A COMMON observation in my consulting work is that leaders work too hard. They tend to think that, as leaders, they are expected to solve every problem and make things work. 

But I have also come across some really smart leaders. 

They have some things in common: They seem to be having more fun, they bring out the best in their motivated and engaged employees, and their companies are successful. 

I don’t think this is a streak of good luck but rather the result of certain behaviours these smart leaders practise.

Let us look at some of them through the lens of behavioural science and understand why they work so well:



 Helping others be better at what they do

Smart leaders are very good at shaping behaviour.

They notice their people doing things right and praise the performers as soon as possible, thereby motivating them to repeat their good performance.

Behavioural science states that positive reinforcement is the only way to increase performance exponentially, and the sooner it is done, the better the performance.

People like to do what they are good at — it is easier for them and feels good.

In other words, it is self-reinforcing. A good leader focuses on getting performers to feel successful when they do a good job.

Good leaders understand that it takes time for employees to make their strengths a habit.

They act as bridges to help each performer feel good about his improvement, no matter how small.

Leaders who set unrealistic goals — especially with new employees — are setting up themselves and their teams for failure.

Success is attained by frequent, consistent and well-practised behaviour.



 Getting others to talk about their success

When someone does something well, get him to talk about it. By doing this, you are getting him to re-enact that behaviour again.

He needs to go through the steps of what he did and that in itself strengthens his behaviour. But something else happens at the same time.

In her book, Happiness Project, Gretchin Rubin explains this in the three stages of happiness:

•   Anticipating the event;

•   Savouring the event; and

•   Recollecting the event.

By asking someone to talk about what he did successfully and how he did it, you are making the performer happy — so he is likely to repeat the good performance again. 

Smart leaders do this constantly — they know how to engage their team members by getting them to talk about their successes.

Smart leaders have a natural curiosity about what makes people tick and they tend to focus on what they are doing right rather than picking on their mistakes.



 Asking the right questions

Albert Einstein said that if he had an hour to solve a problem, he would spend the first 55 minutes thinking about what question to ask. And if he could ask the right question, he could solve the problem in five minutes. 

Smart leaders ask the right questions, knowing that people learn more when they come up with the answers or solutions themselves.

What smart questions can you ask today to help your team members learn more or do more?

Questions like “How did you that?, “What was your best piece of work today?”, “What are you most proud of?” help to direct the attention of the performers towards good work habits and behaviours.

When you do this in a group, you start building a learning culture as the team can learn from each other’s responses.



 Having shorter, more concise meetings

Think about it — how long does it take before your attention wanders when someone else is speaking? Five minutes?

Most of us want others to get to the point. But many senior leaders I know can’t even hold their staff’s attention for more than 10 minutes before their smartphones or a side conversation distracts them.

Shorter, sharper conversations are more powerful. 

When I work with clients, I help leaders to listen more, take notes and speak in bullet points. 

Short meetings that are planned and to the point are far more effective, and smart leaders know this.

They plan many short, frequent interactions with their team members.

This, in turn, gives them a strong pulse on the important business issues and helps their team members self-correct their work performance to stay on course towards meeting the organisation’s goals.

These behaviours are not revolutionary, yet many leaders struggle to practise them. 

Smart leaders find ways to incorporate praising good performance, engaging staff, asking the right questions and having shorter but more frequent meetings consistently into their day-to-day work.

The result is that their job is easier to do — with the support of motivated employees — and their journey becomes more interesting and fulfilling.


Article by Laletha Nithiyanandan (Lita), the managing director of the Behavioural Consulting Group, a management consulting firm specialising in utilising behavioural science principles in improving performance and productivity within organisations. She is also the managing director of Talent Design Potential (TDP Group), which specialises in executive search. Read her blog at www.everydaytransformations.com