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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Jan 31, 2020


Habits can either help or hinder our leadership. In this episode we explore the two keys to making and breaking habits. 



Hello and welcome to episode 64 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we explore the key to making and breaking habits. 

This is our first new episode coming out at the start of February. If you’re anything like me and most other people, the goals you set a month ago may be starting to fade. Our great intentions may have run into everyday challenges and circumstances. Or maybe this year was different, and the intentions you started with are beginning to stick. They might even have become part of your everyday routine. What likely made the difference are habits. 

A habit is something we do regularly without much conscious thought - something that persists, and that can be difficult to change or give up. A habit is neither good or bad, but it can be helpful or harmful in the context of goals we set for ourselves. Perhaps my habit of laying out exercise gear in the evening is helping me to achieve my goal of getting to the gym in the morning. Maybe my habit of ordering a burger and fries each time I eat out is getting in the way of my goal to lose weight. And it’s the same at work. My habit of greeting my colleagues in the morning might be helping to build relationships. But my habit of speaking first and listening second might be getting in the way of truly listening to others.

So what are the keys to making or breaking a habit? To answer this we need to go to the movies.

I want you to picture yourself at a cinema with a bucket of popcorn. Just as the movie starts, you reach in, grab some popcorn and put it in your mouth. Now, this popcorn unfortunately isn’t as fresh as you might hope. In fact, it has been made a full week earlier and left out to go stale. Still edible, but not great tasting. Do you keep eating the popcorn? Do you eat as much of the stale popcorn as you would if it was fresh?

Researchers set up exactly this scenario to study the strength of habits. They took a group of people and asked them to watch and rate a series of movie trailers in a cinema, while also providing them with popcorn to eat. They varied the freshness of the popcorn - the fresh popcorn was made an hour earlier, while the stale popcorn was a week old. 

After the movie trailers, they asked people to rate the popcorn, and also measured how much popcorn each person ate. As you would expect, people rated the stale popcorn below the fresh popcorn. But it turns out that not all popcorn eaters are equal. Some people have strong associations between going to the cinema and eating popcorn, whereas for others the link is less strong. Those who had a weaker link between going to the cinema and eating popcorn not surprisingly ate less of the stale popcorn. After all, why would you eat stale popcorn? Well, those with a stronger link between going to the cinema and eating popcorn ate about the same amount of stale and fresh popcorn. That’s right - they ate as much of the stale popcorn as they did of the fresh popcorn, even though they rated the stale popcorn lower on taste. The habit of eating popcorn meant they didn’t seem to care about the freshness of the popcorn - they just stuck with their habit.

So if eating popcorn at the cinema is a habit for you, you’re likely to go on eating popcorn independent of its freshness. But what if I want to change this habit? The research found two interesting ways to break the cinema popcorn eating habit, if only in the moment. The first habit breaker was to change the context. When they moved the experiment out of a cinema and into a meeting room, the habitual popcorn eaters ate less of the stale popcorn than the fresh. The change in context seemed to break the habit. The second habit breaker was to make people eat the popcorn with their non-dominant hand while in the cinema. In this second scenario the context is exactly the same, but the eating process requires a little more conscious thought and effort. Once again, in this version the habitual popcorn eaters ate less of the stale popcorn than the fresh.

As leaders, that gives us two ways to think about making and breaking habits for ourselves and others - context and consciousness.

If we’re looking to break a habit, we want to change the context and make the behaviour more conscious. It’s the equivalent of getting people out of the cinema while also making them use their non-dominant hand. 

f we’re looking to make a habit the opposite is true. Over time we want to keep the context consistent and we want to reduce the amount of conscious effort required to undertake the behaviour. That’s the equivalent of offering fresh popcorn in the cinema and allowing people to use their dominant hand. Over time we will be able to build up a group of habitual popcorn eaters. 

When I’m coaching leaders to change, it’s much easier to work with them outside their normal context. That’s why running a leadership program offsite typically allows people to be more open. They’ve already had to alter some patterns of behaviour, which makes them more open to varying their views and habits around leadership. If the context is largely similar, like running the leadership development at their office in a familiar meeting room, it’s much harder to encourage people to change. Getting people into a new context and just outside of their comfort zone really makes a difference when breaking an old habit and considering a new habit. Perhaps you find sitting at your desk trying to write a report really tedious and often find yourself getting writer’s block. Why not vary the context by changing where you write? Maybe you find yourself constantly checking your phone during meetings. Why not leave your phone at your desk instead?

Once we’ve set up a new behaviour, we then want to make the new habit easy to continue. If my new habit is to meet with each of my team members once a month to discuss their performance and development, it’s likely to work best if we schedule all the meetings in for the year, and set them on a day and time that is less prone to interruptions. That way the context is the same - same time of the week, same meeting room, same people and same structure. I don’t have to decide each week whether to meet, where to meet and when to meet because that has all been locked in at the start of the year.

When it comes to making and breaking habits, remember the two keys are context and consciousness.

Check out the show notes for a link to the popcorn research from David Neal and the team from the University of California. And you might want to go all the way back to episode one of this podcast to explore leadership habits further. 

So what are your leadership habits, both helpful and harmful? 



David T. Neal, Wendy Wood, Mengju Wu, and David Kurlander. (2011) The Pull of the Past: When Do Habits Persist Despite Conflict With Motives? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 37(11) 1428–1437