Master the Most Powerful Leadership Habit You Didn’t Know You Had
What was the latest habit you adopted? Was it reading every day for at least one hour? Quitting coffee forever? It’s simple to keep track of these types of routines. Let’s call them action habits. You start one day and if you are still doing it months later without thinking about it, you got yourself a new action habit.
But underneath this productivity, all of us have emotional habits that determine how we approach life’s situations. Whether it’s a positive situation, like landing a big client, or a negative one, like losing a big client, our emotional habits influence how we perceive the situation.
In the words of Kimerer L. LaMothe, Ph.D., people “develop a habit of responding to whatever happens to them from the same emotional place.” So our emotional responses can become habits just as our actions can. She goes on to say that “there are three primary emotions—fear, grief, and anger. But over time people come to rely on one emotional color as their baseline response to new information. So there are people who are fear-based, grief-based, or anger-based.”
In other words, it’s no longer about what happens to us, but how we are used to reacting about what happens to us.
The Nature of Habits – A Quick Recap
We all read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, and if you haven’t, do yourself a favor and get it. We won’t go into the details, but let’s focus on the habit loop: cue, routine, and reward.
The more this loop repeats on a certain behavior or situation, the habit will get stronger as our brain adapts and creates a neural pathway to lock that habit in our normal behavior. This is how things become second nature. But none of this can happen unless there is a reward at the end of the loop.
So going back to Dr. Lamothe’s emotional responses—anger, fear and sadness—you might wonder how being angry, afraid or sad can be a reward that strengthens an emotional habit. The answer is simple. The reward isn’t in the emotion, but in the decision that came from the emotion. Here’s how that works:
Deciding In Fear
The reward of fear is security. By making decisions from a place of fear you avoid risks and gain a sense of security. So you might let that opportunity go because it posed a risk. Or you might decide not to push for that big ad campaign. The point isn’t whether you made the right decision or not. It’s the fact that deciding from fear gave you a sense of security. And that is a reward that reinforces the emotional habit of fear. There are people in your company that love feeling safe at the expense of being stuck. But your leadership can push your team forward.
Deciding in Anger
The reward of anger is control. It doesn’t mean you make decisions while upset. But angry decisions are aggressive and look to regain control of whatever went wrong. That is why managers snap at their employees or take over a department instead of trusting their team when things aren’t going well. There are people in your company that deeply resent being controlled, and others who feel more comfortable being controlled. Neither side of the coin is healthy. You want people to have the freedom to create a better place to work and ultimately a company that grows.
Deciding in Sadness
The reward of sadness is self-righteousness. This is the culture of pessimism and justification. When things go wrong, this habit will find ways to make excuses. The market is too saturated, the competition didn’t play fair, somebody screwed up, life is unfair. If you find a good reason to justify that obstacle, you will validate your misfortune. There are people in your company who prefer excuses over ownership. Your leadership can develop people who step up no matter the circumstances.
Better Emotional Habits
Businesses can thrive despite the most adverse circumstances. It’s possible that as you read this you thought “maybe this sounds like me, but it’s worked for me so far.” But what if these emotional habits are what’s stopping you and your company from the next big step. A better work culture starts with the small decisions, especially the ones taken in stressful situations.
Put simply, could it be that the reason why you react the way you do in stressful situations is just how you’re used to reacting? If so, it’s great news. Because you are no longer dealing with a lack of skill or a character issue. It’s only a habit. And habits can be transformed.
Emotional habits speak in the form of thoughts. So being aware of your thoughts is a skill you need to master through your lifetime. This may sound mystical, but the most direct way to become aware of your thoughts is to think of yourself as someone else hearing yourself. But beware, not all your thoughts are true.
Awareness Leads to Better Leadership
Just because you have a thought it doesn’t mean it’s true. As we’ve seen, your thoughts are conditioned by habits, and some habits are harmful. So how do you know if you’re lying to yourself? You have to get used to asking yourself some questions.
Is this emotion proportional to the situation? Does this person I’m dealing with warrant this kind of reaction? Am I the kind of person who would react this way? Even better, when you think of the leader you are becoming, is this the kind of reaction you want to have?
As leaders, our success at work, at home and our personal life will be determined by how we manage our reactions to adversity. You can be the king of time and energy optimization but actions will only take you so far. In fact, focusing only on productivity can have negative consequences like, you guessed it, anxiety and fear.