Are You a Creature of Habit?

Santa Evaluating if you Have been Good

Are You a Creature of Habit?

Naughty or Nice?

I first saw this cartoon over 35 years ago. That was when my friend and psychologist colleague, Lewis Alban, PhD, shared it as his annual winter holiday greeting. And he sent it every year thereafter.

He was a creature of habit. And I came to expect this cartoon every year as the winter holidays approached.

For me, it serves as a simple and fun reminder about some basic human tendencies that we see all the time as executive recruiters when we are involved in executive search and leadership assessments.

Perhaps most important, it reminds us that our behavior is more predictable than we might realize or want to admit.

A combination of our own internal factors (including our upbringing, education, critical experiences, and genetics) along with external factors (such as environmental contingencies including our work culture) serve as powerful influences on how we will behave.

We are, in fact, the “creatures of habit” immortalized in the cliché.

Ian Newby Clark has written about the phenomenon in Psychology Today (

Interestingly, Mark Buchanan reported more than a decade ago in New Scientist that the Media Lab at MIT had done “black box” research that revealed that an estimated 90 percent “of what most people do in any day follows routines so complete that their behavior can be predicted with just a few mathematical equations.” (

And Nature has reported on the work of Albert-Laslo Barabasi at Boston’s Northeastern University who used cell phone data from more than 100,000 people to confirm (guess what?) that “people are creatures of habit.” (

Those findings, and others like them, are the foundation for a conclusion reached by the University of Helsinki’s Erkki Kilpinen. In his paper “Human Beings as Creatures of Habit,” Kilpinen concluded that “human beings are rational and knowledgeable creatures interested in their social and material environments, and capable of actively transforming them (emphasis supplied)…not despite the habitual factor in their doings, but thanks to its existence.” (

So, what does all of this mean for us?

The element of truth in this cliché is critically important to those of us who are highly specialized executive recruiters. Evidence-based executive assessments identify, define, and measure the attributes of leaders relative to the most critical requirements of their prospective positions.

As one of the nation’s leading healthcare executive search firms, we have come to recognize the long-term impact of established habits and personalities on the outcomes of executive search and healthcare succession planning.

Who are the leaders who are actively transforming their environments so that those around them can be more effective? What do we know about them that can help us identify and nurture them?

As I pointed out as the guest on the Baldrige Foundation’s Fall Quarterly Webcast in October, the questions about what makes “extraordinary leaders” are asked again and again in fields as wide ranging and far afield as professional sports, politics, and even (of course) healthcare. (

We are able to identify effective leaders’ own personal attributes that drive them…and enable them to achieve more than other leaders. We’ve done it with great success for 3 decades for hundreds of healthcare organizations in 39 different states.

And we believe that our success is directly attributable to our proprietary evidence-base executive search® approach.

The bottom line is that we have found that, without any doubt, “personality predicts performance.”

We know that the greatest challenge organizations encounter with their leaders rarely involves their lack of knowledge or skill. And it also has little to do with qualifications and book smarts.

One of the key things we’ve learned is that people don’t change themselves to fit their jobs or their significant others. Instead, all too often, people try to change their job responsibilities and their personal relationships around to suit their own preferences. For example, conflict-avoidant managers won’t have the crucial conversations with their poor performers, so necessary work won’t get done properly, and key stakeholders and the organization will suffer.

Based on Synergy’s own research over three decades, we can say that in more than 92% of cases when an executive is terminated or doesn’t perform to expectations, it’s because that person’s personality characteristics are not consistent with what the job requires.

So, everything that we do is designed to maximize the client experience and results we achieve for them. That helps us establish accountabilities for everyone in the company and ensure that we execute.

We have found that, as a group, effective leaders:

a. Are keenly aware of their own relative strengths and weaknesses, and they are also willing to publicly acknowledge their shortcomings.

b. Are significantly more candid in their interactions.

c. Develop trusting relationships.

d. Are well received in their interactions with others.

e. Hold others accountable for their performance.

f. Engage others effectively.

g. Stress the importance of developing their subordinates.

We agree that we are creatures of habit. But that does NOT mean, as Kilpinen noted, that the great leaders are incapable of actively transforming their environments.

They can…and they do. That’s what makes them effective leaders. They leave their organizations better than they find them.


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