As leaders’ careers and responsibilities expand, they may discover they need to change the way they’ve always done things. But how can they do this successfully?

Anyone who has tried to change a longstanding habit has probably found that will alone doesn’t always work. This observation is consistent with a growing body of research that suggests it’s better to automate the process. For example, by specifying a quick, reliable sequence: starting with a cue which prompts the desired behavior, then a reward that reinforces that behavior.

One powerful tool that leaders can use when changing their habits is their leadership purpose. This is a statement that drives their actions — communication, decision-making and delegation — in a way that is personally meaningful to that leader because of how it impacts their life and the lives of others. When habits are acquired through purpose, it transforms individual behaviors into a manifestation of leadership that’s connected to a larger goal. This, in turn, can help new habits stick.

Evidence suggests that referencing purpose is helpful for sustaining behavior changes over time. For example, experiencing purpose at work is associated with higher engagement, more productivity, and even a willingness to sacrifice a percentage of pay for more meaningful work. Tying purpose to a new behavior can be a boon in workers’ efforts paying off. This is because goals and positive emotions — both of which can be invoked by purpose — have demonstrated impressive efficacy in keeping individuals motivated as they change their behaviors.

Using purpose to sustain change in the face of competing forces could be revolutionary in the field of leadership development. It might counteract the longstanding transfer of training problem, whereby learning often does not stick once leaders go from their development course back to the “real world,” where old habits can be triggered by familiar contexts. While the cue-behavior-reward sequence automates the process of practicing a new behavior, purpose helps leaders stay dedicated to that tool by steering them through the motivational challenges of committing to behavior change.

Results from one leadership development program that invokes purpose and habit change show that participants were able to make behavior changes that their colleagues could see. Those include the discomfort of avoiding an old habit and any instances of failure in instituting their new one. Purpose helps leaders remember that habit formation is bigger than any one instance of success or failure.

Here are three ways leaders can better align their habit change to their purpose:

1. Begin and End with “Why”

As suggested above, a new habit usually isn’t pursued for its own sake. Instead, it fits in with a bigger purpose that manifests as many other positive behaviors and habits. Therefore, when preparing a cue-behavior-reward sequence to build a new habit, leaders should start by stating their purpose and, by extension, what they are trying to accomplish as a leader. This helps to enhance the relevance and utility of the new habit. After specifying their cue, behavior and reward, leaders should then iterate how successfully developing this new habit will serve their purpose. This strengthens the “reward” portion of the tool by reinforcing the positive impact of the habit.

2. Embrace Purposeful Rewards

For behaviors that leaders really dread, a nice external reward like a well-deserved walk or listening to a favorite song might be necessary for building a positive association with that behavior. But for smaller behaviors, like building a list of priorities before each meeting, a reward acknowledging the inherent value of that behavior (i.e., how it aligns with one’s purpose) might be the best kind of reinforcement. For example, an intrinsic reward might be something like “take a moment to appreciate how this new habit helps the team work better together.”

3. Consider Alignment Between Personal Purpose and the Organization’s Purpose

Just as everyone has their own purpose that guides their leadership, many organizations are beginning to articulate their purpose to workers as well. Research conducted at Truist Leadership Institute shows that the extent of purpose alignment between individual workers and their organization is associated with higher job attitudes and reduced turnover intentions. When workers are aligned to the purpose of their workplace, not only are they well equipped to enact their purpose, but they can also pursue opportunities such as habit change that allow them to enact their purpose even more effectively. This might enhance their overall workplace experience.

Conclusion

To conclude with a specific example, a leader might start with a goal to check for understanding from their direct reports (i.e., their new habit) before ending a meeting (i.e., their cue). It’s a small change but connecting it to their leadership purpose helps them appreciate the bigger implications it has for achieving their purpose. Setbacks become less threatening, because the leader’s focus switches from frustration with an individual failure to how they’re going to get back on track with behavior change and continue pursuing their purpose. Furthermore, one change can beget further changes as referencing their purpose allows leaders to identify additional habits, they can build to become even more aligned with their purpose.

Specifying a cue, behavior and a reward has been, and will continue to be, a reliable tool for creating habits. Meanwhile, the potential of purpose in motivating and enhancing change in leaders is only beginning to be fully understood and appreciated.

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