• Jeff Doolittle

Top 7 Leadership Bad Habits and How to Break Them



Eating that leftover jelly-filled donut or stopping at Taco Bell for a fourth meal on your way home from a long day at work will have consequences. Sometimes we are aware of how our bad habits impact us because we experience the immediate effect. Other times we have no idea of how our habits are negatively impacting ourselves and others. A habit is a practice or tendency that is hard to give up. We acquire habits through learning based on consequence reinforcement that can be considered either good or bad. Leadership bad habits can sometimes be rewarding, as the taste of a jelly-filled donut, or harmful as weight gained from eating too many donuts. The consequences of bad leadership habits vary and range from minor uncomfortable situations to those with organizational survival impacts. In leadership and life, it is easy to fall into bad habits. One helpful approach to breaking any bad habit is identifying the habit and replacing it with a new healthy habit. The following are my top seven leadership bad habits and some ideas for breaking them:


1. Using positional power. It is easy to fall into the trap that the only way to gain influence is to leverage positional power. I am the boss, so do as I say. Positional power is not always negative, but it can do great harm to any relationship if abused. Although positional power can prompt immediate action, it reduces others' motivation to give more than what is expected. When abused, it can lead to retaliation and the mindset of "when the cat is away; the mice will play." The result is that you may have people only doing what you direct when you are around. Abusing positional power prevents the realization of the full potential of what can be from motivating others to do more than what is expected.

Breaking the habit: Adopt a servant leadership style. Research has shown that a servant leadership style improves workplace productivity, performance, organizational results and increases discretionary effort. Start using positive reinforcement. Find followers making an approximation of the behaviors you want more of and reinforce them for those behaviors.


2. Attention deficit. Fostering innovation within an organization is an increasingly important leadership behavior. Identifying worthy ideas requires seeing new patterns in the data. However, in today's fast-paced digital workplace, staying focused can be very challenging as leaders rush from meeting to meeting. Avoiding distractions and focusing is essential to identifying the new patterns.

Breaking the habit: Keep a journal of problems that you find and ideas that you have. Using a journal helps you manage the negative impacts of rushing and role overload. Reflecting on the issues and innovative ideas written in the journal at a later time helps you recognize patterns and avoid cognitive errors caused by recency bias.


3. Do as I say, not as I do. Leadership is about influence. As a leader, you set expectations for the organization. Your actions speak louder than your words. When actions do not match what is said, it damages trust. Integrity moderates the degree of confidence in a relationship—the less honesty in the relationship, the less the trust. No one wants to follow a leader that is not willing to follow their own advice.

Breaking the habit: No radical advice on this one. Ask others to help you become aware of situations where you do not live up to what you ask of others.


4. Sending an email instead of talking. Written communication is not a substitute for speaking directly with someone. It probably goes without needing scientific research to understand that face-to-face communication is the most effective communication form. Sending emails and texts can be deceptive because you feel like you are communicating; however, a message sent does not mean a message received. When you send an email in place of a face-to-face conversation, you minimize your influence potential and, ultimately, the relationship.

Breaking the habit: Prioritize meetings with those you lead. Establish a regular meeting schedule to make space for time to talk face-to-face. If you are unsure where to begin or question if it is possible, I recommend reading about the model presented by Patrick Lencioni in