“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
I wish I could take responsibility for saying that but the truth is that it’s a very well documented idea that is credited to Aristotle more than 2,000 years ago. Admittedly, he probably didn’t write it exactly like that because he was in ancient Greece. It’s powerful though, isn’t it? It reminds us that we are the sum of our actions and behaviours, and that if we want to excel we need to be consistent, dedicated and committed.
The importance of habits clearly isn’t a new concept. In the much more recent past, Stephen Covey’s seminal book about the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People struck such a cord with so many that it sold more than 25 million copies worldwide. On an individual level, the idea that we should build habits to make ourselves more effective resonates easily whether we’re trying to get fit, improve at work or get out of bed earlier.
Although we find it easy to digest the idea of changing our own habits, we are often much less enthusiastic about trying to change the habits of others. Perhaps it’s because we know that it isn’t only difficult, it also takes a very long time and often fails.
The reason this is important is because many leaders and managers we speak to want to know how to make “engaging people” something that happens every day. They are tired of Engagement being something that becomes interesting once a year, usually accompanied by some sort of survey. They want to know how to create more engaging habits for everyone in their company.
This sounds great, and it’s extremely admirable, but in order to get there the top leaders of a company often need to confront their own habits first and ask themselves if they are the right ones to get the organisation where they want it to go. They need to start with themselves.
So what do we think leaders should be doing? Here are some ideas to start:
Know yourself. It’s always helpful to improve your own self awareness to be able to identify areas where your habits might be helping or hindering you. Consider using a robust personality assessment to get some structured feedback about your strengths and weaknesses as a performer at work. Hogan Assessments provides useful tools for understanding where your bad habits might creep in and derail your own performance and the performance of your team.
Stop “Action Planning” as if it’s an activity that’s totally separate from the way you run your business. We often run into this after an employee survey, where organisations try to design and implement large volumes of activity to respond to ememployee feedback. Try something different. Identify regular organisational habits that you want to change and start implementing more consistent improvements. One off activities can be useful to address short term issues but to generate sustained improvement you need to behave differently. One very successful organisation we work with structures employee feedback to form part of their planning cycle. Rather than creating a separate action planning process, they build it into the overall business planning to help them make decisions that are informed by operating, financial and people performance data holistically. They also focus onmanagement habits to build engagement and performance; for example, very regular 1-on-1 meetings with employees, development discussions and consistent constructive feedback. They want it to “feel wrong” when managers are not doing these things, as it would if you were trying to stop any other habit that you have.
Last, remember you are a role model. If you are a leader, then people will model their behavior on yours. Sorry, it’s just the way it is and even more so if you’re very successful. Remember this every day. If you’re not acting in a way that shows the people around you that you value them and their engagement with the company, don’t expect them to treat anyone else any differently.
I’m a big believer that successful businesses build positive habits which become engrained in their culture and drive consistency and performance. They help assimilate new employees, build shared understanding and, most importantly, they help guide the right behaviours.