Recognizing the Power of Habit

As a practitioner of organizational change, it’s clear that one of the most stubborn challenges my clients face is the invisible, intractable power of habit.

Leaders can create large-scale transformation initiatives, or invest in expensive new technology solutions, but sooner or later, they bump up against the fact that human beings are creatures of habit. What’s even more vexing is that when faced with a change that may be destabilizing or disconcerting, this fundamental orientation toward habit only gets more entrenched.

Daniel Kahneman is the world’s leading authority on the power of habit. In his brilliant book Thinking Fast and Slow, the behavioural economist presents his model of humans operating on two basic systems. System 1 dominates human action. It operates automatically, intuitively involuntarily and effortlessly (such as when we drive, read a facial expression or recall our age). System 2 requires slowing down, deliberating and reasoning (like when we calculate a math problem or fill out a complicated form). He presents a fascinating analysis of how we tend to conserve our attention, explaining that “we can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness.” A cautionary tale for communicators and change agents who tend to want to appeal on an intellectual level, to audiences who are, in fact, fundamentally driven on an instinctive, automatic and emotional plane.

A similar analysis is made by Dan Ariely in Predictably Irrational. He summarizes 20 years of research in behavioural economics and convincingly concludes that decisions are driven overwhelmingly at a systematic, rather than a rational level.

“Standard economics assumes that we are rational… But, as the results presented in this book (and others) show, we are far less rational in our decision making… Our irrational behaviors are neither random nor senseless- they are systematic and predictable. We all make the same types of mistakes over and over, because of the basic wiring of our brains.”

So what’s a change practitioner to do? A first step is to take heed of the wisdom that you really can’t change a person’s mind – you can just change the conditions such that they change their own mind. When working on a change initiative, it can be valuable to identify day-to-day habits in the workplace, and find opportunities to make a shift. For example:

  • In designing an operational change, do a tour of a facility or team’s workplace, and inventory the steps that are built into employees habits. Then, assess these small behaviours and evaluate whether there is an opportunity to make a small change in process that will eventually become a new habit. This could be related to quality control, workplace safety or reporting, for example.
  • If you are focused on silo-busting and a move toward a more corporate sense of belonging, make sure that the structure of meetings follow this imperative. Remember, form follows function – if an employee only experiences departmental meetings, then that is their reality of the organization. An organization looking to foster cross-departmental collaboration and innovation must behave in a cross-departmental fashion.
  • When implementing a performance management and measurement system, think carefully about how to integrate measurement tools into daily work. This may be by embedding the dashboard into a firm’s CRM, building measurement into an order tracking system or even by making a practice of starting staff meetings by asking for an update on the performance initiative.

The bottom line is that organizational leaders overwhelmingly tend to want to lead change by appealing to employees on an intellectual level. Recognizing the power of habit is helpful in balancing those approaches with activities that appeal emotionally and at a practical level in shifting small aspects of the employee’s day-to-day experience.