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“When you’re finished changing, you’re finished,” Ben Franklin once said. The founding father probably understood that change, while difficult, is vital to innovation. But all too often organizations embrace the warm blanket of inertia.

What if we could instill change in the workplace as a daily routine? Like brushing your teeth? The trick is building it into a practice.  

Instead of goading with carrot and stick, leaders can help teams form habits that generate new behaviors painlessly.

More than 40 percent of our daily behaviors are habits, according to USC’s Wendy Wood. They represent automated, repeated, and subconscious actions. Without thinking, our minds respond to a trigger that leads to a procedure enforced by a reward—a kick of dopamine.

Telling people why they should change will fail. “If [more] information were the answer, we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs,” writes Tim Ferris in Tools of Titans, citing entrepreneur Derek Sivers. Words don’t work, he says, and neither will PowerPoint presentations.  

We all know this from personal experience. Shoe giant Nike once urged us to “Just Do It,” and a lot of us really wanted to. We bought new gear, but we couldn’t stick to the morning run. The exercise regimen was a change that didn’t stick—unless we made it a habit.

Growing Habits

“Companies have achieved enormous success by using the ‘habit loop,’” writes Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. But some automated actions, he says, are more important than others. “If you can change a keystone habit, you unlock all these other patterns in someone’s life or in an organization.”  

Management consulting firm McKinsey shares the story of a leading African beverage company that used a social platform to form new habits to engage its far-flung sales force. The company implemented a simple, low-budget system to give each sales rep regular and personalized information.

Management nudged sales people with two or three personalized texts a day. The messages delivered news about the beverage trade, the competition, or products that seemed to sell particularly well.

Now better informed, the sales force could adjust its tactics. The sellers fed the habit loop by providing their own sales data to managers. A call-center “leaderboard” allowed executives to track which agents were most responsive to their texts. By tapping into habit science, the company saw its gross sales increase by $25 million the first year.

Priming automatic behavior can actually change a company’s culture. When Paul O’Neill took over as CEO of aluminum producer Alcoa, according to Duhigg, he entered an organization with an abysmal relationship with its employees. Thousands of workers were on strike. O’Neill needed to establish new routines to boost morale, not to mention the bottom line.

Worker safety in the form of new habits became priority one, “which is a big deal in a company where all of your employees handle molten metals,” Duhigg says. “By focusing on safety and examining how an inefficient manufacturing process is dangerous to employees and produces subpar aluminum, O’Neill found a way to bring the entire corporation in line.”

Feeding the Habit Habit

To prime teams for a new habit, leaders need to give significant support to employees and managers from the get-go. Along the way, it helps to acknowledge that changing a routine can be difficult, but that it pays off in the end.

What’s more, good habits once instilled can help create positive feedback loops that engender better overall work. The key is to capture what’s working, which a tool like Clarizen enables: By creating an actual audit trail of everyone’s work to review, teams can learn what’s effective and bake those lessons back into future ways of working.

Here’s how to get teams started:

  • Minimize fear: Kick off the new practice by emphasizing your team’s strengths, explaining why their unique qualities, connected to a new pattern of action, will deliver benefits to the team and your company.

 

  • Use tools: Tim Ferris notes a number of apps that help establish patterns to improve health and productivity. Similarly, organizations can use apps to instill new behaviors.

 

  • Break it down: Walk through the difference between the new automatic action and “what we’ve always done.” Beyond this orientation, let the tools do the work (remember, telling won’t help the doing).

 

 

  • Lead by example: For startups, and even larger organizations, the habit of change can become a brand unto itself. This is how we do it. Transitions become routine, and no more frightening than brushing your teeth.

 

With these best practices implemented, you’ll be setting your teams up for success. Keep track of what’s working, review, and iterate. In the process, you’ll make better habits habitual.

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