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Reshaping leadership habits that get in the way of high performance

By Sophie Francis | 23 May 2012

Arrows-0007-880x.jpgThe 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.


Derailing leadership habits

At the 2012 International Congress on Coaching Psychology, Dr Lew Stern, leader of Harvard Medical School’s Institute of Coaching, highlighted common habits [1] 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
  • Conflict avoidance
  • Non-collaboration
  • Perfectionism
  • Long-windedness or thinking out loud
  • Inappropriate use of humour
  • Impulsive emailing.

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 behaviour 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 we work with organisations to shift leadership behaviour throughout the organisation or in individuals, we often recommend eliciting 360 feedback through custom surveys or evidence-based assessment tools 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—MSCEIT (Mayer-Salovey-Caruso EI Test) because it is abilities based, and EQ-i 2.0 or Genos EI which elicit 360 feedback from peers, direct reports and managers. These 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 such as Realise2 are more motivating and effective in raising performance than assessments that generate a majority of negative data or focus on faults. They encourage leaders to work from what they they do well while being realistic about their weaknesses so they can leverage their strengths and fine-tune their behaviour to be more mindful and effective as leaders.

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. Focussing only on "development opportunities" or weaknesses won’t enable them to marshal the inner resources and brain power required to persist in achieving lasting change.

Intractable or damaging leadership habits may require targeted techniques and skills to shift patterns. Equipping leaders with frameworks for social contacting and conflict resolution can be useful. Otherwise referral to a specialist practitioner can help.


Supporting change

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, we incorporate structured, individualised follow-up. A coaching programme can be extremely effective to increase learning and support the person to apply their new skills.

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.


More about changing leadership habits

Read our article on the neuroscience of change resistance. Explore our coaching and leadership development programmes. Or contact us to help leaders in your organisation maximise their performance and potential.


  1. 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.


About the Author: Sophie Francis

Sophie Francis

Sophie writes about positive psychology, emotional intelligence and neuroscience for the Langley Group. She is an accredited R2 Strengths practitioner with a Master of Business Coaching from University of Wollongong, and co-author of Working with Strengths in Coaching, in the SAGE Handbook of Coaching (in press).

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