Hardwired Habits: The Risks of Being Clueless

Team leaders are often blind to the damage their bad habits cause, says best-selling author Dan Goleman.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller Emotional Intelligence, is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, is available now. 

Our emotional intelligence habits are routines that operate without our thinking about them—for better or for worse. The worse ones can range from misdirected anger towards your spouse after you get a bad report from a client, to simply shutting down when your best ideas are being ignored. These responses occur outside of our conscious awareness; they operate on autopilot.

While some such habits can be considered harmless personal quirks, others can damage a leader’s effectiveness. They can hinder a team’s success, create uncertainty, or limit an organization’s overall progress towards big picture objectives. For top leaders, even small quirks can add up.

I recall Ritu, a talented multi-tasker and empathic manager, who was struggling to motivate her team. She readily confessed to being too busy to respond to questions via email – and she knew her silence was challenging for her team.

Ritu was off-key in several emotional intelligence competencies, including achievement orientation, influence, and, most glaringly, self-awareness. She had a blind spot around her failure to give clear direction.

Tellingly, despite the evidence to the contrary, Ritu insisted that she was always available. Indeed, she encouraged people to communicate via text, no matter what time of day. But Ritu was missing two key points. First, her team preferred email because it allowed for more detail. Second, and most important, her constant busyness—and the resulting radio silence—created confusion and a lack of much-needed feedback for the team to carry out their tasks.

Ritu tried to improve her email response rate and set up more meetings. But as her direct reports soon saw, these new routines were short-lived, and ineffective at solving the underlying communication problems. Ritu just couldn't create a lasting shift in her emotional intelligence habits.

Habits, both good and bad, are so hard to change because they are actions the brain has moved from awareness to unconscious actions, almost like reflexes, based in the basal ganglia, a primitive structure at the base of the brain. Once there, our habitual responses are beyond our conscious awareness. This makes changing habits very challenging.

Simply recognizing that we have an emotional intelligence habit that hinders our effectiveness shines a light on not only the action sequence the habit activates, but also the cues that trigger the habit over and over again. For Ritu, the feelings of being under pressure cued her tuning out of her team’s needs for clear direction from her.

Self-awareness lets us deliberately focus consciously on what has become unconscious. This allows us to bring back into awareness what had become automatic habit. With such inner focus we can begin to change our emotional intelligence repertoire for the better.

Self-Awareness is essential to successful leadership because it allows us to better manage our emotional intelligence habits. If these operate on automatic, beyond our conscious reach, we are helpless to improve any damaging impact on our relationships and productivity. Cultivating self-awareness lets us access these hidden habits, opening the door to managing them better.

In Ritu's case, realizing that her habits were ineffective caused her to reassess her entire leadership style. She restructured her department to create more decision-makers, reducing the bottleneck that was the root of the problem. Not being so bogged down by minor requests also allowed her greater freedom and creativity. Ritu became more engaged as the relationships on her team shifted markedly for the better.