Good Work Habits Stick Only When Leaders Step up to the Plate and Help

A bad work habit can be a form of self-preservation. How do you, as leader, convince the employee to ditch it?

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By Heather R. Huhman

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Good work habits don't happen overnight -- they take time to form. As a leader, you (hopefully) agree that it's important to support employees while they try to create more productive habits. To do this, leaders must first understand which tactics work best.

Related: 7 Bad Workplace Habits Millennials Need to Stop Making

This requires examining which factors help employees form habits and which ones hinder them. By being supportive, leaders can help prevent employees from heading down the wrong path and instead work to help create a stronger, more productive team.

Let them know they've already "won the race."

Bad habits are often a form of self-preservation. For example, David Maxfield, the vice president of research for leadership training company VitalSmarts, told me he once had an employee who had been through the competitive ringer.

This employee, whom we'll call "Bill," had attended a prestigious college and constantly felt the need to prove himself the smartest person in the room. As a result, Bill was neither welcoming nor receptive to what other team members brought to the table. As a result, Maxfield wanted to help Bill form better collaborative habits.

The first step? Showing Bill he had nothing left to prove.

"He had won the race, and nobody was competing with him anymore," Maxfield said via email from his company in Salt Lake City. "He was a valued member with a secure position on the team."

Helping Bill see this new perspective opened up the employee to changing and forming better habits. Do the same at your company by sitting down with staff and explaining why they're important to the team. Then, show how their current behavior is holding them back. This will help them let down their guard and embrace change.

Related: The Work Habits That Will Make You Successful

Set a good example.

One of the most universally effective habits an employee can have is a positive attitude. But this doesn't come naturally to everyone. Employees need to see a model of such behavior, and that starts with leaders.

"A positive leader makes a remarkable difference," said Don Rheem, CEO of Arlington, Va.-based management-consulting firm E3 Solutions.

Set an example for employees by sporting a positive attitude. Find sincere ways to show confidence and optimism. The key here is for leaders to identify an aspect of the company they're passionate about, and then take the time to share this with employees. Seeing their boss's positive outlook will help them do the same.

Break down their behavior.

An employee who's working on autopilot doesn't stop to see if there's a better, more productive way to approach things. He or she just acts. To get employees to change, leaders need to walk them through their actions and show them where there are problems.

For example, Jeb Ory, CEO of Washington, D.C.-based digital advocacy platform Phone2Action, had an employee who had trouble prioritizing tasks. Ory worked with this man to help him break down his tasks into four categories: urgent, important, urgent but unimportant and not urgent/not important.

"He was spending unnecessary time on unimportant but urgent tasks -- which were basically preparing materials for other people," Ory said via email. "Important but not urgent tasks were not completed ahead of time, so they became urgent and important tasks when they didn't need to be."

Have employees make a list of the various tasks they perform and how long each takes. Make sure they include frequent jobs that pop up unexpectedly. Then, have them talk through how each task affects their workflow. This will help them see how they might be wasting time and adjust accordingly.

Make it a practice to revisit habits.

Just because a process works today doesn't mean it will work in the future. As such, leaders need to remind employees to continually re-evaluate how they approach their jobs.

Revisit employee habits during performance reviews. If there are any signs that individuals' performance levels are dropping, have them take a look at their habits. Encourage them to try something new and see if things improve.

Related: Adopt These 12 Habits for a Better Work-Life Balance

When trying out new behaviors and habits, have employees log how their days go. Make sure they pay attention to things like the time it takes to complete tasks, their end-of-day energy levels and their general happiness. This will help them see what new behaviors should become long-term habits. The good kind.

Heather R. Huhman

Career and Workplace Expert; Founder and President, Come Recommended

Waldorf, Md.-based Heather R. Huhman is a career expert, experienced hiring manager and president of Come Recommended, the PR solution for job search and HR tech companies. She writes about issues impacting the modern workplace.

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