Addicted To Power: Why Bad Leadership Habits Are Hard To Break

“Every time I go to my boss with a new idea, she interrupts me with a reason why it won’t work. She never hears the whole idea. Why bother?” Just about every member of this manager’s team relayed some version of the same story. When confronted with the feedback from her team members, she responded that she had heard the same complaint during her last feedback session and had tried really hard to change her behavior. “I don’t want to be that kind of boss. I want to listen to my team members. I want to hear their ideas. I know it is frustrating for them but it is frustrating for me too.” I believed her.

The issue wasn’t that she didn’t want to change. She would take another class, hire another coach, start another feedback process but after a few successful weeks, she would be right back into the old habits. Anyone who has tried to stop smoking, exercise more, lose weight, or permanently change any long standing habit, knows how hard it can be. This is the dilemma of New Year’s resolutions. No matter how sincere the intention, execution can be excruciatingly difficult.

A show about habits on National Public Radio talked about a study done on heroin addiction among US soldiers in Viet Nam. “In May of 1971, two congressmen, Robert Steele from Connecticut and Morgan Murphy of Illinois, went to Vietnam for an official visit and returned with some extremely disturbing news: 15 percent of U.S. servicemen in Vietnam, they said, were actively addicted to heroin.” President Nixon declared war on drugs and commissioned a study to follow the vets after they returned home. Lee Robins did the follow up study and found that of all the addicted vets, only 5% relapsed into heroin addiction after returning home. Many of them had no additional treatment (They all received some treatment while still in Viet Nam.). Heroin is, of course, a highly addictive drug.

Why then, were so few vets susceptible to re-addiction? People who were addicted to heroin in the US and received similar treatment relapsed about 90% of the time. Was it that one group wanted to change and the other group did not want to change. Not likely. Early research on behavior change focused on modifying intentions or attitudes. So, advertising campaigns, therapy, coaching and so forth were the primary tools used to influence new behaviors. Such strategies worked OK for behaviors that people engage in periodically or infrequently like donating blood, or participating in volunteer activities. But the habits that have been learned and repeated daily or hourly like smoking or overeating just don’t respond very well to methods that rely solely on persuasion or therapy.

Psychologist David Neal explains, “Once a behavior had been repeated a lot, especially if the person does it in the same setting, you can successfully change what people want to do. But if they’ve done it enough, their behavior doesn’t follow their intentions,” Sounds a lot like our manager in the story. After years of interrupting team members with new ideas and explaining why it won’t work, simply wanting to change that behavior was not enough, even with training and coaching.

What does seem to work is to also change the environment. Once it was determined that smoking caused cancer, there were massive public “stop smoking” campaigns but the number of people who stopped was small. The rate really started to decline only when the environment changed. Today, you cannot smoke in restaurants, bars, airplanes, airports, public buildings, most workplaces, hotels, and so on. Most people won’t let you smoke in their car or their home. Many buildings ban smokers from the sidewalk in front of the building. The environment has changed radically.

So, not only do smokers understand the risks and want to change, all of the cues that reminded the smoker that it’s time for a cigarette that were present for so many years are gone or altered significantly. (No one else is smoking. There are no ashtrays. The smell is gone.)

bad habits change environmentThere are often many bad habits associated with homelessness. Drug addiction, alcoholism, domestic violence, and a host of poor decision-making about life in general. Some charitable organizations try to “treat” homelessness by taking people off the street, feeding them, cleaning them up then sending them back out on the street; sometimes with temporary housing or shelter. The homeless person promises to look for work and get themselves straightened out. A few make it. Many more end up right back on the street, and then back in the shelter. The cycle is repeated.

Is it that they want to be homeless? Probably not! Some, of course, suffer from mental disorders. Some face conditions over which they have little or no control. But many are decent, capable people who just don’t seem able to cope with a “normal” life the way most of us experience it. For many years, I worked with an organization that has been extremely successful at helping homeless families get off and stay off the street. Their formula is no secret.

They completely change the client’s environment. They provide decent housing, furniture, clothing, food, training, childcare, job search support, and a host of services and supervision (Clients are held accountable for staying off drugs, alcohol, and are subject to inspections to make sure that they are taking care of their home, getting their kids to school and so forth.) for a year, two years or even more. They stick with the client long enough for them to truly develop the skills (and habits) needed to make real changes in their lives.

The same principles apply to changing the behavior of leaders. One workshop, one team building session, one coaching engagement, one new leadership training program will seldom produce lasting behavior change on the part of a leader. That does not mean that such efforts are futile or not important. They may be an integral part of a more systemic change process. What matters is that the effort should address all the factors that have created the environment in which the old habits thrived. The meetings, the reward structure, the goals, the corporate vision, the training, the reporting relationships, the performance measurements, team autonomy, and the factors used in recruiting new team members all need to be consistent with the kind of leadership behavior desired.

And these changes need to be facilitated over a long period of time. How long, of course, depends on a lot of things: the complexity of the product or process, the vitality of the market, the size of the organization, the number of levels, the distribution of accountability. Wanting to change is a good start. Learning new skills is a good idea. But, these things need to be done in an environment in which those in power are committed to staying the course and making sure that all the factors are taken into account.

Leaders are those whom others have chosen to follow. They have power. They can make decisions that have consequences on other people, on their organization, on the success of their business. The result of those decisions can be electrifying. Things happen. People jump. You see immediate results. It is in many ways like taking a drug. Leaders can get “high” on power. The instant outcome can be thrilling in much the same way that the “high” of heroin must be. But, it wears off. Each time the leader must make a decision; he or she must use even more power to achieve the same kind of result and the same kind of excitement, just like you need more and more heroin or cocaine to produce the same exhilaration.

Collaborative leadership does not produce the same kind of immediate jolt. It takes longer to see the effects. The smoker knows that cigarettes cause cancer. The addict knows that heroin is dangerous. But it becomes a habit. The bad effects are way off in the future somewhere. Giving it up means giving up the euphoria that comes with it. Even if you want to sign up for leadership training and change your leadership style, it is not easy. Knowing that a more collaborative, team oriented approach to leadership produces superior performance in the long run may not be enough to cause the leader to give up his or her dependence on power, the habit of using power to get things done. After all, the bad effects are way off in the future.

The leader who had the habit of interrupting her team members when they were trying to explain a new idea has to give up the satisfaction of seeing the team member walk away with the leader’s solution in hand. “Boy, I fixed that in a hurry. Didn’t have to listen to all of that explanation.” You sometimes have to give up the immediate pleasure you receive by seeing things happen right away. There may be some withdrawal. It may be uncomfortable. You may feel anxious. You may have to tolerate a couple of weeks, or months of sub-standard performance from your organization, your team or yourself until everyone has learned new behaviors and made them habitual. There are costs. It is an investment. It takes a lot of dedication and a willingness to do everything necessary to change the culture of the organization and the persistence to sustain the effort long enough for the leader and everyone else in the organization to form new habits.

If you are able to make the kinds of changes to the environment that are necessary, the inappropriate or over-use of power will seem completely out of place. It would be like lighting a cigarette on an airplane or in a hospital. It would seem wrong. People would look at you like you have two heads. But to get there, it takes patience. It takes a lot more than a resolution!

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