Habit Forming

Identify and reinforce actions that inspire your business.

By Kathryn Tyler Nov 1, 2012
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November CoverNew York Times reporter Charles Duhigg discovered the strategic value of habits 10 years ago while covering the war in Iraq. The author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (Random House, 2012) heard about an army major in the small city of Kufa who had been analyzing videotapes of riots and had isolated a pattern: Before a riot, crowds gathered in a plaza for several hours, grew in size, and drew food vendors and spectators. To break the habit, the major asked the mayor to keep food vendors out of the plazas. The result? When crowds became hungry, they left the plaza. The riots ended.

Below, Duhigg suggests ways you can identify the strategic value of habits in your organization.

How do you define the term "habit," and how does it apply to the workplace?

A habit is an automatic reaction that does not require decision-making; habits involve a loop of cue, routine and reward.

Habits are every action that happens without conscious thought, routines that workers build during years of doing the same job.

For example, Starbucks developed training materials that taught workers how to respond to specific cues, such as a screaming customer, and then managers drilled the employees until the responses became automatic.

How can individuals and organizations identify bad habits and replace them with good ones?

Individuals in any organization can have thousands of habits. The key is to find the important ones, called "keystone habits," that trigger widespread change. For instance, exercise is a keystone habit for many. When people start exercising, they start changing unrelated patterns in their lives. They show more patience with colleagues and become more productive at work. They feel less stressed. To identify keystone habits in the workplace, start diagnosing habits that change the way work gets done. Look at the routines and rewards. Why do people behave the way they do? Then look at the cues. Isolate the location, time of day, emotion and people involved when a habit occurs.

How can leaders reinforce good habits?

Good leaders choose important habits.For instance, when Alcoa Chief Executive Officer Paul O'Neill became chief executive officer, he made safety his top priority. Safety is important to everyone, and all factions could support it. When O'Neill began to improve worker safety, other aspects of the company changed, too, such as how executives communicated. O'Neill required unit presidents to report any injuries to him within 24 hours. That necessitated new communication systemsto make it easier for workers to communicate with executives.

How do habits influence an organization's culture?

At any large company, you can't tell everyone what to do all the time. Employees have to make their own decisions. But often times, they aren't making decisions; they are following automatic patterns—habits. Figure out which ones are the right ones, which ones correspond with the culture of the company. Ask questions and decide which habits you want to encourage.

What are the most important keystone habits in organizations?

The "right" habit depends on the organization. In general, though, habits surrounding communication make a big difference. How do people communicate in the organization? Formal communication—the authorization you need from your boss or approval for a decision—isn't guided by habits. Informal communication is built around habits. When I encounter a problem and pick up the phone for advice, do I call the guy sitting next to me? Someone in a different department? My old boss? Someone in a different company? Thinking about communication habits and making those habitseasier shapes how people do their jobs.

Communication habits can be the root of conflict. How can good habits reduce conflict within organizations?

Communication habits create truces that allow everyone to set aside rivalries long enough to get a day's work done. Organizational habits offer a basic promise: If you follow the established patterns and abide by the truce, then rivalries won't destroy the company, the profits will roll in and eventually everyone will get rich. A salesperson, for example, knows she can boost her bonus by giving favored customers hefty discounts in exchange for larger orders. But she also knows that if every salesperson gives away hefty discounts, the company will go bankrupt and there won't be any bonuses. So a routine emerges: The salespeople get together every January and agree to limit how many discounts they offer to protect profits, and at the end of the year everyone gets a raise.

The mechanism for truce is organizational habit. There are unspoken agreements about how to behave and treat each other. Truces usually emerge within a department, but HR plays a communication role in that it can stamp out rumors or explain why certain procedures or decisions happen.

What impact do groups have on habits? How can HR use the "power of a group" to change habits?

Human resource professionals can facilitate conversations. Why do we work here? What makes employees more productive? How do we tell stories to learn who we are and what is important? Foster that communication in an impactful and meaningful way. By a conversation, in a group, we reinforce what we're saying to ourselves.

The interviewer is a freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer in Wixom, Mich.

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