Message from Julie: Mastering the Keystone Leadership Habit

keystone leadership habit

Several years ago, I read The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. In the book, Duhigg talks about the concept keystone habits. He contends that often the best way to affect large-scale change is by focusing on one important habit. 

A keystone habit is one that cascades and has an impact far beyond the initial habit itself. It sends ripples through an organization, or your life, like a stone being skipped into the middle of a pond. The example of this that Duhigg gives in the book is the turnaround that Paul O’Neill led at ALCOA in the late 1980s and early 1990s by focusing on safety as a keystone habit.  

Since learning about the concept of keystone habits, I have incorporated it into the work I do with organizations, teams, and leaders. However, identifying that single habit that can have widespread impact can be a challenge and getting leaders, team, and entire organizations to adapt the habit is even more challenging. It has however proven to be worth the effort. 

Recently when preparing for an upcoming leadership training session I had an insight into a keystone leadership habit. 

As I tell participants in my leadership sessions, leading is hard work. There are dozens of competencies that leaders must develop – some of which come easy to some of us and others that come easy to others of us. However, I have yet to meet a leader that is naturally good at all the required leadership competencies. Those that don’t come naturally have to be built as habits – generally one at a time over months and even years. 

In addition, leading requires subtle adjustments in approach based on the situation, not to mention the personalities of those involved. And that’s just the start. 

As I was preparing for the upcoming training and reviewing the competencies required of leaders to develop high performing teams, coach individual employees, and engage in difficult conversations, I noticed a common and central theme, and as I reviewed other leadership competencies, there it was again: 

Ask questions with curiosity and listen with sincerity 

That’s it – the keystone leadership habit. Sounds simple enough, right.? However, it is a habit that does not come naturally to many leaders. While these skills are hammered into executive and business coaches, facilitators, mediators, and therapists they are rarely taught to leaders. To compound the issue, these are skills, like riding a bike, that must be learned through practice and trial and error. They simply cannot be gained by simply sitting in a classroom. 

Forming the Questioning/Listening Habit 

According to Duhigg habit formation starts with a cue which triggers a behavior and results in a reward.  

Here’s what this might look like for questioning/listening habit: 

  • A direct report asks you a question or you start to tell someone what to do (cue) 
  • You ask yourself would it be better to ask and listen right now rather than tell and sell?  If the answer is yes, ask a question (behavior) 
  • This results in greater insight and improved performance for your direct report (reward) 

guide to having difficult conversations

Effective Questioning 

All questions are not created equal. If you want greater engagement, increased accountability, and improved decision making, the questions you ask and how you ask questions is critical. 

Setting the Context and Asking Permission 

Without first setting the context and asking permission, the person on the receiving end of your questions may feel like they are being interrogated. You might say something like, “I really need to understand more about the situation. Is it OK if I ask you a few questions?” 

Asking Effective Questions 

Effective questions are asked with curiosity and in a non-judgmental tone. They are open-ended, thought provoking and surface assumptions or beliefs, as well as expand possibilities. Focus on asking questions that start with “what” and “how”.  

Questions to Avoid 

Generally, you want to avoid asking closed-ended or leading questions, as well as solution-oriented questions (e.g. “What about doing XYZ?). In addition, avoid questions that start with “why”.  Asking “why” tends to put people on the defensive.  

Taking Action 

Here are my questions for you:  

  • What action will you take today to develop or enhance your questioning/listening habit?  
  • What will you do to help the leaders and managers in your organization further develop their question/listening habit? 
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POSTED ON: Coaching