THE POWER OF HABIT:  WHY WE DO WHAT WE DO IN LIFE AND BUSINESS
by Charles Duhigg

When we think about organizations, we are more apt to engage in conversations about culture than we are to discuss “organizational habits”. The reality is that an organization’s culture is embodied in its habits. It is the habits that reveal the behaviors that are acceptable and unacceptable within that group. Moreover, an organization’s leaders and mission statement may espouse a host of things as its “values”, but its habits tell you what is actually important.

Additionally, conflict and problems arise when the gap between an organization’s stated values and its habits is wide. If the organization isn’t actively working toward reconciling the gaps, the gaps aren’t that significant to those in leadership. Change, gap reconciliation, only occurs when there is a sense of urgency and strong belief that change is necessary. 

When we talk about organizational habits, you might ask, “What does that really mean?”  An organization’s habits are the behaviors that its employees, including leaders, regularly engage in.  Think about how your organization rewards and punishes behavior. For example, is promptness important?  Consider how you know the answer to this question. Are there any punishments, formal or informal, for tardiness?  Punishments can take the form of actual discipline or verbal jabs among co-workers.  Moreover, people who study the environment may discover that individuals who are frequently late are less likely to be promoted despite the absence of formal discipline. Conversely, it could be that your organization really couldn’t care less about promptness and prides itself on flexibility while being ruthless in its punishments for people who cannot work unscheduled overtime during peak seasons.  Punishments and rewards are key drivers of organization culture and habits because they tell employees which behaviors will make them successful.

These perspectives on change and organization management are echoed by many scholars and professionals who observe the work environment every day; thus, the strength of The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg is that he considers how organizations should investigate their habits when their leaders realize desired outcomes aren’t being achieved or that such is being done in a way that isn’t optimal. Ultimately, the leader is responsible for the following:

  • Determining whether new habits and values are necessary;
  • If new habits are necessary, the leader must create a safe environment for engaging in the new behavior (people must be given time to learn);
  • Proving the necessary resources to make the new value meaningful and possible (for example, buying or improving equipment to get the new job done); and
  • Levying consequences when ANYBODY, including highly visible individuals, violates the new habit, which is, in essence, the new culture (In an organization, there must be consequences for individuals who violate the culture.  By punishing individuals who violate the culture, leaders confirm to others the organization’s priorities).

In addition to these guidelines for managing organizational habits, Duhigg shares an additional perspectives for leaders: when trying to change an ingrained habit, it often takes a defining moment or event to get you to change or trust your new habits.  The defining moment is another way of describing a sense of urgency: organizations and leaders don’t change unless they believe change is vital to success or that severe consequences are likely. Consider the two stories below:

Story 1:  The London Subway System was rife with organizational silos which gave rise to significant safety problems; however, the organization culture was that the various departments that were responsible for different aspects of safety would not work together.  Each worked within its own fiefdom and treated recommendations from others as intrusive. In turn, leaders hesitated to offer suggestions or advice outside of the department wherein they had formal authority in order to demonstrate respect.  This culture didn’t change until they had a major fire that left 31 people dead and dozens injured (November 18, 1987).
Read More here:  http://www.nytimes.com/1987/11/19/world/32-are-killed-in-fire-at-london-subway-80-reported-injured.html.

Story 2:  The Tony Dungee Story.  Mr. Dungee was hired as the head football coach for two teams that weren’t successful. Despite his failures, he had developed a coaching philosophy about which he was resolute: he believed the defining issue in football was time. More specifically, he believed the main problem was that many players wasted time making decisions when football games could be won or lost in milliseconds. Thus, his contention was that football players needed to learn a few good plays and perfect them rather than trying to learn tons of plays and make such decisions at critical moments. The problem that he encountered was his team would trust his coaching and philosophy until they got to the playoffs. Then, they would revert to their old habits of thinking when the game pressure became intense. When they started thinking, they started losing! The players admitted that they were afraid and didn’t truly trust Tony’s methods when it really counted. Coach Dungee couldn’t get the players to trust him; thus he was fired from the Tampa Bay Buchaneers. When he got to his next team, the Indianapolis Colts, the pattern continued: the team trusted his methods until they got to the playoffs!  In Indianapolis, however, something tragic happened right before the playoffs: Dungee’s son committed suicide right before the games. In post-gamed conversations, the players said they wanted to give Coach Dungee all they had. They felt like they had something to do something different, and for many of them, the something different was to fully trust his leadership. It was their way of acknowledging and responding to his great personal loss. They felt it was the only way to help. Thus, Coach Dungee’s tragedy was their defining moment.

Finally, organizations should determine what its keystone (core) habits need to be and build every aspect of its operations around maintaining those habits.  This perspective also includes contingency planning because it is, in part, about maintaining organizational habits so that your team and business can weather storms and unexpected conditions. Olympian Michael Phelps’ coach talked about how he made Michael practice swimming in the dark. He said he did this because he wanted Michael to be ready for any condition. Well, during the 2008 Olympics, Michael had a problem with his goggles and still managed to set a world record. Yes, he swam while being unable to see. When Michael was asked what it was like to swim blind, he said it was like he’d imagined and had practiced for.

Overall, the role and value of habits is summed up best by this quote which is often attributed to Aristotle:  Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.