October 21, 2022

I’m currently taking a marketing class about consumer behavior, and I got to reread one of the books that helped set me on the path I am now. In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg combines research about the brain and how people make decisions with research about individual and organizational change. He sketches out the framework of a habit loop, where there is a cue that triggers a particular routine in hopes of a reward, with the whole process being fueled by a particular craving.  


As a simple example, take the habit of checking your phone. In this case, the cue might be your phone buzzing or alerting you to a notification. The routine could then be that you check your texts and send some funny gifs back and forth with your friend, resulting in a reward of a feeling of enjoyment or laughter. All of this could be fueled by a craving for distraction.  


When we start considering how we might approach making changes to our habit loops, there are a few options. One possibility could be to remove the cue altogether, such as putting your phone on do not disturb, but that won’t work for all habits. Unfortunately, our brains never forget our old habits, but we can create new habits that overrule the old ones. Duhigg suggests another possibility:  


“That’s the rule: If you use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine and change the habit. Almost any behavior can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same.” 


We can all think of our individual habits, or hey, maybe they’re so automatic at this point that we can’t even think of them consciously — quick, which leg do you put your pants on first? — but habits play a big role in our organizations too. Not only do you have every individual in the organization with their own habits, and it turns out that “more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits,” but we also have organizational habits in the form of norms, which influence and reflect things like company culture.  


Oftentimes, organizational norms and how they affect culture aren’t at the forefront when an organization is starting and growing. I spoke to Riverbank executive consultant Rick Haller about the change management process, and he said that there are so many things going through an entrepreneur’s mind that they have to prioritize in order to launch their business that thinking about organizational habits is something to come later: “You don’t think about that — what kind of culture am I going to build my company on? Because it’s just you! It’s just you, your values.” 


As the company grows, habits and norms start to form:  


“What happens is you have an organization, and it’s like it’s on a freight train. It’s a locomotive moving down the tracks. All of a sudden, you want to introduce something to that locomotive that’s got its direction. It’s puffing along and you can’t stop it. So you’ve got to start interjecting within it.” 


Like Duhigg, Rick realizes that change likely won’t be effective if you try to completely overhaul the habits currently in place. And beyond just considering effectiveness, Rick acknowledges the human element of the apprehension people often have to change: 


“Let’s say you wanted to bring in a new design leader with a new approach to design and you know that you’re already doing design and you have a strategy for this new process. This new designer coming in has this really magnificent process, and you want him or her to see your existing process and start inserting change within it, as opposed to saying, ‘We’re going to throw out everything you’re doing here, and we’re going to start fresh.’ People don’t like to hear that. That’s the fear of change. That’s what I’ve learned in our organization, and I think I’ve seen it more and more even as we try to implement change. Understand what they do and understand how they can tweak what they do so it isn’t so dramatic like ripping off a band aid, or something that’s not painful. And you can generally bring other people into it a lot easier that way.” 


In order to enact change in organizations, we must first come from a place of understanding — understand the habit loop and appreciate what is motivating the habit. When change starts with this foundation, it can be more effective and more welcome in the organization. 


Alicia Haun is a content marketing intern at Riverbank Consulting Group. Alicia is a senior at the University of Michigan, where she also works with the Center for Positive Organizations at the Ross School of Business. Alicia is passionate about the field of positive organizational psychology and looks forward to helping work become a place of flourishing. 

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