August 30, 2023

Last month we started reflecting on the power of learning in the flow of work, and while we focused on content in that first blog, this month we want to think a bit more about how we support learners to embed the learning into their regular routines. This is how the investment in leadership development pays off and we and our clients want to see new behaviours become habits and the learning impact amplified by enrolling their teams.

A big thinker on this topic is James Clear, author of Atomic Habits who brilliantly reminds us that ‘we think we rise to our goals, when in fact we fall to our systems’. We’ve built a lot of his thinking into our program design so that we can most effectively support our program participants to build habits and routines that support their leadership goals. It’s a simple three step process:

  1. Define what good looks like communicate this to as many people as possible
  2. Leverage processes that exist already to build new habits that fit into your real context
  3. Define your (new) identity that supports your habits

Let’s take each one in turn…

What does good leadership look like?

A key to effective leadership development is starting with the end in mind – that is, being really clear about what culture you want to create and what behaviours will enable this so that you can reward them. For example, if you are building a learning culture then you need to recognise and reward coaching and feedback; if you are building a collaborative culture then you need to set and reward team goals. So first of all think of the culture you want to create and the behaviours which will support that culture.

Second, share your vision across the business and encourage your leaders to share their personal leadership visions with their teams. This means that when others in the business observe new behaviours they will have a context for them and understand why people are choosing to behave differently.

Here’s a funny story to illustrate why this is important…

In the fifth season of the classic US sitcom Friends Chandler and Monica have got together as a couple but have decided not to tell their friends yet. He and Monica are kissing when Rachel, Phoebe and Joey walk into the apartment. Chandler, who sees them, panics and in an effort to cover up their budding romance starts to kiss everyone else, first Rachel and then Phoebe. Joey jumps out the way as Chandler leaves the apartment, throws up his hands and asks, “What the hell was that?” Monica feigns ignorance and suggests it’s some kind of European goodbye that Chandler must have picked up in London but the rest are still horrified and confused because his sudden change of behaviour feels weird.

We are reminded of that scene every time someone explains their experience of going on any type of leadership development training or workshop, especially if the training went well. The participant is fired up and excited to translate all the learning into action so they go back to work and start making all these changes to the way they behave and interact with others. It doesn’t take long for others to notice and they don’t like it. It feels weird but most of all they don’t understand what’s driving it. It’s not that they are necessarily against the new ideas or ways of working – it’s just that they don’t have any context for them. A little explanation will go a long way in getting other on-board with the new behaviours and encourage them to try them too.

How ‘Habit Stacking’ can help you make change stick

Building new habits is hard – as anyone who has tried a new diet or exercise routine will know. James Clear suggests that we make use of the processes we already have to make new habits easier to stick to. He calls this ‘habit stacking’ – building new habits on activities we already do. We build time into our programs for participants to reflect on their work and plan what they want to do more of and what habits they want to build into their regular work routines.

Identity drives behaviour – it’s that simple!

Finally, defining your identity as a leader can enable you to find these new habits come naturally. A friend was complaining that he never made time to practice his music, until he redefined himself as a musician – then it became obvious to him that as a musician he had to put in some time every day to practice! Well, it’s the same for leadership – if you define yourself as a coach for example then you will approach a conversation with a team member from a different perspective than as a boss who has all the answers. As a coach you will see your role as questioning and guiding rather than directing and offering solutions.

We spend a lot of time in our programs encouraging participants to reflect on the type of leader they would like to be, and aligning to the purpose and vision of their organization. This kind of exercise can enable leaders to arrive at a meaningful and authentic vision of themselves as a leader and an identity which will reinforce their leadership habits.

Learning in the flow of work – does it work? Yes it does!

In the words of a team member of a recent participant of one of our programs: ‘The habits [he] has built around being an empathetic leader, supporting innovation through coaching fosters a cycle of positive behaviour and growth in our organisation’  We couldn’t say it better ourselves!

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