Memo to Congress: Kick the Bad Habits in 2013

The intense polarization and gridlock that characterizes Congress is the result of attitudes and behaviors that have become ingrained habits since 2008.
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The 113th Congress was sworn in this week, adding 12 new senators and 67 new representatives. A fresh start is desperately needed.

A year from now will anything be different in Washington? Or will the same political gridlock caused by dysfunctional behaviors prevail?

It all depends on whether our political leaders can kick their bad habits and replace them with behaviors that promote bipartisanship and public confidence and trust.

We begin 2013 with 54 percent of Americans believing a recession is still likely even with the fiscal cliff crisis partially resolved.

Even before last November's elections, 58 percent of Americans said they had little or no trust that the government can solve the nation's most important problems, according to a Public Affairs Pulse survey. Unfortunately, the 112th Congress has proven them right, with a failing grade as the most unproductive session since the 1940s.

"Something has gone terribly wrong when the biggest threat to our American economy is the American Congress," Senator Joe Manchin III, D-W.V., is quoted in the New York Times.
Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma noted elsewhere, "All I know it's a failure of leadership from everywhere."

The American public seems to agree. In apportioning blame for the current fiscal showdown, 27 percent blamed Republicans in Congress, 16 percent blamed President Obama, and six percent blamed Democrats in Congress in a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll. The largest percentage -- 31 percent -- blamed all of them collectively.

The intense polarization and gridlock that characterizes Congress is the result of attitudes and behaviors that have become ingrained habits since 2008. As with many habits, they can become automatic, meaning they operate outside conscious awareness. This makes them especially dangerous to objective analysis and rational decision-making -- qualities we desperately need in our political leaders -- because they can short-circuit these processes in the blink of an eye.

Dysfunctional Habit Hit List

  • Denial: Refusing to acknowledge real and pressing issues of national importance ("If I don't deal with it, it will go away.")
  • Passive-aggressive behavior: Procrastination, showing up late, making excuses, resistance to complying with expected responsibilities ("It's not my fault the work didn't get done.")
  • Blaming: Adversarial attitude, holding grudges that lead to paralysis, redirecting responsibility, inflated accusations ("They're the problem, not us.")

Why Congress Needs to Kick These Habits

  • First, they distort reality, thereby detaching leaders' actions from actual political outcomes. Facts no longer have primacy to influence decisions and working relationships.
  • Second, they produce short-term partisan "wins" at the expense of long-term national solutions and advances. Major issues and decisions constantly get avoided or kicked down the road.
  • Third, they deepen the crisis of trust with the American public and further erode credibility. Our nation's leaders are widely regarded as incompetent, disconnected and disengaged, and operating from self-interest.

The problem with habits, of course, is that they are very difficult to break. However, the stakes for our society and economy are monumentally high, and the need for positive change urgent and compelling.

The 113th Congress needs to embrace this habit-breaking challenge, not as a New Year's resolution, but as an absolute leadership imperative. This is how our elected officials can undertake a corrective path to improved performance and credibility.

New Year's Imperatives for the 113th Congress

  • Acknowledge that many habits and practices are dysfunctional and damaging to responsible governance. Personal attitude change must occur before lasting behavior change can happen.
  • Focus on using effective leader behaviors, such as problem-solving, compromise, public stewardship and collegiality.
  • Act in ways that restore trust with key constituencies and stakeholders. Fairness, authenticity, transparency, and making statements that pass fact-checking criteria all are actions in the right direction. Consistency is key to winning back public support and a reputation for results.

This prescription for change will be difficult and time-consuming to achieve. It will require commitment, courage and a conscious rejection of current behavioral values and norms in Washington as toxic and unacceptable. It also will require some members of Congress to upgrade their leadership skills and repertoire.

Our politicians need to take a hard look at what they currently represent to the American public, and aspire to a much higher standard. Kicking their worst habits is a necessary first start to earning at least a passing grade in 2013.

Susan Battley is Founder and Chief Executive of Battley Performance Consulting, specializing in leader and boardroom effectiveness through brilliant execution. She is a leadership psychologist, author and speaker, with doctorates in psychology (PsyD) and economic history (PhD). "Fast Focus on Success," her radio program on leadership and career excellence was commended by the Clinton White House. Battley helps world-class leaders and boards execute brilliantly in the areas of CEO-board optimization, executive selection and integration, succession planning, senior team performance, and strategic change and organization culture. She is a founding fellow of the Institute of Coaching at Harvard's affiliate McLean Hospital and a past board member of the Institute of Management Consultants, New York.

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