Building Good Leadership Habits, One Small Step at a Time

by Annemarie Estess

Meet Jamie, a Director who just took part in a leadership training offered by his employer. 

He, like several colleagues, is leaving the training with a sense of optimism and a commitment to try out leadership behaviours from the course. He has chosen the goal of focusing more on big-picture priorities during his workdays instead of getting pulled into the weeds of the work. 

Jamie sees the value of this practice for his team and his own development, knows his colleagues are in favour of it and is confident that he can make it happen. 

Doesn’t seem like there should be a problem, right? 

If only it were that straightforward. Alarmingly research has found that only 15% of people will try out a new behaviour back at work after just a stand-alone training, unless they’ve engaged in pre-work and follow-up work to reinforce their learning on the job (in which case the percentage of people trying out the targeted behaviours improves significantly). (Training on Trial, p. 8)

Some of that low uptake in building new behaviours after training can be due to participants not feeling motivated to shift their way of doing things, or not feeling skilled enough to try the new behaviours. 

In Jamie’s case, those aren’t barriers. He’s both motivated and supported to work on this area of his leadership, and he understands the skills required. 

The barrier for Jamie is that he is heading back into a busy and distracting workplace. In an overwhelming context where his attention is pulled several directions, it can be tempting to ditch the new habit — staying focused on strategic priorities — and default to familiar patterns like jumping into the minutiae of small problems. This understandably feels efficient and more comfortable in the short-term, even if it’s not strategic or beneficial to Jamie’s leadership over time.

In a chaotic environment, what can help Jamie stay focused on his goal of bigger-picture prioritisation? 

Here’s the framing we share with clients:

Do Small Things Often

Take whatever your desired new mindset, attitude or behaviour is and break it down into useful, doable pieces that can be regularly incorporated into your workflow.

Jamie could opt to do these types of small things often:

  • Small Thing 1: Have a recap of the organisational and team goals visibly pinned up in his workspace.
  • Small Thing 2: Take 10 minutes every morning, separated from his phone and emails, to re-read those broader goals and list out the priorities for that day.
  • Small Thing 3: Keep this list with him and visible throughout the day in the same place where he captures notes during meetings.

The core of this approach is about training our attention. We can use simple and routine cues (a list, a post-it, a reminder notification, an object) to nudge ourselves to focus attention on a new habit of thought or action. Each time we attend to that thing is like a ‘‘bicep curl” strengthening that neural circuitry in our mind.

Neuroscientist Dr Wendy Hasenkamp gives a nod to this process in a recent interview with the Greater Good Science Center. She discusses the promising effects of doing a smaller, incremental practice of attention-training exercises. This is an alternative to forcing ourselves to do much longer practices that we may not be able to sustain or pay attention to fully in the course of a hectic workday.

“Even those small things are still training. And it’s often said that even five minutes of practice multiple times a day might be more effective because you keep coming back and retraining those circuits.” 

Dr Wendy Hasenkamp

This is heartening news. It can help to take the pressure off of a lofty behaviour-change goal by simplifying it into a system of achievable cues and actions. By doing small things often, we can train our attention toward that habit and contribute to a meaningful shift. 

Are you ready to create your small steps? Get in touch to find out how a coach can support you.

Annemarie trains and coaches leaders using an integrated approach from her academic background in social and behavioural sciences, paired with professional training in Co-Active Coaching™ and Leadership methods. She specializes in helping organisational leaders and entrepreneurs take ownership of their leading style, focus on priorities, develop practices for managing their stress and energy levels, and cultivate stronger relationships.