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DC and Virginia HR Consulting and Executive Coaching Newsletter - Issue #6

Breaking Your Bad Habits (Finally!)

This newsletter is the last in a series of 5 dealing with bad habits.  If you have read the last 4, you know that the series has been based partly on the book by Marshall Goldsmith called "What Got You Here Won't Get You There".

In the first 4 newsletters, we discussed:

  • Successful people naturally have bad habits.  Over time, we start to embrace them, and even fool ourselves into believing that they are strengths.  They can be very hard to confront and let go of.
  • Bad habits often manifest in the way we communicate with others.  Our communication unknowingly makes people feel shut out, underappreciated, accused, etc.
  • Bad habits sometimes derive from inappropriate competitiveness.  We compete with others over trivial matters to make ourselves feel better, rather than focusing on common goals.
  • The key to identifying and owning bad habits is through feedback.   Feedback can come from our own observations, or from multiple other external sources.

Truly owning bad habits is the key to changing them.  You have to really be able to admit that a bad habit is really just a bad habit, and not something that makes you stronger.  You need to have made the decision that the benefit to losing a bad habit is worth the pain of making the change.  And most importantly, you have to feel an emotional connection to wanting to make the change.  Here's an example:

I worked with a leader some time ago who had the bad habit of judging people very strongly based on first impressions.  If you did something impressive up front, you were in his good graces for life, and if you messed up you never recovered.  He prided himself on being a fast judge of people (his bad habit in disguise).  Leaders that worked for him emulated that behavior.  It wasn't until this leader was judged by the CEO of the company poorly after a bad meeting that he realized what he had been doing.  He thought of all of the people that he had unfairly judged.   He also thought about how hypocritical he was being with his own children when he told them to "not judge a book by its cover".  It took the emotional experience of being on the other end of the behavior and the realization on the impact to his children did he really vow to change.

If you know what your bad habits are, and are really ready to change, the process that I recommend is pretty straightforward:

  1. Apologize for your bad habit, and really mean it.
    Apologizing shows people that you have come to a realization, and that you feel bad for doing something destructive.  It should state what you did wrong, how it may have impacted others, and how you plan to change (see the wikihow on apologies).  It should not contain excuses.  Many people blow it here by letting pride sneak in.  Does this sound familiar?

    • Bad Apology - I'm sorry that I have not been paying full attention to presentations in meetings.  I didn't realize that you were so sensitive and that I may be hurting your feelings.  Also, you know how busy I am and that just don't' have time for long meetings.  (no ownership, lots of excuses)
    • Better Example - I'm sorry that I have not been paying attention to your presentations in meetings.  I know that I should have listened more patiently, and that my behavior may have made you feel like I wasn't interested in your ideas.

  1. Tell people that you are going to change, and specifically what you are going to change.
    Sometimes the instinct here is to keep this a secret until you actually accomplish the goal, but telling others really puts skin in the game.  Tell them that you have a bad habit, and ask for their feedback if you slip.  Set up a process for dealing with mistakes.  (The old $1 in a jar for every slip up is always a favorite).

    • I really do appreciate what you have to say, and I am going to try and do better at listening.  I'd like to ask for your forgiveness for my past behavior and help going forward to change.  I am going to make sure that my calendar is clear when I speak with you and that my Blackberry is turned off during meetings.  If I slip, please call me on it.  I will put $1 in a jar for charity for every time I revert back to my old ways.

  1. Determine a metric for change and measure your progress.
    You can only know whether you are being successful or not in your efforts to change if you actually track the changes.  Once you are aware of your bad habit, track how many times you do it in a day.  Keep a written record posted for you to look at to review your progress.

    • Keep a daily calendar of one on one and team meetings.  Color the meeting green if you paid full attention in every one.  Color it yellow if you had one slip.  Color it red if you slipped more than once.  Update it at the end of the day.

  1. Review and Follow up.
    It's important to review your progress with someone regularly, and follow up with the people who you have involved in your change.  Reviewing progress helps you objectively see whether you are making improvement, or whether you need to try something else.  Follow up is important to letting you see if your changes are producing results.

    • Follow up with a confidant or coach on a weekly basis to review your metrics, and adjust the plan accordingly.
    • Seek individual feedback.
    • If you used a 360 degree feedback process, do another one in 6 months and compare your scores.

Remember, fixing the bad habit itself should make you more effective in your job, and potentially in life.  But the magic here is that publicly recognizing and stopping your bad habits can be more impactful to your career than starting a new skill.  The process above not only helps you fix your bad habit, but publicizes that you are making a change.  People will notice if you are successful.

That's the end of the series.  If you have any comments, I'd love to hear them.  If you need help identifying, accepting, and fixing your bad habits, feel free to give me a call!  And if find these newsletters worthwhile, please forward this to your friends and colleagues by using the links below.

Jim Bowles
James Bowles and Associate