Leadership Bad Habits – An Emotional Intelligence Exercise to Stop It!

Leadership Bad Habits

“We spend a lot of time teaching leaders what to do. We don’t spend enough time teaching leaders what to stop. Half the leaders I have met don’t need to learn what to do. They need to learn what to stop.”

Management expert Peter Drucker, as quoted by Marshall Goldsmith in What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

I recently spoke with the CEO of a San Francisco Bay Area company regarding providing executive coaching and leadership development for their senior executives. She asked some very insightful questions to determine fit. She specifically wanted to know how I worked with different personality styles, and my methods for facilitating changes in thinking and behavior.

The CEO and I spoke about my emotional intelligence-based approach to coaching, and my belief that possessing a psychological understanding of human behavior based on neuroscience is important for coaching executives. We also spoke of the need for her organization to create a culture where innovation and creativity flourishes.

The CEO is interested in collaborating with me to help create a socially intelligent corporate culture based on openness and respect. We further discussed how company leaders could become more resilient by working with a seasoned executive coach. As part of that effort, leaders would need to change some of their bad habits with the help of some powerful exercises to stop it!

“Sustainable leaders know that serving others as opposed to treating employees as servants is the key to better business results, greater team involvement and happier followers.” Dr. Maynard Brusman

The Power of Habit

In his thought provoking book “The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg, an investigative reporter for The New York Times, tackles an important reality head on. That is, people succeed when they identify patterns that shape their lives--and learn how to change them. This idea--that you can indeed change your habits--draws on recent research in experimental psychology, neurology, and applied psychology.

Duhigg looks at the habits of individuals, how habits operate in the brain, how companies use them, and how retailers use habits to manipulate buying habits. The author's main contention is that "you have the freedom and responsibility" to remake your habits. He says "the most addicted alcoholics can become sober. The most dysfunctional companies can transform themselves. A high school dropout can become a successful manager."

"The Habit Loop" explains exactly what a habit is. According to the author, habits make up 40% of our daily routine. The process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which behavior to use. Second, there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is the reward.

Leaders Should Stop Doing Now

Almost all of us delude ourselves about our workplace achievements, status and contributions. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can certainly mislead us when we are told we need to change.

It can be challenging for high-level executives to improve their interpersonal skills. We tend to believe the habits that have helped us rack up achievements in the past will continue to foster success in the future. But as the title of Marshall Goldsmith’s acclaimed book asserts, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.

The more frequently you are promoted to higher levels of executive responsibility, the more important your interpersonal relationship skills are to your success—and the more challenging it is to change bad habits.

It’s natural for successful people to believe that what contributed to their past accomplishments will continue to work for them. They also assume that they can—and will—succeed, no matter what. “Just give me a goal, and let the games begin!” they think to themselves.

But when it comes to changing the way we interact with our peers and direct reports, we often fail to recognize the steps required for ongoing results. Part of this stems from healthy denial, while part may be sheer ignorance. Only when confronted with performance or promotional issues do we open our minds and take action to change bad habits. This usually triggers emotional hot buttons of self-interest.

Discovering What’s Wrong

Identifying the bad leadership habits you’ve accumulated over your career is a task that requires astute investigation, usually through a 360-degree assessment and interviews. When gathering and giving feedback, the interviewer must be sensitive, providing reassurances of confidentiality. Usually, an experienced executive coach will deliver such feedback in a way that prevents you from becoming defensive. This allows you to hear it without taking a huge ego hit.

According to Social Intelligence author Daniel Goleman, the best leaders are those who are trustworthy, empathic and who connect with us. They make us feel calm, appreciated and inspired.

The worst leaders are distant, difficult and arrogant. They make us feel uneasy, at best, and resentful, at worst.

Once you’ve discovered what’s not working it’s time to break the bad habit. The following exercise that I learned from the work of Nathaniel Branden and Marshall Goldsmith has been wonderfully effective in helping my executive coaching clients become more emotionally intelligent leaders.

Exercise to Stop It!

The problem in changing a problem behavior is not typically a lack of motivation or intelligence—the problem is usually that leaders are just too busy and distracted. In order to gain commitment and take action, it helps to pick the one behavior pattern for personal change that will make the biggest difference, and to focus on that. If you choose the right area to change and take action, it will almost always influence other aspects of your relationships with people. For example, more effective listening will lead to being more successful in building teamwork, increasing customer satisfaction, and treating people with respect and building trust.

Leaders isolate the pattern that makes the most sense to change, because it helps them figure out the benefits of change. Five to eight people sit around a table, and each person selects one practice to change. One person begins the exercise by saying: "When I get better at..." and completes the sentence by mentioning one benefit that will accompany this change. For example, one person may say: "When I get better at being open to differing opinions, I will hear more creative ideas."

After everyone has had a chance to discuss their specific behavior and the first benefit, the cycle begins again. Now each person mentions a second benefit that may result from changing the same behavior, then a third, continuing usually for six to eight rounds. Finally, participants discuss what they have learned and their reactions to the exercise.

Now it's your turn to take positive action by choosing a behavior pattern that you may want to change. Complete the sentence: "When I get better at..." over and over again. Listen closely as you recite potential benefits. You will be amazed at how quickly you can determine whether this change is worth it for you. Exercise adapted from Marshall Goldsmith and Nathaniel Branden.

Are you working in a company where executive coaches provide leadership development to grow emotionally intelligent leaders? Does your organization provide executive coaching for leaders who need to change bad habits? Authentic leaders tap into their emotional intelligence and social intelligence skills to create a more fulfilling future.

One of the most powerful questions you can ask yourself is “Do I need to change some bad habits to grow as a leader?” Emotionally intelligent and socially intelligent organizations provide executive coaching as part of their transformational high performance leadership development program.

Working with a seasoned executive coach and leadership consultant trained in emotional intelligence and incorporating assessments such as the Bar-On EQ-I, CPI 260 and Denison Culture Survey can help you increase awareness of bad habits. You can become a leader who models emotional intelligence and social intelligence, and who inspires people to become fully engaged with the vision, mission and strategy of your company or law firm.


Maynard is a consulting psychologist and personal, career and executive coach. He is the president of Working Resources, a leadership consulting, training and transformational coaching firm that develops people and organizations. We specialize in helping companies assess, select, coach, and retain top talent; leadership development; 360-degree feedback; emotional intelligence; competency modeling; succession management; career development and executive coaching. Maynard is an instructor with The...

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