The Power of Habits in Leadership: Fostering High-Performing Teams

Disruptive leadership is all about instigating behavioral change: starting with adopting high performance habits and emanating them throughout their spheres of influence. Habit-forming leadership drives and sustains employee high performance for long-term success. 

This episode of Hireside chats features an interesting conversation about the concept of habit-forming leadership, providing actionable guidance for leaders striving to attain their objectives, lead with effectiveness, and nurture high-performing teams. SatJ and Vivek Vijayan, the Founder & CEO of TinyChange Publishers, talk about the transformative power of small habits, such as setting weekly goals or conducting daily reviews, in boosting leadership and team performance.

Episode Highlights
  • As creatures of habit, whether it’s our morning chai or a daily playlist to boost our work groove, it’s clear that habits, especially leadership-habits play a significant role in shaping high-performing teams
  • Key habits that make great leaders are F.O.C.U.S – Flexibility, Optimism, Communication, Unwavering Commitment, and Self-Awareness.
  • 3 steps to Cultivate High Performance Habits include P3 – Plan, Practice and Propagate.
  • In today’s fast-paced world, productivity it’s becoming a necessity to navigate workplace complexities.
  • One of the most Effective Productivity Tip is – The 5/25 rule by Warren Buffett

Read the blog version of this engaging conversation, a topic that is the need of the hour , with plenty of examples of practical takeaways to be better leaders. Or listen to the complete  podcast here

Listen to the Podcast here

SatJ: Most of us work in complex organizations that are trying to grow and succeed. Regardless of the growth strategy in play, success is only possible with leaders at the forefront who are highly capable of identifying, attracting, leading, and developing high-performing employees. Disruptive leadership is all about instigating behavioral change, starting with adopting high performing habits emanating them throughout their spheres of influence. Habit forming leadership drives and sustains employee high performance for long term success.

We are all creatures of habit and by thoughtfully selecting and regularly practicing certain habits we can master high performing skills that lead to success. Let’s start by understanding the transformative power of habits and the significance of leadership, a space that you have been focused on through the tiny change organization. 

What is the significance of habit forming leadership on shaping effective leaders and creating high performing teams and specifically, why is it crucial for sustained long term performance?

Vivek: You are absolutely bang on – we are all about habits. It’s like, you know, a cup of chai in the morning that we have as a habitual thing or use a certain playlist that gets us going while we are in the work mode. All these are habits. And, the same goes for leadership too. Leadership habits are not just routines that somebody follows, they are the essence of who a leader is, who you truly are. And that really shines through in how you lead organizations. 

I’d like to imagine leadership as a building. If leadership is a building, the habits are the bricks. So when leaders make it a habit to actively listen to their team members, it creates an environment where everyone feels heard. And the ripple effect is amazing, right? You can see managers start emulating the leader and even junior employees feeling empowered. 

I came across this interesting study recently on HBR, which found out that the best leaders who were rated highly in their leadership effectiveness also displayed strong routines in their communication and decision making. At TinyChange, we create habit forming products which help people transform their lives through the power of tiny changes. So, we have spoken to hundreds and thousands of customers, you know, both individual and corporate, and what we’ve realized over time is that even small positive habits that you embed in your life can boost your whole game. You may be a CEO or an intern or a housewife. It doesn’t matter. It has a tremendous impact. So it’s a bit like cricket, right? A good captain doesn’t only focus on winning the current match, but also pays attention in developing habits within their team members, like staying healthy or discipline especially for the young players of the team. And that goes a long way in their long term success. 

So in short, good habits make great leaders and strong teams. Just like the example of a bamboo tree— such teams can bend, but they won’t break no matter the challenges that they face. 

SatJ: In the current business context, where there’s so much uncertainty, what are some of these key habits that leaders should have that are worth emulating? And again let’s look at it from the current business context. Are there some habits that you can share with our viewers? 

