Building Atomic Leadership habits

Read Time: 3 Minutes

Adam Loong | June 1st, 2022


‘If we practice being spectacular long enough, spectacular will become our way of being.’ – Robin Sharma

Habits are what we repeatedly do, they are our identity and collectively in the workplace, they create the culture under which we operate. It should therefore go without saying that if the habit of quality leadership can be instilled within every leader in an organisation, then only good outcomes will result.

Atomic Habits by James Clear is a New York Times number 1 best seller with over 5 million copies sold worldwide. In this book, James provides straight forward, evidence backed, science-based advice on how to create and maintain good habits (and break bad ones!). In this article, I explore how this methodology can be applied in the workplace to help develop better leaders.

Firstly, it is worthwhile to explore why James calls these habits ‘Atomic’. There are three principal reasons why he chose this adjective, they are:

  • Habit forming is achieved through tiny, miniscule type actions, much like an atom;
  • When many habits come together, they become bigger and more powerful, much like atoms coming together to form compounds; and
  • Like atoms, habits are the source of incredible power.

Throughout this article I will explore how small, regular, leadership actions repeated over time, combined with the multiplying effects of wider organisational actions, can create an incredibly powerful workplace culture centred on continuous improvement and high performance.

Building long lasting habits, requires a regular routine that is small and easy to accomplish that is repeated time and time again. The regular routine that should be exercised everyday by every leader in the workplace, is effective communication. Deliberately practicing effective communication will, over time, create quality leadership throughout the organisation.

Effective communication is regular, balanced, and focussed on behaviours. Balanced communication refers to the requirement for every leader to equally communicate with all team members whilst also equally focussing attention between coaching, supporting and recognition of the individual. Finally, communication should be equally balanced across all aspects and behaviours that the role of the individual requires.

This is a lot to ask of any leader, let alone a newly minted one.

To apply the principles presented in Atomic Habits to instil the habit of effective communication in the workplace, a system needs to encourage regular, bite sized conversations that are balanced and focussed on behaviours. Most importantly, the system must be simple to execute and minimally invasive to busy leaders schedules.

Atomic leadership habits in practice

In Atomic Habits, James Clear explains that all habits can be broken down into a feedback loop that includes four main steps, cue, craving, response and reward. To create and maintain a leadership habit, these four steps can be used to build a system or a process that is obvious, attractive, easy and satisfying.

As previously stated, we know that best practice leadership communication in the workplace requires the following principles:

·        Balanced in content. Over time, leaders should balance what they talk about to ensure they are covering the full behavioural requirements of each position.

·        Balanced in intent. Leaders should be providing communications that can be equally defined as coaching (imparting knowledge), supporting (improving behaviour) and recognition (celebrating behaviour).

·        Balanced in focus. The leader of the team should provide equal focus across all members of the team. It is clearly obvious and detrimental to morale when a leader favours or discriminates throughout the team.

deBa is a leadership development system that enables the Atomic Habits principles to be applied to create a communication habit that meets the afore mentioned requirements. The primary tool that enables this habit-forming behaviour for leaders is the reporting dashboard.  There are four charts that are provided as a tool for the leader to use.

Total Conversations Chart

This chart enables the leader to identify quickly how ‘regular’ they are being with their communication and how balanced they are between the types of conversations they are having.

Conversations by team member chart

This chart quickly illustrates the balance of conversations that are occurring with each individual team member. This snapshot identifies if any individuals are being ignored or if there is too heavy a focus on a certain type of conversation.

Conversations by Values

This chart enables the leader to identify if they are talking about all the values / behaviours at an equal rate. Neglecting a certain value may indicate that it is poorly understood or that the value is not as important as they once thought it was.

Values conversations by types

This chart provides the leader with an indication of the how each of the organisational values is being communicated which provides greater insight into the validity and execution of each value.

The Dashboard as a Cue.

Together the four charts of the dashboard serve the purpose of providing the easy to access and easy to understand ‘cue’ for the leader. A quick glance at the dashboard will highlight to the leader who they should be talking to, what they should be talking about and what type of conversation needs to be had.

The Craving

The craving for the leader to act on the cue is the simple fact that they are in a leadership position, and they recognise, through training and support/advice that balanced conversations are essential to good leadership.

The Response

The response to the action undertaken by the leader is a valuable interaction with a team member, understanding their thoughts, their challenges and supporting their desired outcomes and those of the wider team.

The Reward

Following the conversation, the leader returns to the app to log the action that occurred using a simple user interface. Immediately the dashboard charts are updated, and the habit loop is closed.

Compounding habits

As previously mentioned, a powerful effect of atomic habits are the compounding effects that they can have when applied. In this case, the leaders’ leader is a compounding effect. The leadership habits that are forming have direct impact on each other whereby more experienced and senior leaders will naturally impart their leadership knowledge and skills on the newer leaders in the organisation.

By implementing an organisational wide leadership development system that is built on the atomic habit of effective communication, you will enjoy long lasting, compounding effects that will appear as a positive and engaged workplace culture with high performance outcomes.

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