As we navigate the challenges of 2023, many of us are trying to entrench new behaviours that will serve us on both a personal and a business level. Leaders are also looking at ways to implement positive behavioural processes and systems into their businesses to retain staff, increase motivation and productivity, and enable ‘business as usual’ in an increasingly volatile world.

According to behavioural scientist Wendy Wood, we tend to focus too much on the pieces of ourselves that we are aware of. Those are our experiences, our feelings, our beliefs and our reasons for doing things. For that reason, we don’t realise that a lot of what we do is out of habit, and not out of choice.

This is a powerful observation, as it means that focusing on things we habitually do, and changing those for our own (and others’) benefit, could be a tool in our toolbox toward changing behaviours and mindsets that no longer serve us. Wood calls this integrating your habit self and your conscious self.

The application of above remains problematic, however, if we believe that we have to change our thoughts and behaviour by exercising willpower. The trick is to change our daily behaviours in order to change our thinking.

But how?

Imagine being the team leader of an average-performing team, knowing that a lack of engagement, connection and collaboration is holding them back from reaching their potential. How can habits help you enhance your leadership and elevate team performance?

The short answer is friction and reward, and this has been a subject of research for many scientists and authors such as Charles Duhigg, James Clear and Wendy Wood. Findings show that we don’t have access to where our habit memory is stored in our brains – it is part of our unconscious self. Therefore, it is impossible to change habits through willpower. The only way to change an old habit is to embed a new one by repetition. That means repeating a behaviour in a given context in the same way and getting rewarded. This releases dopamine and motivates us to repeat the behaviour until it is embedded.

Working with the theory above, the first step is reward. Reward in terms of the human brain is directly linked to the immediate release of dopamine. So, habits don’t form with ‘delayed rewards.’ The repetitive behaviour only becomes habitual when there is an immediate reward.

For example, if you decide to implement a habit to authentically greet and engage your team members in the morning to improve connection, this will deliver the immediate reward of being greeted back and sharing some smiles. If done daily, it will also have the long-term benefit of building stronger relationships. Besides helping you connect with your team members, your example will encourage them to start greeting and connecting with each other, which could significantly improve cohesion, performance and business results. But, if you don’t see the reciprocal greeting as a step toward your long-term goal of building relationships and improving business results, it won’t register as a reward in the moment. So, it is important that the immediate reward is connected to your life and leadership objectives.

I often refer to Dr David Rock’s SCARF model in my work, and it is also absolutely relevant to forming lasting habits – for ourselves and others. It is impossible to form a new habit if the behaviour does not put you in a positive, toward state and switch you on. Our fight or flight response is deeply engrained in our biology, therefore positive contributions to our Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness (SCARF) domains are very real rewards e.g. acknowledging each other (Status), identifying measurable steps toward your business goals (Certainty), showing trust (Autonomy), connecting daily (Relatedness) and taking steps to ensure equity (Fairness).

Secondly, apply friction. Use the factors of distance, time and effort to make the things you don’t want to do more inconvenient and the things you want to do more convenient. James Clear advocates this strongly in his work. Sleep in your running clothes if you have to, put your phone in the other room when you go to bed, prep your healthy lunch before you go to bed. Another powerful way of doing this is habit-stacking: leverage your existing habits by introducing a new behaviour after an already entrenched habit. An example would be to meditate for five minutes after brushing your teeth. Finding time somewhere in your busy office schedule to check in with team members daily can be challenging, so slot it in intentionally with things you already do every day, like checking in when you start a meeting or inviting someone to walk with you and catch up while you get coffee.

I believe the magic lies in combining mindfulness techniques with the power of habits. Mindfulness makes us aware of what needs to change, and habits give us the means to make that change. I schedule habitual morning, noon and evening reflections into my day. I reflect on who I want to be and interrogate my progress relentlessly. This has not only changed my behaviour but also my thoughts, my relationships, my leadership and my business.

Habits are not only for adopting a new diet or for becoming the next billionaire – habits can help you become the person you want to be for others and for yourself.

Brian Eagar

CEO, TowerStone

In 2006, Brian founded TowerStone in an effort to provide leaders with a constructive space to learn, grow and inspire brand ambassadorship, following an extensive career leading multicultural teams in a multinational organisation. Aside from his experience, he has a deep understanding and passion for neuroscience, which allows him to influence others to excel. He aims to guide leaders to better understand the essence of neuroscience in order to help them lead at their best and create an inclusive space where everyone can contribute optimally to the benefit of the organisation.

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