Vivek: Glad you asked. It’s all about focus. F O C U S is an acronym we coined sometime last year for our leadership development programs, and it stands for flexibility, optimism, communication, unwavering commitment and self-awareness. Let’s understand each in detail:

  • Flexibility: You need to develop the habit of staying flexible if you want to be a great leader. We know that no two days in leadership are the same. So being adaptable is a very crucial element. Say one of your team members suddenly falls sick. Being flexible means that you can quickly redistribute tasks without breaking a sweat. So stop saying to your team – “this is how it is done here” instead start opening up your mind to new ideas and learn from them. 
  • Optimism: As leaders you need to start developing the habit of looking at the bright side of things. An optimistic leader sees challenges as opportunities. They see failures as lessons. So this mindset not only keeps you resilient, but also uplifts the entire team. So start using every crisis that comes your way to practice thinking optimistically, and slowly it becomes your second nature.
  • Communication: Developing the habit of communicating effectively to the team can be a game changer, as you know, and it’s easy to overlook, but vital for pretty much everything. And I always look up to you as a leader who has amazing communication skills, which has really helped your team develop well, come together and play as a good effective unit. I’ve also realized that effective communication eradicates misunderstanding and it fosters an environment of openness. In fact, there are research studies that show that clear communication is the number one trait which employs value in a leader and it’s ranked even above good pay. 
  • Unwavering commitment: That’s like your North Star – your unwavering dedication to the team and the task at hand. Your team needs to see and feel that you’re all in. You know, you’ve given your 100%. Commitment is also really contagious, once a leader sets the standard, it’s much easier for the team to follow suit.
  • Self-awareness: Let’s imagine a car without a rear-view mirror. Self-awareness helps you understand not just your own strengths, but also the areas that need improvement— it’s like an inside job and one that reflects outside. So I’ll say self-aware leaders are proven to be more effective and more respected in every corporate setting.

So there you go, the model focus is a pocket-sized formula, in my opinion, to keep in mind some of the habits that leaders need to develop to be effective in the current situation. 

SatJ: I’ll remember FOCUS! 

I’ve been very impressed with the book Atomic Habits. I’m sure you would have read it. Thousands of our listeners would have read it. So there are some very interesting popular quotes from the book,

  •     Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement, and 
  •     With the same habits, you will end up with the same results 
  •     With better habits, anything is possible. 

So the power of habits can certainly not be understated. And you kind of alluded to that. But how do leaders create and propagate this amongst their teams? Is it easier said than done? 

One of the things that has me intrigued, and I want to ask you this because you conduct a lot of leadership programs for people. How can leaders cultivate the right high-performing habits that you described and ensure that they drive their teams to success? And in addition to that, are there any useful tips that you can give? Like you know, some daily actions that leaders should have to help these teams kind of pick up these habits and start living them.

Vivek: There’s a saying that habits are like planting seeds – you water them, give them sunlight and before you know it you’ve got this amazing garden. So that’s exactly what leaders also need to do. You cultivate the right habits, not just within yourself, but also within your teams. If you’re looking to cultivate high-performing habits you know, some of the examples are given in Atomic Habits. Use them well as a leader and pass them on to your team. 

Consider this simple, actionable three-step model, which I call as P3— plan, practice and propagate. That’s something that we use in different situations too, but it’s pretty relevant in this context. Everything starts with a plan. You need a solid plan if you want to develop great habits within yourself or for your team. It’s about identifying habits that will make the task that you’re going to handle as a leader easier and more effective. In my previous role as a head of a global HR sub-function, one of the most impactful habits that we cultivated as a team together was radical transparency. We planned out how to make that as a part of a daily stand-up meeting, and I can see it paid off dividends, you know, pretty well over a period of time. 

After planning comes practice. You need to see how it works yourself first, before putting it out to your team. What are the challenges? How does it benefit you? There are numerous studies that have shown that daily journaling can be effective for self-awareness. Which is also one of the items in the focus model that we discussed earlier as well. So practicing things like journaling to become more self-aware can open up areas— it can bring in new understanding, which then you can utilize to help your team also build.

You plan out the good habits you practiced out yourself and then try it out within your team and then get into the next stage of propagating that habit. So as a great leader, that’s the most important stage. So this is where your leadership qualities shine. You become a mirror that reflects these high performing habits. And just remember the speed of the leader determines the speed of the pack. I think it’s an MIT study that said that leaders that focused on cultivating positive team habits found a 25 percent increase in their overall team productivity. So that’s a model that leaders can use to inculcate great habits within them, plan it out, test it out yourself and then propagate it. 

Now for the second part of the question – what are the daily habits that you can take, to inculcate this process, how you need to do it, on a daily basis? So there’s a famous model called ACTS— A. C. T. S. Which stands for awareness, consistency, trust and systems thinking. 

So the first step whenever you want to inculcate any habit and I’m when I’m talking about habit, it may be for yourself or for your team. The first step is awareness. Without self-awareness leaders cannot identify which habits need to be cultivated. A daily practice could be say taking five minutes at the end of your day to reflect on what worked and what didn’t. It’s like checking your rear-view mirror before changing lanes while you’re driving. So, you know when it is a safe time to move forward. So, that’s about awareness. 

