Menu Close

How managers can break their bad habits


Leaders must learn and practise new management techniques in order to overcome the habits that are holding them back, writes Jean-Francois Manzoni, INSEAD Professor of Management Practice, for Insead Knowledge.

The world of business has become more volatile, uncertain. complex and ambiguous than ever before. Therefore, insists Manzoni, it is absolutely essential for leaders at all levels to develop new responses and capabilities.

The good news, says the author, is that a wealth of research confirms that it is indeed possible for leaders to learn new capabilities.

However, he warns that change is difficult, and that “despite being armed with greater access to knowledge and training than ever before, executives still need to be able to integrate that knowledge into their behaviour back at work”.

Identifying the need for improvement is an important first step. If you’re satisfied with your performance in a certain area, you aren’t likely to make an effort to improve it – even if you should.

Therefore, Manzoni urges executives move from “Unconscious Incompetence” to “Conscious Incompetence”.


The author observes: “Most of us have been here before. When learning to ride a bike, this was the part where we took off our training wheels and realised we couldn’t balance. We then have to master staying up straight, which moves us from Conscious Incompetence to Conscious Competence.

“This requires a tremendous amount of attention, practice and persistence, especially when you fall off.”

Eventually, after enough practice, you move from Conscious Competence to Unconscious Competence, where you can do it without thinking.

The problem for senior executives is that the challenge they face is more complicated than a child trying to ride a bike, because leaders are not trying to start from scratch – they are have the challenge of overriding existing, ingrained habits.


Manzoni has identified four major obstacles to overcoming these habits:

1) The knowing-doing gap. The author observes that today’s executives know a great deal about leadership from articles, books and executive development programmes.

However, just, because they know something doesn’t automatically mean they can implement it. In fact, the opposite is often true.

Having understood a concept, executives can wrongly believe that they are automatically implementing it, while if they didn’t understand they might devote proper attention to it.

2) Insufficient investment. Senior executives regularly underestimate the effort needed to gain greater leadership knowledge in a way that will improve their performance in practice.

Too often, they are prepared to accept a rough understanding of the principle. This leads to underinvestment in the development of more comprehensive knowledge and ensuring they implement their learning in practice.

As Manzoni explains, if a concept is not properly in your head, you won’t be able to use it in real life situations. If you want the knowledge to be readily accessible, the author recommends making notes and reviewing them regularly. To develop mastery of the practice, he insists, you have to develop mastery of the knowledge first.

3) Implementation difficulties leading to insufficient persistence. To break your habits and behave according to your new objectives, you have to:

• intercept the habitual response;
• identify a more appropriate response, and;
• produce that preferred response.


All of this has to occur in a short space of time and under performance pressure. To be able to do this requires time, attention and self-control.

It’s tempting, therefore, for executives to revert to their ingrained habits and rationalise the failure, moving back to the Unconscious Incompetence stage.

4) Insufficient support from their eco-system. Disappointment often arises from a lack of positive reinforcement from co-workers who fail to notice the effort being made. Sometimes these people are unwilling or unable to change the way they interact, observes Marzoni.

Understanding these obstacles doesn’t mean change is any easier, but it helps if executives realise the demanding nature of the challenge and the persistence they must show.

Manzoni also identifies four strategies for executives wishing to modify aspects of their leadership style:

1) Focus your efforts. Rather than spreading time and energy on a range of behaviours, concentrate on one skill of significant importance – one for which an improvement will deliver a high return on your investment. Read about how to improve this practice or behaviour, making notes and reviewing them regularly.

Think in terms of positive rather than negative goals (e.g., “I will” rather than “I won’t”). Break these goals into small, manageable components. Also invest time and effort in getting support from key stakeholders.

2) Develop your mindfulness. Manzoni advises that to intercept your habitual response and act more productively, you need to be mindful and focused in the “here and now”. This takes practice. The author suggests “conscious/mindful breathing”.

He explains: “Breathing mindfully means being fully aware of your breath, of the air coming in and out of your lungs, and trying to think of nothing else. If you manage to take ten to fifteen such mindful breaths, you will have regained some mindfulness and a measure of calmness.”

3) Develop your reflectiveness. Intercepting your habitual response and producing a better one is very difficult under performance pressure.

Therefore, it makes sense to prepare yourself ahead of meetings or pressure situations. By thinking ahead to likely or possible future situations, you can prepare potential responses in advance.

Also, try to learn from past experiences by looking back, reviewing your responses and identifying what your did well or better ways to handle situations in the future.

4) Be persistent and have faith. You are bound to get frustrated in your efforts to change and overcome the challenges, but you should try to stay positive. If you have setbacks, learn from them.

Remember Thomas Edison’s words: “I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”

Source Article: Breaking Bad Leadership Habits
Author(s): Jean-Francois Manzoni
Publisher: Insead Knowledge