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Insights | 15.01.2024

Making and breaking habits

Habits account for about 40% of what we do every day. They’re the micro-decisions we make and tiny actions we take without thinking about it.

As James Clear (Atomic Habits) says – life today is a sum of our habits. And that applies to work as well. Every organisation is a sum of its people’s collective habits – which means they can be the key to putting ideas like purpose, values and behaviours into practice.

Lots of organisations have a set of value or behaviour statements. They’re usually easy to understand but are sometimes difficult to put into practice because they are ideological rather than actionable.

That’s why habits are so important. They bridge the gap and put ideas into action by identifying the small, tangible steps that make them happen. It’s these small, practical actions that unlock behaviour change and culture shift in an organisation.

How to make and break habits

The most effective way to change habits is to focus first on who you want to be (as an individual, team or company) and then on what you want to achieve. Here are three key areas to focus on with a few ideas to consider in your business:

1. Start with Leaders

Transformations are 5.3 times more likely to be successful when leaders role model the behaviour changes they’re asking employees to make (McKinsey). So work with your Exec and senior leaders to form habits that best support your business:

Encourage self-reflection – Start with individual reflection questions aligned to your organisation’s values and/or behaviours. These should dig deeper than standard leadership or survey questions to drill into the kind of leader they want to be and how that translates into daily habits.

360 feedback – Use the same reflection questions to gather 360 feedback from peers, colleagues and direct reports. With this additional feedback, leaders will have a complete picture of how their current habits (good and bad) line up with the desired identity and culture.

Exec and senior leader sessions – Bring leaders together to build trust and rapport and align on the habits they want to focus on making and breaking as a collective. Ask leaders to explore what kind of leader they want to be, and what are the small steps they can take to make that a reality?

Habit forming sprints – Finally, work with leaders to identify one habit that they will make or break to be the leader they want to be. Look for tiny changes that will make a mighty impact – and focus on one at a time until it becomes second nature. Try using habit trackers (apps or habit wheels) to keep on track and introduce regular check-ins to provide peer support. 

2. Support people managers

People managers are one of the most influential communities in any organisation. So help them to develop their own habits and become role models for their teams:

Habit workshops – Run habit workshops for people managers introducing self-reflection and habit-forming tools that can be used to understand and shape their actions.

Email nudgesGoogle’s whisper courses adopt a micro-learning approach to equip line managers with the tools and skills they need to build great teams. A whisper course approach can help you support people managers to change their own habits as well as their teams.

3. Inspire everyone

Your organisation’s culture is the sum of everyone’s individual habits. To see a shift in behaviour or culture, it’s important to inspire everyone to build habits that will put your desired culture into action.

Individual connection – Help every employee to understand exactly how they can live and breathe your organisation’s values or behaviours. Be specific and invest time in helping them understand the difference their actions can make.

Create the right environment – Help everyone to make or break habits by setting up the best environment. For example, if you want people to print less, place the printer in a remote spot to encourage people to walk further to get to it. Applying clever nudge theory will add and remove friction wherever you need it most.

The book shelf

Habits are grounded in heaps of theory and supported by lots of practical tools. Here are our favourite books to learn more about the power of habits.