The second one is consistency. You know what leaders need, what habits need to be picked up – t can be, say, talking to a team on a regular basis, maybe even just five minutes. Or having a stand-up meeting. You slowly inculcate that habit, make it a part of your team’s habit or second nature as well, but you need to consistently implement it. Consistency turns daily actions into habits. A daily action here could be committing to a non-negotiable 30 minute focused work session first thing in the morning. In Atomic Habits, James Clear talks a lot about that. You must have heard about this research that it takes at least 60 days for an action to be converted into a habit and at least six months for that to become your lifestyle. So consistency is an important thing. 

And the third thing is, it is about trust, which is like a steering wheel that helps you navigate relationships within your team as a leader. So daily habits for building trust could be as simple as making sure you listen more than you speak in meetings, or you give constructive, regular feedback. So all these things build the element of trust within your team, which is very crucial, and you must have come across tons of studies about how trust is an important factor in building great teams as a leader.

The last one, which is an interesting one, is about Systems thinking— it can be dashboards. It can be your own KPIs. It can be your own goals. If you have a system, if you have a framework, you have a set of KPIs, you know what exactly needs to be measured, which helps you tag some of the habits that you want to develop to some of your KPIs too. So if your KPI is to build trust within your team or improve the output, one of the things can be, on a regular basis, check how much your progress is.

So habits are nothing but wheels for that car that drives off— your leadership car. And on a regular basis, you need to follow these things about being aware, consistently implementing the habits that you want to inculcate within your team, building trust within your team so that it sticks and using models or systems so that things become easier and clearer rather than by just using your judgment.

SatJ: Now let’s talk a little bit about TinyChange, the organization that you founded. Can you walk us through how TinyChange supports and encourages habit formation?Also a real life example that Tiny Change has come across where you have significantly transformed either an organizational effectiveness or a leader’s effectiveness through your interventions.

Vivek: At tiny change we are not just talking. We’re also walking the walk. Imagine trying to run a fitness center. But you are munching donuts every single day. It doesn’t work, right? So like that we need to use some of the things that we’re talking about in our planners, in some of the training programs that we do— yourself first is very important.

So let me pick up a couple of examples, what we have done in this area and what we’ve realized. So the first thing, we have daily trackers and SOPs— standard operating procedures for every single thing here. We have a small team, so it’s very important to kind of be as productive as possible. Right from a new product launch to even cleaning our office coffee machine weekly, we have SOPs laid out for everything. So that’s the first step. I believe in creating the right habit in doing a certain thing. So my thought process is that if you’re helping our clients build positive habits to our products, we better be doing it ourselves. That was the starting point for some of these things. So daily trackers give us a snapshot of our team’s productivity, well-being, the number of clients that we reached out to and even happiness levels— some of these things we track on a daily basis because we want to see how it works before it goes into some of our products. It’s like having a fitness tracker on your watch, but for your work life and our SOPs are like recipes, I believe for some of the gourmet dishes that we prepare, which are our products. And, they also ensure that everyone is aligned in the team toward a common goal and no one is just winging it, even for the smallest task.

The second part is there’s a habit of learning on a daily basis. Remember the science experiments back in school where you mixed vinegar and baking soda and called it a volcano. So we do our own versions of such volcano creations here, a little bit more complex. We dive a lot into academic journals, publications, podcasts, and anything that we can get our hands onto for a fresh perspective. And we have this notion board, which is a collaborative tool that we use within our team every day. And before lunch, each team member needs to find out one interesting data from research or from what our competitors are doing or from a totally different business and note it down on the idea bank section on the notion board. They also need to write down how to implement an idea, how it can be impactful either for our business or for some of the products that we’re developing, et cetera. And what we do is we find out one best idea at the end of every week, typically on a Friday, and that idea donor gets a small reward. So many of the ideas that we implement in our products I can take the example of this QR codes that we started adding in some of our products. We have this product called 100 Day Goal Journal, within which, we start adding QR codes. So if you’re talking about a concept, you can just scan the QR code, get into a video and understand more about it.

