How to Help Employees Establish Better Habits at Work
Habits are capable of addressing far-reaching issues, from customer service to engagement, and even purpose. Leaders across industry lines have caught on, and habits are quickly becoming the way business leaders approach human capital management (HCM). As the science of habits continues to advance, effective strategies are emerging that provide proven means to effect organizational change.
The advantage of habits extends beyond their effectiveness for organizations—they provide a means to create a scalable and cost-effective HCM strategy. Unlike other approaches, targeting habits doesn’t require large lumped expenditure on consultants or coaches. Habits can be maximized every day by using targeted micro-activities: simple actions that take only a few minutes and prime people to engage in positive behaviors for the rest of the day.
Micro-activities are ultimately the key to a business’ habits strategy, but first I should address what business leaders are always asking me: “How do habits change?” Because, while the use of habits is growing quickly with business leaders, most don’t understand how to make use of habits in their organization—or even what habits to target. What changing habits ultimately comes down to is a two step process:
2. Making it stick
Easier said than done, right?
Fortunately, both of these steps can be broken down into smaller bites to tackle separately.
The first move to change behavior in an organization is almost always met with resistance, and, in fact, is shown to be the biggest reason for failure. So the first step is really about “breaking the ice” with your team to get them on board and excited for change. Doing this means offering your team a vision for what your organization is to become and what their place in the new order will be.
Research has shown that when you make a public commitment to change your behavior, and thus feel accountable, you are more likely to actually stick to change. So in any change initiative, this should be your first step—have your team publicly commit to new behaviors and each personally take accountability for them.
One problem I see time and again at organizations is that they think they can spur on habit change with the equivalent of a carrot on a stick: a bonus here or there, or perhaps some kind of benefit. These approaches are ultimately ineffective, because they encourage people to do just enough to merit a reward—encouraging the bare minimum.
Leveraging intrinsic reward is more effective—and cheaper. Intrinsic reward is all about what is rewarding by itself without any added incentives—something that if done for its own sake would be worth it. In the context of work, this means aligning new behaviors to the bigger organizational purpose. The more your team sees themselves thriving in a new system, the more ready they’ll be.
Making It Stick
People are creatures of habit, so it’s more comfortable for your employees to just keep on going with their old bad habits than to create new ones. Rather than faulting them for this, take possible resistance into mind when crafting your strategy for change.
When new habits have been thrown into the mix, people become uncomfortable—not just because they aren’t used to new things being done, but because it requires a focused effort to keep up with them. Aside from sheer force of will, there are two essentials for keeping new habits fresh:
2. Changing norm
When attempting to change behavior, organizations tend to follow a similar arc. First, everyone is motivated and on board with the new initiative and can’t wait to start fresh. But as time goes on, motivation wanes and people begin to neglect or simply forget to engage in the new habits. This is where behavioral cues come in.
Behavioral cues are little daily reminders that re-motivate people to continue with their new habits. They offer a gentle nudge that doesn’t feel accusatory, and keep them connected to the reason they committed to change in the first place.
In the long run, if habits are going to stick, organizational culture needs to change. This is why whenever you’re changing organizational habits, you need to plan to change the norms, as well. Additionally, this helps establish a standard of accountability to refer to when ambiguity arises.
Changing your team’s habits is all about the little things they do every day at the moment they’re doing them. You can sit in meetings and strategize about new initiatives all day and think about them endlessly, but if you aren’t inspiring them daily, it’s not going to work. This is why micro-actions are the key to initiating the model of change outlined above.
Micro-actions are little prompts for your team that can be engaged daily and take only a short time to complete, but can reframe their entire day. Like dominos, by inspiring one targeted behavior, you position your team to engage in other positive behaviors throughout the day. Research in the science of positive psychology has demonstrated that these little actions can have a big impact in organizations.
Here’s are some examples to take with you and share with your team:
- Engage in interpersonal focus. For this, you plan to focus specifically on other people during your day, giving those you interact with your undivided attention.
- Set mini-milestones. Take apart a big task you have for the day and break it into smaller segments. After you complete each segment, give yourself a little reward.
- Just breathe. Take a few moments out of your day to practice mindfulness and focus on controlling your breathing.
Habits are the little actions we do all day every day, and they define our organizations. Through small scientifically established steps, we can harness habits and transform our organization for the better. By utilizing small daily actions that target specific behaviors, we can keep new habits strong and settle in for long-term positive change.
Adam Fridman is a best-selling author and the founder and president of ProHabits.com, a platform that integrates the science of human psychology with corporate philosophies and technology, allowing leaders to nurture their employees’ personal growth while developing positive behaviors.