Healthy heuristics? Leadership and the influence of habit

In the absence of reflective challenge, leaders may abdicate critical thinking and decision processes to faulty heuristics. Exploration of the science underlying thinking abounds, including Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and Ariely’s Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. Another heuristic-reliant activity involves the concept of habit.

In The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg describes the habit loop, a cycle of cue-routine-reward. When virtuous, the cycle offers our brains a shortcut, moving certain thinking to background automation and freeing us actively focus elsewhere. One Duhigg example involves the programmed driving skill of backing out of a driveway; when performed successfully as a routine, the driver is free to remember a child’s lunch has been left behind. The driver’s “habit” results in a failure mode when the awareness gap prevents him from seeing the risk of backing into the path of an oncoming vehicle. For individuals, inattentiveness to habit formation allows the development of unhealthy routines leading to poor repeating choices in diet, exercise and addictive behavior.

Duhigg illustrates habit analysis for individual, organizational and social applications. I recommend consideration of habit in the context of leadership. What short cuts of habit might an individual invoke in the process of seeking information, analysis, decision making, relationship creation and maintenance, style or communication impede recognition of risk? Mindful awareness—a present knowing about the process of thinking in the moment of occurrence—offers the individual a tool for self assessment and active, rather than passive, thought and choice.

Changing the cycle, according to Duhigg, comprises an intentional “replacement” rather than a “breaking” of habits. Keys to success involve retaining the original cue and reward, understanding the underlying “craving” that reinforces the loop, and implementing a substitute routine. Group support, or community, offers an additional critical component enabling the stickiness of the change. The first section of Power of Habit incorporates detail, evidence and case studies supporting the process of change for individuals.

As part of my current research, I’m seeking diverse inputs on how individuals, coaches, mentors and instructional designers enable transformative experience in self and others. Duhigg’s examination of habit contributes insights of value both researchers and practitioners. What habits have you observed to support or inhibit leadership? 

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