So that came as a part of this Notion board, the Idea Bank, and it was quite successful and some of the customers loved it. So, if you’re out there thinking about improving habits within your team, I’d like to say that it’s more of a marathon and not a sprint. So on a daily basis, you need to think about small ways in which you can improve certain processes, certain actions, put a structure to it and then help them convert into a habit. So that’s very important. And while you’re in the journey of converting a certain action that you want your team members to take into a habit, obviously think about things like how do you reward them when they’re doing something positive. How do you reward them so that it sticks? So those are a couple of areas that I can think of within TinyChange what we have done.

And w.r.t to examples, we do work with other clients also from, so some leadership development training and stuff. And we’ve seen wherever clients show interest in developing habits within their leaders that leads to great impact. From the corporate world— and I’m moving out from my zone into what great leaders do. Elon Musk is my all-time hero, and some of the companies he developed, kind of speaks the story of why he’s such a great person. So I remember the story from SpaceX when SpaceX was just getting started. They faced a huge hurdle. Rockets were astronomically expensive, so most companies would look at the price tag and will completely give up the notion of building; they don’t fetch that much funding from outside. Not Elon Musk. He’s a totally different man. That’s why people say that he probably is an alien. So he took a different approach using what we call as first principles thinking. So it’s about breaking down a complex idea into its very, very smallest entity and then thinking from grounds up. So what he did is instead of accepting the high cost of rockets as it is, he kind of broke it down to the most basic components like the metal, the labor, the engineering time required.

And then he calculated the individual cost of everything and then found out that, oh, these are certain areas — Like say vendors, engineering things, not having fabricated materials, et cetera, is leading to high cost. So if you are able to solve that problem there, we’ll be able to build the rocket grounds up. So he built it and then the rest is history. So these are some of the examples that I can think of where it’s proven that building, inculcating and developing great habits within your team can fetch great long term returns. 

SatJ: Now let’s talk about our own fraternity— the HR fraternity that we represent. Any actionable insights, steps, productivity hacks, ideas for our own fraternity and for our HR leaders to implement these habits and actionable solutions? 

Vivek: I always think about an HR manager or a leader like a chef— you’re supposed to prepare a gourmet meal, a great meal. You have all the ingredients available with you— talent, the best and the biggest resource is there with you and you just need the right recipe to bring it all together. That’s when you become a great HR professional. Keeping that analogy in mind, let me just touch upon some of the things that you can do as an HR leader: become a better HR person, second, build better HR teams, and the third and the most important thing, help your business become better through the power of habits. So the first thing I want to talk about is something called a habit audit.

It’s a small step. And it is exactly what it sounds like. Identify the habits that are already in place in your organization. The reason why I’m suggesting this is because you cannot fix a problem if you don’t know it exists. So think of it like a doctor’s diagnosis before starting any treatment. So let’s do an audit to understand these are the habits followed by my employees, or my team’s employees at this current point in time. Some of them are positive, some of them negative —These are ones they don’t follow now, which I’d like them to develop or follow. These are the ones that I want them to cut short or slowly take away from their corporate life. That’s the habit audit. 

Now, the second part of the puzzle is about goal alignment. So you need to ensure that the habits you picked for development or for cutting off from your organization are in alignment with your organizational business goals— so this could mean a major rehaul at times or minor tweaks. One of the tech start-ups in Bangalore that we worked with for a two day leadership workshop had a goal to improve collaboration. So among all the things, what they tried doing was implementing a no email day on every Tuesday— where all communication had to be in person or just via video calls, no emails at all that day. And surprisingly, in three to four months’ time, they said that it boosted their overall internet communication by around 30%. So there are many such examples. The important thing is they understood that collaboration is the problem. And they want to develop the habit of more conversations between the employee and their managers and leadership. That’s what they were able to find out and implement in the right way. 

Another thing that you can do as an HR manager is to think about pairing habits with skill sets. You know, we’ve worked on things like career architecture, identifying skills for certain roles, et cetera, et cetera. So every role we know has a certain set of skills that we need, to excel in that role. So if you think of pairing these skills with specific habits it can take you yourself into altogether different positive tangents. Let’s take the example of a sales team— it could be the habit of doing daily cold calls, or ensuring that you network with so many people every single day. So convert that KPI, that thing that you want to do and think of how we can make it a habit. So it’s like pairing wine with cheese— the right combination elevates the whole experience. Because once you convert an action into habit, it goes into [00:27:00] auto mode — it becomes a second nature to you. So HR managers need to constantly think about what are those areas that are very crucial for my business which are currently being portrayed as actions which are chores, which employees might think that it’s a difficult thing to do every day. How can we convert that into habit? So it becomes second nature. That’s how we do things. That’s not even a question. We heard about certain companies who are completing things on time. If you have appraisal time, there are companies where appraisal times get extended, you know, 10 or 15 times. But there are companies where that’s not even a question because it’s a habit that’s the only way your leaders do it. You know that, you know, right from your vice president to everyone down does complete things on time. And that’s been communicated. There are guardrails kept to ensure that there is no other way to do it. So people tend to do it. It’s no, it’s no longer a chore. That’s how things happen. So as HR leaders, I believe it’s your responsibility to do a habit audit, and understand what are the positive habits that you want to cherish. What are the positive actions that you want to convert habits? What are the ones which are unhealthy ones for your organization? How can you take it away by making it not so attractive or rather, you know, building positive habits to work on top of those negative habits. And then link that to the skills that you want to build. 

