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Taking the Helm: Team-building task illustrates the obstructive role of habit

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Taking the Helm: by Paul Ferdais

I’ve been working with an executive team and recently had them try a team challenge. The challenge was to build a free-standing structure as tall as possible using only a few pieces of dried spaghetti noodles, tape, string and a marshmallow in a set amount of time.

A few days before the team challenge, the group had given each other feedback about how successful they were at communicating within the group, as well as in one-on-one situations. Part of the discussion was for everyone to keep in mind that  they needed to listen better when team members make comments.

Fast forward to the day of the exercise. During the activity, the team fell into traditional roles, relying on the CEO and the president to come up with the answers to the challenge. The problem with this is that there isn’t a single, final solution – there are many answers to the challenge and ideas can come from anyone.

At the end of the allowed time, the team had failed. They hadn’t been able to make a structure of any kind.

Even though the team had earlier spoken about communicating and listening better, that behavior wasn’t implemented by anyone during the activity. The group simply relied on habits to address the task.

Fortunately, the activity isn’t really about the activity. Rather, the exercise is a window into how the team works. During the debrief, what we realized was that everyone followed the hierarchy rather than speak up when something needed to be said or added to the process. This meant that the CEO ran the exercise and was the center of focus.

For anyone who wants to be a better leader, there are a number of options for improvement: coaching, courses, books, videos, etc. The biggest challenge is putting what we learn into practice and changing how we behave. Leadership isn’t a one-and-done skill to put into action, like driving a tender or learning how to serve a five-star meal. The one-and-done viewpoint is a common oversight made by participants in leadership classes, conferences and other leadership training situations.

After learning something new, we need to use it to change how we behave. To paraphrase Einstein, doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is insanity. If we want to be a better leader, we need to change what we do. This is the hard part of leadership training – particularly if attendees don’t want to be there, as is the case in required HELM training courses.

In his bestselling book “The Power of Habit,” author Charles Duhigg goes over the three steps associated with behavior: a cue, a routine and a reward. I recommend the book to anyone who wants to change how they behave.

In a nutshell, the reason the executive team didn’t succeed in their challenge comes back to those three steps: The team had a challenge (the cue), so they fell into their routine behavior of letting the decisions be made by the CEO and president, followed by the reward of completing the activity.

In this case, the real challenge was to improve communication between team members, yet that’s actually the last thing that happened. The power of habit overrode the rational goal.

So, developing our communication skills will make us better leaders, but it’s the implementation of our new communication skills that’s the challenge. Following the three-step process Charles Duhigg describes, we have to be aware of the cue, which is the trigger for our behavior. If we can change the cue, we’re part of the way to success.

If the executive team had been more aware of the cues that led them to fall back into their routine behavior, they would have been more successful. Something they could have tried was selecting a specific person other than the CEO or the president to be the leader.

If the team had the CEO be more of an encouraging bystander for the exercise, or act as an assistant, they could have changed the routine and brought about a different outcome.

As long as we keep in mind that changing our behavior will enable us to succeed and that actions are most often based on habit, we can improve as a leader. Making a new skill a habit requires a three-step process, rather than simply hoping to be better.

Former first officer Paul Ferdais is owner of The Marine Leadership Group (marineleadershipgroup.com) and a commanding officer in the Canadian coast guard. Comments are welcome below.

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