lead by engaging them and seeking feedback. Not all suggestions your subordinates offer will be “the right answer,” and your experience as a leader may cause you to validate a proposition but not act upon it. Still, having humility and the understanding that you don’t know everything is the key to maximizing the human resources around you to make sound business decisions. 

The Play-it-safe Habit

Another limiting habit to consider is the habit of always playing it safe. In stable markets, there is not much need to take excessive risk. There are benefits to leading conservatively, especially when nothing is broken. But when we play it safe, we risk dismissing more aggressive approaches that the environment might be conducive to. Incremental changes over time might seem conservative and safe; however, your competition may do cartwheels over you on their way to success while you flounder in complacency. The point here is to understand there is a time to play it safe and a time to be aggressive. If you adopt a play-it-safe mentality for every occasion, you will miss out on the opportunity when it avails itself. 

The Cogs-in-the-wheel Habit

Even the most successful companies are made up of human components. As leaders, we can view our employees as assets (which they are, no doubt) but forget they are humans as well. In companies that have operated successfully, people will inevitably come and go and are, to a degree, “replaceable.” Because of this, it is far too easy to view employees as components of the machine. As a result, leaders might expect that their employees work like machines and demand long hours, weekends, availability during vacation times, etc., all under the expectation of upcoming deadlines. They may not say it out loud, but they expect their employees to get the job done no matter the cost or be replaced. As a leader, you likely have an intense passion for the business you are in; after all, this passion played a role in getting you to the leadership position you have. But not everyone in your organization places the same value on your business that you might. That is not to say that you should lower your expectations. Instead, it would help if you considered balancing your expectations with the understanding that your employees have lives outside of the business. 

Changing Habits to Fit the Current Situation

A wise man once said, “don’t bring me a problem unless you bring some viable suggestions for solutions along with them.” Since we have explored some problematic habits, let’s examine some new habits to cultivate to produce more outstanding results than ever. 

The Heads-up Habit

Instead of the heads-down approach we discussed earlier in this article, it would be beneficial to both your organization and your people to keep your heads up. This requires that you, as the leader, make the vision and direction you have for the company very apparent. When employees are tasked to do things with no knowledge of how their work impacts the big picture, the work becomes mundane. On the other hand, when employees see how their contributions impact the company’s overall wellness and that their work does make a difference, they will be more inclined to pour themselves into that work. There is a sense of pride that comes with performing work that makes a difference. Your role as a leader, especially during times of high stress or deadlines, requires that you consistently remind your employees of the company vision and core values. It has been said that “if you don’t know where you are going, that is precisely where you will end up.” The rudder on a ship knows where it is going, even though the captain steers it. 

The Engagement Habit

Another helpful habit is being productively engaged with your employees. As a leader, your words and actions have consequences. It is up to you to create an environment where your employees feel safe and are willing to share their opinions and insights. An open-door policy is only good if the employee feels validated when they cross the threshold. As a leader, your goal should always be to interact with others to foster an environment of action and commitment. This will require you to be open and amiable to considering suggestions that others make. It will also require a great deal of self-awareness that your decisions impact others. To do this you need to keep an open mind. 

The Open-minded Habit

Having an open mind, or “intellectual agility,” is essentially being open to new ideas regardless of their origins. You will find that a bulk of your best ideas will come from all levels of your organization, especially in the middle of your organization. Everyone knows the humble “Post-It Note” story and how it has become a symbol for innovation. But what people don’t often know is how close the Post-It-Note came to being shelved forever. If not for a change in management in 1973, we might not have seen this brilliant product come to light. Worse for 3M, another company might have listened to its employee’s ideas and become the symbol for innovation instead of 3M. When we grasp the concept, good ideas are good ideas; whether they come from the bottom of the organizations, the middle, or the top, we are free to promote a culture that welcomes innovation, benefitting the employees, the leaders and the organization as a whole. 

The Learn-as-you-go Habit

Not every idea will work right out of the box, but inaction will ensure that it never works at all. If you are in the habit of tabling talks on ideas because you are apprehensive about learning as you go, you might be missing out on the rewards that innovation brings to any organization. It is through experimentation that you find what works and what works best. This requires a good leader to take an idea, make it tangible, and through experimentation, refine and evolve the concept to a workable solution. Every action you take, no matter how small, can be viewed as a learning opportunity. 

“Building competence in innovative action helps executives reduce bureaucracy and hesitation; it also works to create an environment of curiosity and learning, trying new ideas and abandoning those that aren’t working after reasonable effort. Leaders with the ability to balance conservatism with innovative action permit team members to do the same — to make rapid decisions without being afraid of missteps. One not-so-insignificant side effect of this is that it makes people more engaged. They align behind the goals, and they have a stake in the organization’s future.”

Finally, as leaders, we must drive transformation by creating a culture in our organization that celebrates our workers’ contributions. The idea is that we want our people to feel “well-used,” as opposed to “used-up.” Leaders understand that there is a work-life balance that extends from the bottom to the organization’s top. We want to foster an environment where our employees are always at their best when they are on the job, and this may require us to leave them alone while they are about the business of being their best off the clock. This also goes for leaders. Having a good work-life balance is critical to your own success. If you don’t have balance in your own life, you are doing yourself and your business a disservice. It does not mean that you have to resign yourself to being less passionate about your business, but it does mean that your business is not the sum of who you are. Taking time when you are away from the job to do anything but the job helps you rejuvenate yourself and can prove more beneficial to your business than you might think. When you have the vital fulfillment that comes with work-life balance, you gain perspective. The job becomes a job, and your role and function are what you do, not who you are. It alleviates a ton of stress and frees you up to be even more productive. 

It might seem that the habits that you have learned and acquired along the way are the very same habits that got you to where you are today, and that may be true. It would be ludicrous for us to assume that old habits are always bad habits. Instead, what we hope that you will glean from this a level of flexibility in your thinking. Taking dogmatic approaches to anything limits your ability to see a problem from all sides and counter with the most appropriate recourse. If you find yourself doing things over and over again (habits) but not seeing consistent improvement, perhaps it is time to consider creating newer habits. We hope that some of these suggestions made you say, “ouch.” The best thing about pain is that it lets you know you’re still alive. But, truthfully, we hope that these ideas will help improve your leadership and your organization’s health as you master your habits and evolve into an amazing leader. 

Outliers: The Story of Success
The History of Post-it Notes