And last but not least, I also want to add one more element. It’s very important to have a feedback mechanism built into this entire thing. So unless people get that instant replay, like when you’re watching a cricket match, you’ll get to immediately see what worked, what didn’t work.

So having a culture, developing a culture where it’s very normal to give feedback— may it be positive or negative, instant feedback helps everything. And especially if you’re building a habit, that’s a great boost. So I think these are the four things that HR managers should focus on to build great habit forming leadership, which can help create habit forming teams.

SatJ: Now for our customary rapid fire questions and we are looking for very quick and candid responses from your side. So let’s begin with the first one.

What’s the first leadership habit you recommend forming? 

Active Listening— it’s a habit that speaks volumes while you even remain silent. And that’s something that many leaders lack and it’s important for leaders to develop, especially in the current context. 

Your favorite personal productivity hack that has impacted your own work? 

Time blocking— that’s something that led to me developing planners and everything. That has really impacted the way I work. So I’ll say time blocking is the best or my favorite personal productivity hack that I practice every day. 

A book or resource that has influenced your approach to habit forming leadership? 

Atomic Habits. No doubt about that. 

Any productivity tips that you learned from a renowned leader and found it very effective? Either someone you’ve worked with or someone you’ve heard about? 

There are quite a few of them. And if you force me to pick one, I’ll go with this very interesting one. It’s called the 5 / 25 rule. It’s by Warren Buffett. It’s a very simple one. You take a piece of paper and you list down your top 25 career goals as they come to your mind. Now take another paper and write on one side ‘My goals’. And then from the early list of 25 goals, take some time and pick up the most important five goals. Write these five goals down here. Now, you know, turn around the paper, write down another heading, ‘Goals to avoid’, and then write down the remaining 20 from that list of 25. And these 20 goals are the ones you should avoid at any cost, completely forget about it. And just focus on the other side, the top five goals. So many times I’ve seen people getting lost into way too many goals, just focusing on five or better three. Goals at max in your career can give you a lot of returns rather than spreading your attention thin among a lot of them. 

SatJ: During the conversation you kept talking about or referring to planners. Can you share with our audience a little bit about what these TinyChange planners and how does one access these planners? Do they have to go through a program of sorts to get access to it? How does it work? 

Vivek: At Tiny Change our mission is to help everyone achieve their life goals through the power of tiny changes that you do on a daily basis and we believe that using the compounding nature of tiny changes that you inculcate in your life on a daily basis you can become healthier, wealthier, happier and wiser. So these are the four pillars that we have within Tiny Change and we have a bunch of products, services like training programs, etc to help you become healthier, improve yourself on these four key areas like health, wealth, happiness, and wisdom. Now, we started off with planners and now we have a huge selection of around 30 different planners. And, and some of them are for specific target groups like students, but most of them are for working professionals. It’s all available on Amazon. You can, or go to our website, or just go to Amazon and search for tiny change. And you It’s, it’s a proud moment to say that most of our planners are like bestsellers in the planners and the journals category.

And recently we have introduced some new products like journals, which you can use to review your day to pour out what you have in your mind. It’s a lot of research that proves that daily journaling to express your gratitude, to find out what are the best things that happen in your day at the end of the day, even if you take five minutes, 10 minutes to do it, can have a great positive impact on your mind. We even have some calendars. 

We also conduct small training sessions for some of our corporate clients around the concept of planning, journaling, etc. And we do run very specific on demand training for corporates around how to utilize the concept of tiny change within their teams, how to plan your team deliverables or corporate deliverables effectively. And we also create for some companies —we worked on with Procter & Gamble recently to create a custom planner for them for their medium and senior tier leaders specifically with a certain objective in mind.


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