Leading Habits

Provide consistent attention to the changes you want.

Leadership entails helping others change –- to consider new methods, effectively use different tools, communicate in preferred ways, and adopt higher-level skills.

However, change –- especially when people have little control over what they're to do differently -- always includes giving up accustomed methods, such as habits. These are default auto-pilot programs and reflexes (both mental and physical), ingrained thought patterns that are predictable and "comfortable."

On the upside, habits can save time and energy, providing reliable methods for repeating tasks. On the downside, they're adhesions that cement people to old, sometimes outmoded ways and can thereby block making strategy and action improvements. Further, grooved patterns don't work well where situations look familiar but are functionally different.

Best leaders know that, first, change is perpetual. And, second, that improvement begins within. So if you want to better catalyze others to change their habits, consider practicing shrugging off old habits yourself. For example:

  • Enlist your off-hand for dominant-side tasks, such as opening a door, holding the soap when showering (in fact, change your normal sequence of cleaning your body). Or utilitze eating utensils with your off-hand (good weight loss routine?) Offloading some noncritical tasks to your nondominant-hand also can improve hand safety.
  • While most people put trousers on one leg at a time, switch which foot goes first.
  • Change your routine for shaving or putting on makeup – start in an unacustomed area.
  • Shake up your world; reverse which way you habitually load the toilet paper roll (spool from the top or the bottom?)

Doing tasks in an unaccustomed way is definitely enlivening, sometimes frustrating. Personal case in point: Because my 17-year-old son, Brian, is currently taking a driver's ed course, I've been made aware that some of my driving habits aren’t current. For example, I was taught to grip the steering wheel at 10 and 2 o’clock. But Brian is learning that 9-and-3 is a safer, more effective hand position for modern steering that requires far fewer revolutions to turn endpoint-to-endpoint than on cars on which I was trained, and it provides more control.

Secondarily, by now gripping lower on the wheel, I've had to reposition my seat so my arms aren't jammed. This in turn lengthens my reach to the clutch and accelerator.

Further, he's taught to hold the steering wheel with thumbs on top, not gripping wrapped around the wheel. This prevents thumbs "being blown off" should the steering wheel airbag explosively deploy. Hmm, another habit -– when I learned to drive, there weren't airbags.

Oh yes, no hand-over-hand turning. I'm reteaching myself to feed the wheel hand-to-hand to turn, making continuous smooth contact for greater control.

Then there's adjusting the angle of two side-view mirrors so they reduce actual blindspots rather than reflecting the sides of my car....

After all these years, becoming conscious of the way I hold the wheel and drive is a challenge, but one I want to be able to overcome (not only are these new methods safer, but also they help to reinforce my son's safer practices.) And I’m definitely more attentive to my driving.

Many of these driver actions are consistent with my martial arts practice. So I'm thinking, rather than trying to "break" old steering habits, redirect them so they piggyback on what I already know. That's one key to unlock easier change: Make the unfamiliar familiar, bending rather than breaking patterns. This principle especially applies with an experienced, "set in ways" workforce.

So here are some keys for leaders to help workers replace older ways with newer ones:

  • Workers have to see personal value -– rather than just to the company -– for replacing old habits, trying something new.
  • They accept (beyond what others just tell them) that newer and better ways to handle tasks are continually being discovering. Open up the topic of habits -- why all of us have them, that they're not bad but may be dated and not as formerly useful. That technology has changed, so their techniques can as well. Perhaps appeal to their interest in keeping up to date.
  • They believe you are personally concerned about them and their safety, more than about making you look good or saving the company money. That safety is truly more of a real priority than it was way-back-when.
  • They are provided training and time to try on and work out new methods for themselves. Show them they can personally make small adjustments (a little effort for big results). The less you ask/expect/require others to do, the more likely they'll do it.
  • Leaders are realistic. Expect some inconsistency during the change process; it's rare when habit-reformation instantly occurs. In fact, people may take "five steps forward and four steps back." Lasting change typically stems from a continuous campaign. Encourage them to practice just a few times a day to start. Then build from two to 3-4 times a day, eventually incorporating new actions into their auto-pilot mode.
  • Lead discussions and show examples of others who have successfully changed personal habits in their lives. Almost everyone has either changed longstanding habits or knows someone else who has.
  • Excitement helps –- they see a quick improvement (they're successful trying out new methods). There's nothing more reinforcing than feeling even moderate accomplishment. For example, at the end of one training, a peer instructor asked his group, "How many of you have done something today that you never thought you'd be able to do?" Almost all hands rose. He followed up, "Think what else you might be able to do that you never thought you could!"
  • Chart the changes you seek and give workers feedback on their ability to change. Help them see the fruits of their accomplisment. This is critical.
  • Provide consistent attention to the changes you want -- in training, follow-up, one-the-job coaching, and reinforcing conversations and meetings.

Replacing old habits with better routines is not only possible, itg's critical for improving outlook and actions. Best leaders make it their habit to help others bend, learn –- and not break.

This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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