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Helping Managers Develop Good Habits

Good And Bad Habits

A habit is an acquired behavior pattern that is so ingrained that it has become almost involuntary. Whether the habit is “good” or “bad” depends mostly on the effect the behavior has on other people; if the behavior causes anxiety, confusion, or resentment, it’s a bad habit.

Let’s look at a specific example: interrupting someone when they are talking. In some situations, it’s not a big deal, but if a person makes it a habit to interrupt others when they are talking, it can become a problem. The person interrupted may be the boss that you are trying to impress, for instance, or it may be your beloved spouse who is trying to share character-building advice with you. In those circumstances, it’s usually best not to interrupt!

How Habits Get Started (Behavior ≠ Intentions)

Most habits get started in an entirely innocuous way: a person reacts to a situation in a way that works, and works well. In fact, it works so well that he or she tries it again, in a similar situation, and perhaps it works again. Humans, being what we are, tend to generalize our behavior from successful situations to as many as we can find that are close – it saves time and is easier! Our intentions may be good, but the downside is that we may unintentionally and unknowingly respond according to habit, rather than according to what the new situation requires of us.

Very few of us set out to develop bad habits. Our intentions are usually at least neutral, if not downright pure! Let’s go back to our example of the habit of interrupting others when they speak: if you hear a flaw in someone’s logic while he is talking, it may just make sense to you to save time by stepping in and pointing out the flaw. This will save you time spent listening to a poorly reasoned argument, and it will save the other person time spent discussing something that you already know won’t work. And don’t we all just love to have our mistakes pointed out to us — especially by a person who hasn’t heard us out?

The person who does the interrupting may simply have gotten in the habit of speaking his or her thoughts as soon as they occur, without regard for whose turn it is to speak, but it certainly doesn’t look or feel that way to the people around him! We can’t see a person’s intentions; all we can see is their behavior, what they do or say. And, unfortunately, our behavior does not always perfectly reflect our good intentions.

So, How Much Of A Big Deal Are Bad Habits?

Bad habits diminish both personal and group productivity and can lead to misunderstandings! They can contribute to conflict between co-workers, miscommunication, “gotcha” type revenge efforts, and missed deadlines, just to mention a few of the consequences. An even more extreme consequence may be customer dissatisfaction caused, for example, by the telephone receptionist who has a habit of putting people on hold without asking for permission, or the restaurant server’s habit of rolling his eyes when dealing with difficult customers. When customers are dissatisfied, they tend to do two things: first, they tell others about their dissatisfaction with your company, and second, in the worse case scenario, they find another company to do business with.

How To Change A Bad Habit

Someone once said bad habits are like warm beds; they are easier to get into than to get out of. The best way to change a bad habit is to swap it with a good habit. That’s easier said than done and so, if you have a manager who has a bad habit, here are some suggestions for helping him or her develop a more functional habit.

1. Identify the problem behavior and its costs. Be very specific in describing the behavior. Describe what the behavior looks like and then explain how it has been misunderstood.

Cautionary Note: Remember that most people are acting from good intentions and they assume that their behavior demonstrates those good intentions. You can avoid a lot of defensiveness if you begin by talking about the person’s good intentions before you talk about their behavior (bad habit).

2. Talk over what triggers this habitual behavior and then, working together, come up with some ideas about other ways to respond to these triggers. Ask the person how you can help him remember not to fall into the habitual behavior.

3. Give the person some time and space to digest everything you have talked about, and then follow up with a second private conversation in which you and he agree on an Action Plan. This Action Plan should include the new, “good” habit that he intends to substitute for the bad habit, an awareness of the circumstances in which it will be hardest to remember it, and how he plans to remind himself. Finally, it should include a definite time, a week or so from this conversation, when you both review his progress.

4. At the time specified in step 3, meet with the person and review his progress. Give him specific feedback about the improvement(s) you have seen. If there is still need for more effort on his part, help him revise his Action Plan accordingly.

While most of us have good intentions and try to act in accordance with them, we’re usually not as aware of our own bad habits as we are of the bad habits of those around us. When our bad habits are pointed out, we often try to counter what we see as an attack on our good intentions by saying things like, “…but what I meant was…” or “… what I was trying to do (say)….” So, if it’s part of your job to develop and coach others, keep in mind that you need to recognize their good intentions first and then point out how their behavior is sabotaging those good intentions. Use the suggestions above to help those people avoid defensiveness while developing better habits.