Some habits good, and some not. Yet if most habits were not positive and beneficial, humans wouldn’t have evolved brains prone to forming them. Habits let us perform complex tasks without thinking consciously about them: forming sounds when we speak, walking upright, typing without looking, playing the clarinet, or working with others to achieve organizational goals. Once we have figured out the series of actions we need to take to produce a desired result, practicing those actions causes them to become unconsciously automatic. This enables multi-tasking: letting habits help us perform routine actions while we focus our conscious attention on other tasks. If every task required our complete attention, we could do only one thing at a time. Unable to commit required routines to habits, we’d be in a sorry state. Moreover, habits are not just simple responses to simple stimuli, like doodling at staff meetings or feeling good when praised. Habitual behaviors can be highly complex, like playing Beethoven on the piano while thinking yesterday’s meeting or tomorrow’s appointment.
The downside of habits is that these automatic mental programs that make us so efficient may launch and run when we don’t want them to. Breaking a bad unconscious habit ― whether lighting up a cigarette when the phone rings or worrying more about the well-being of your department than about the good of your organization ― is tough. Forming a new habit where none existed before is possible is common, but it can be excruciatingly difficult to dislodge an existing bad habit and substitute a beneficial version. Learning not to ‘clean your plate’ when you’re used to eating everything placed in front of you is tough, and so is listening open-mindedly to new ideas if you typically bristle at suggested changes. Our minds and muscles become comfortable doing things the way we’ve always done them, and both remembering to do them differently and then expending the considerable effort required to actually do things differently takes lots of work. Research shows it takes 18 to 254 days of ‘doing it differently’ to replace unwanted eating habits, and that backsliding, even once, can restart the calendar. No wonder dieting and stopping smoking are so hard. Improving organization culture, where everyone’s individual habits must shift together, is even more demanding, but well worth the effort.
Because a specific habit can be either beneficial or destructive, deciding how to deal with an organization’s culture is no simple matter. An organization first needs to explore and understand what its culture is now — what assumptions, values, and beliefs motivate the way its employees behave. If possible, it needs to understand where these hallmarks of its culture originated, and how widely and deeply they are held. It also needs to determine whether specific current features of its culture help or hinder the organization in achieving its goals.
Take rewarding employees as an example. A culture that evaluates and recognizes each employee separately may be extremely effective in stimulating individual creativity and effort. If that’s what benefits the organization most, great. But if the organization’s advancement depends on teams of individual employees working together, then a team reward system may more effectively stimulate and the group creativity and effort needed to address more complicated challenges, while venerating individual performance may be counterproductive. In theory, Neither a “lone star” nor a “team achievement” reward culture is right or wrong. But one or the other will work better. Given the mission and goals of a particular organization, charting out a course that will shift an organization toward the culture that makes it most successful requires lots of careful mindfulness of the current realities, analysis, discussion, and strategy. Like developing or dropping a habit, changing a culture takes effort.
Stephen D. Spangehl
Plexus International – Higher Education