Sustaining Positive Changes In Leadership Behavior

It’s that time of year when we all make resolutions designed to make us “better” in some way. That often includes resolutions on how to become a better leader capable of driving improved business results, better customer satisfaction, lower costs and higher levels of employee engagement. For many of us, despite our good intentions as the year begins, we quickly find ourselves reverting to our old behaviors and achieving our usual results.

The reality is that change at any level is terribly hard. Human beings develop through a combination of inherent instincts and lived experiences, deeply ingrained habits that largely define how we walk through life. For the most part, those habits serve us well, giving us an efficient way to cope with the onslaught of information and stimuli we encounter in the course of a typical day. But those habits also become limits, constraining us to certain ways of thinking and behaving that may prevent us from achieving new levels of performance and satisfaction.

There is no easy answer to how to overcome this “homeostasis,” or natural human resistance to change. There is comfort in the familiar even if it is not entirely satisfactory. It often seems as through predictable mediocrity is preferable to the possibility of greatness when there is uncertainty in the journey.

In our coaching practice, my colleagues and I at MEDI Leadership work with leaders to help them reach beyond the limits of their current habits to build new muscle. Here are a few tips that might help you on your journey to be “better”:

1.    Start with Deep Reflection and Self-Awareness

The first step in being “better” is becoming deeply and objectively self-aware. It is not surprising that we often have a distorted picture of ourselves and how we, as leaders, impact those we lead and those with whom we work. It is vital to take time to use introspection, assessment instruments and constructive feedback from others to overcome our blind spots and see ourselves as we truly are. With that understanding, you can focus on those areas where development efforts will have the most impact. You can also begin to educate others about you, helping them better understand the lens through which you look at the world and how they might work most effectively with you.

As you begin to identify focus areas for growth, it is important to examine the underlying mindset and assumptions that are often the driver of our behavioral responses. Being mindful and intentional about challenging those mental models is often the most important step to adopting new and more effective leadership behaviors.

2.    Begin with Small, Behavioral Changes and Realistic Goals

One of the classic mistakes when embarking on behavioral change is to establish too many goals or goals that represent a dramatic change from essential aspects of our makeup. Behavior change takes time and practice. Creating a long list of goals decreases the probability of success for any of them by diluting the focus and effort it takes to succeed in achieving sustainable change. It is also important to recognize that, while it is possible for adults to grow, it is unlikely that we can radically change from habits that are deeply ingrained or core to our innate personality. Even with focused effort, it is unlikely that a lifelong introvert will become the gregarious center of attention. It is, however, possible for that introvert to gain proficiency in being effective in public settings through a mindful focus and consistent effort and practice over a period of time. Don’t set the bar too high and give up as a result of predictable discouragement. Make the small changes, note the progress and, with confidence borne of past success, move on to the next step.

3.    Build on Strength; Temper Strengths Taken to Excess

Too often our efforts to be “better” focus on our weaknesses rather than looking for opportunities to more effectively leverage our strengths. In any organizational or team setting, there is likely to be an array of styles and capabilities. Effective leaders need not be strong in all areas if they have the self-awareness and humility to complement their strengths with the strengths of others. By becoming consciously aware of the aggregate profile of the team, there is greater understanding, appreciation and opportunity to leverage the strengths of one another. While it is important to focus on leveraging strength, be aware of the danger of strengths taken to excess. For example, while it is advantageous to have within the team someone with a strong analytical focus, that focus can become an impediment to team progress if it becomes a search for certainty in an uncertain marketplace.

4.    Leverage the Power of Community

One of the most powerful ways to support behavior change is seeking the insight and support of trusted colleagues along the way. As noted above, honest, constructive feedback from those who have your best interest at heart is one of the most powerful tools for developing greater self-awareness. Sharing your developmental goals and desired behavioral changes with others can create a mechanism for both greater support and accountability. Let others know your intentions and engage them to let you know how you are doing in the midst of the journey. That kind of real-time feedback and support is an invaluable gift and help you sustain your efforts to build new muscle.

5.    Carve out “Heads Up” Time

One of the most helpful steps one can take to support behavior change is to stop from time to time to reflect or journal about the journey. In moments when you fell back into old habits, reflect on what triggered that response. Consider how you might recognize those triggers in the moment and develop a practice to re-center and choose a more desirable and effective approach. Mark progress and celebrate success. Refocus and renew commitment. Take time to look up from the path to remember where you are headed and pause long enough to affirm your progress and make course corrections as needed.

6.    Be Kind to Yourself

Recognize that change is hard and takes time. Give yourself adequate runway to see measurable change. Don’t become discouraged when you fall back into old habits. That is inevitable. Rather than focusing on the moments when you have not shown up as you had hoped, focus instead on moments of progress, no matter how small. Reminding yourself of those small successes will give you confidence in your ability to repeat that success as you go forward.

7.    Consider a Coach as a Catalyst

While this might seem self-serving, I recommend you consider engaging a coach as a catalyst for the behavior change process. A talented coach can play an instrumental role as an objective partner in helping you discover within yourself the resourcefulness for leadership growth. A coach can assist you in the process of gaining self-awareness. A coach can guide you as you seek to understand your mental models and the underlying barriers that create what researchers describe as “immunity to change.” A coach can provide constructive feedback that challenges your thinking from the safety of a relationship based solely on helping you achieve your goals. As stated a number of times, this journey to being “better” is not an easy one and it can help to make the journey with a supportive and insightful companion.

Photo of Robert Porter, JD, MBA

written by:

Robert Porter, JD, MBA

Senior Vice President & Executive Coach