Good Habits Make Good Managers

Author: Ashley St. John
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“The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.” —Samuel Johnson

For the past several years, the SAP SuccessFactors Human Capital Management Research team has been conducting research on the topic of continuous performance management. A key finding from this research is that making the shift to a more continuous method of performance management is as much about changing people’s mindsets as it is changing actual processes. The reason many performance management transformations fail is because managers and employees are unable to abandon their old habits and adopt new patterns of behavior.

Changing people’s habits is far easier said than done. Research conducted by Lally and colleagues suggests it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days for people to form a new habit (with a median time of 66 days). That’s more than three times the common myth that it takes “21 days to make a habit.” Fortunately, research has identified several strategies companies can leverage to help managers and employees abandon their old, ineffective habits and adopt new, more impactful ones. Four of these strategies were nicely summarized in a study by Kaushal and Rhodes, who explored the process of habit formation in new gym members. The same strategies that work for improving exercise routines can be applied to creating healthy coaching habits.

1. Consistency

Participants who exercised in a consistent manner (i.e., at the same time every day) were more likely to form a habit of exercising compared with participants who did not follow a set pattern or schedule.

This finding speaks to the value of scheduling regular coaching and feedback sessions with employees. Having these meetings may feel awkward at first, but the more consistently they occur, the less uncomfortable and more natural they will become.

It may be useful to provide managers and employees with suggested guidelines around how often they should be engaging in coaching conversations. It is also important to remember that newly adopted behaviors will not become ingrained overnight. Encourage and monitor the regular occurrence of coaching conversations over time, even after the initial excitement of shifting to more continuous performance management has faded.

2. Simplicity

Participants who thought it would be difficult to exercise on a regular basis were less likely to make a habit out of exercising.

Note the emphasis on perception. If people think something is easy to do, they are more likely to do it. The key is making sure people do not view it as something that is inherently hard to do.

Talking with employees about their performance and development may not seem like a major challenge, but many managers might view it as “yet another thing I have to keep track of and cram into my schedule.” Fortunately, technology can help managers remember to have coaching conversations by providing email notifications and other system reminders. Technology can also help managers keep track of employees’ progress on activities and achievements and document relevant questions and previous discussion topics. By reducing some of the administrative burden associated with continuous performance management, managers may feel less overwhelmed by the prospect of holding regular coaching conversations with employees.

3. Comfort

People who viewed exercising as an enjoyable activity were more likely to make exercising a long-term habit.

It is not surprising that it is easier to build habits around things we feel comfortable doing. One of the challenges associated with continuous performance management is that many managers do not have knowledge or confidence in their coaching skills. Managers may feel intimidated by the prospect of engaging in coaching conversations or interpret providing employees with feedback as being more difficult or complicated than it needs to be. This is why it is so critical to train managers on what effective coaching behaviors look like and how to provide effective feedback to employees.

The more information managers have about the right and wrong ways to engage in ongoing coaching conversations, the more comfortable they will be to carry them out. Ensure managers understand the sorts of topics and questions coaching conversations should be focused on and how these conversations differ from the other conversations managers may already be having with employees (e.g., check-ins, development planning conversations). And provide managers with simple best practices or feedback do’s and don’ts so they feel comfortable and confident when entering into a coaching conversation with employees.

4. Reward

Participants who perceived exercising to be associated with rewards (both internal and external) were more likely to maintain an exercise habit than participants who did not associate exercising with reward.

We often hear from customers that the motivation to engage in coaching conversations seems to plateau over time. Managers show excitement early on but tend to revert to their old habits. One of the best ways to motivate employees to change their behaviors is to ensure they see a connection between these behaviors and their personal career goals. This is why it is important for companies to tie continuous performance management activities with other organizational talent management decisions — for example, tracking and rewarding managers based on their commitment to actively coaching and developing employees.

We often compare implementing continuous performance management with changing health habits. It is one thing to recognize that a healthy diet and exercise are important, or to buy vegetables and join a gym. It is another to actually live a healthy lifestyle over time. The same can be said for continuous performance management. Having the right knowledge, training and tools are important. But these things only add value if managers and employees change their old habits and adopt new patterns of behavior. These four tips can serve as a starting point to help companies break the chain of habit and enable effective coaching behaviors in their organization.

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Good Habits Make Good Managers
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