Cultivating Good Management Habits

Hot-tempered or calm, messy or neat, argumentative or conciliatory, your habits are uniquely yours. As Stephen Covey writes in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Habits are powerful factors in our lives.”1

But as a manager, your department’s success is defined by your habits. If what you’re doing isn’t effective, it may be time to change a few.

Bad Habits
Bad work habits brand a manager as a bad boss, typified by Bill Lumbergh, Vice President of software firm Initech in the 1999 movie Office Space. Habits such as beginning each request with a drawling “I’m gonna need you to…” and ending with “Mmkay?” make great comedy as a caricature of corporate incompetence. The character, played by Gary Cole, proved so popular that it later appeared in a State Farm commercial and an episode of Family Guy.2

Can habits indicate incompetence? Fast Company staff writer Margaret Heffernan, who admits to hiring and firing many incompetent people, offers these clues, among others:3

  • Bias against action. If you don’t make mistakes, you don’t make anything. Good leaders make decisions consistently.
  • Secrecy. If you treat employees like children by keeping secrets or coddling them, they will behave like children. Refusing to directly interact could mean you dislike being challenged.
  • Love of procedure. Policies and rules exist to expedite your business. Hiding behind them shows an inability to prioritize.
  • Allergy to deadlines. Not meeting commitments ruins any sense of accomplishment. And nonexistent milestones can’t be celebrated.

The above could explain why decisions seem impossible, your staff seems difficult, or projects get mired in details. If feeling overwhelmed is not new, you may have carried poor work habits from the staff level into management.

CareerBuilder staff writer Anthony Balderrama advises breaking a number of bad work habits including procrastination (waiting too long increases the risk of missing a deadline), excessive leeway (too many breaks will hurt your reputation), avoiding social functions (it helps if people at work get to know you as a person), and being too argumentative (try not to be the person in the room who points out how dumb every idea is).4 These and other habits can threaten your career.

It isn’t healthy to dwell on the negative, but an honest self-assessment can’t hurt. Your employer may be able to help, using tools such as 360 degree feedback that obtains confidential, anonymous feedback from superiors, peers, and subordinates.5

Good Habits
Successful managers likely have more good habits than bad. Fortunately, there are plenty of good habits to choose from. One administrator suggests the following:6

  • Increase your self-discipline. You set the standard as a role model, so choose high standards.
  • Stretch goals. Make it a habit to write down your goals and post them. Written goals are more likely to be met.
  • Welcome criticism. Asking for feedback lets you know what needs improving and helps your credibility with staff.
  • Be a solution-finder. Constantly finding fault sets a poor example for your staff.
  • Show boundless enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is not only contagious, it has a positive effect on mood and productivity.

Business executive and author John Reh offers online tips that are intuitively the opposite of bad habits: focus on accomplishing results (instead of procrastination and procedure), seek input from the group (instead of keeping secrets and your distance), and being on time for all appointments (instead of taking advantage of the time of others). He advises, “You can improve as a manager by working every day to get better.”7

Seeking people who model good habits is a start. Peers who seem efficient, on time, and have cooperate staffs may be happy to share secrets. And your employer may have a mentoring program or be willing to assign a mentor to help, a common business strategy to steer managers in the right direction.

Changing Habits
Once you’ve decided which new habits to adopt, you need a plan. A stepwise approach is listed in the sidebar. Many habits do not form overnight, so overriding certain behaviors takes commitment, planning, and reasonable goal setting. According to ergonomics expert Chris Adams, creating a new habit is a matter of repeating behavior and can be done in as few as ten days. Incentives are key. “Habits are best formed when they are rewarding,” he writes.8

Five Steps to Good Habits13

    1. Decide to change. First, convince yourself that you can change. Be inspired by successful people who have changed.

    2. Gain insight. Look inward to answer the question, “How is my bad habit reinforced?”

    3. Set reasonable goals. Fit change into your existing schedule.Start slow and build up.

    4. Measure your progress. Keep a diary or journal. Don’t be discouraged by slip-ups.

    5. Seek help. Support builds inner resilience. Seek peers, mentors and supervisors for coaching assistance. An Employee Assistance Program at work can help.

But we all form habits differently, depending on learning style, existing habits, and other factors. A study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology reports 18 to 254 days for a habit to be automatic,9 a wide variation. It might help to ask people who have successfully changed a habit what works for them. But it’s whatever works for you that counts.

It may be harder to break bad habits than acquire new ones. Scientific findings suggest that repeated use of knowledge or use of skills alters the structure of the brain to embed the behavior as habit, a quality known as neuroplasticity.10 In this way, as suggested by The New York Times, new habits can bypass existing habits without erasing them. It’s best, says author M.J. Ryan, to learn a new habit by whatever means is comfortable. “If you have a pathway to learning, use it,” she advises.11

Maybe, it just takes a gimmick. Author and blogger Steve Pavlina recommends a “30-day trial” concept borrowed from the software industry, in which a trial can be downloaded and used for 30 days before buying the full version. It’s much easier, for example, to commit to keeping a neat desk for a month than permanently. “The more you think about the change as permanent,” he writes, “the more you stay put.”12

Habits can make you or break you as a manager. By deciding what works and what doesn’t, and by learning how to change your habits, you can be a more effective manager, leaving more time to focus on improving patient care.

Scott Warner is lab manager at Penobscot Valley Hospital in Lincoln, ME.


  1. Covey, S. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (New York: Free Press, 2004): 46.
  2. Wikipedia. Bill Lumbergh. Available at: Last accessed: 10/5/11.
  3. Heffernan M. Ten habits of incompetent managers. Available at: Last accessed: 10/5/11.
  4. Balderrama A. The 10 worst work habits. Available at: Last accessed: 10/5/11.
  5. Focal 360. What is 360 degree feedback. Available at: Last accessed: 10/5/11.
  6. Simmons K. Seven habits of highly effective managers. Available at: Last accessed: 10/5/11.
  7. Reh J. Ten things to do today to be a better manager. Available at: Last accessed: 10/6/11.
  8. Adams C. How do I form good habits? Available at: Last accessed: 10/6/11.
  9. Lally P et al. How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world (abstract). Available at: Last accessed: 10/6/11.
  10. Mendoza A. New findings in brain plasticity can help in breaking bad habits and developing healthy habits. Available at: Last accessed: 10/6/11.
  11. Rae-Dupree J. Can you become a creature of new habits? Available at: Last accessed: 10/6/11.
  12. Pavlina S. 30 days to success. Available at: Last accessed: 10/6/11.
  13. Whitbourne S. From bad habits to good habits in five achievable steps. Available at: Last accessed: 10/6/11.