Habits: Living organisational culture

To delve into the heart of what makes organisations successful, we need to take a few steps back and see the organisation as a whole body and how it behaves in the market. In other words, what does it do and what doesn’t it do. When you take this simple view of the organisation, you will see that its behaviour is a reflection of the people working there – their culture. Apart from the collective beliefs, values and norms that are generally (and vaguely) said to make up a company’s culture, a more obvious description of what organisational culture is, is actually just a set of the collective habits of people within the organization. Put simply, it is “the way we do things around here”, and this culture is usually already pre-existing in the company you join. Its leaders usually set the underlying tone of this culture, because a company’s practices and processes trigger certain behaviours in people which, over time, ultimately become collective, automatic or routine actions – habits.

Why habits matter

We all engage in a surprising number of habitual behaviours. In fact, about 40% to 45% of what we do every day might feel like a decision but it’s actually a habit. We all know that there are “good” and “bad” habits. But the interesting thing about habits is that we perform these sets of learned actions automatically regardless of whether we are still benefiting from them or not. Neuroscientists have discovered that “a habit is the formation of a particular kind of memory that forms in the stratium. The stratium, which is a dopamine-rich region of the brain, feeds into the basal ganglia (located in the limbic system). The basal ganglia are the seat of habits. Habits become a reflex in that once you’ve done something several times, it reduces the need to think about it. Basically we are driven to that behaviour, like a reflex reaction, because of the pleasure-sensing chemical dopamine that drives the brain’s reward system.

The basal ganglia also play a key role in the development of emotions, memories and pattern recognition. Habit_on_brainDecisions, however, are made in a different part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. We were previously taught to believe that as soon as a behaviour becomes automatic, that the decision-making part of our brain becomes inactive.
But new evidence has shown that “there is still a small region of the brain’s prefrontal cortex (where most thought and planning occurs) that decides which habits are “switched on” at a given time.” (Anne Trafton, How the brain controls our habits, MIT News Office, 2012). This finding gives us a glimmer of hope and has many implications in the fields of clinical neuroscience and psychiatry. While we know that bad habits can be “broken”, we also know it’s not that easy or simple. For humans to function every day, we need habitual behaviours, routine actions, to be able to do things quicker and more efficiently. Otherwise our brains would be in a constant state of re-learning simple tasks which would expend so much energy it would drive us insane. Most of us like some form of routine. It makes us feel safe even when it’s not intrinsically or extrinsically rewarding anymore. The behaviour has become so ingrained in our lives that any disturbance in that routine, any change, makes us feel threatened. Neurologically, any change imposed upon us affects our emotions, our memories and pattern recognition, all necessary for our survival.

Habits drive organisational culture

An organisation’s culture is the product of these collective habitual behaviours and routines. Perhaps this is why it is so difficult to change an organisation’s culture. But let’s reflect for a moment: if a habit or routine action is a learned one that later on becomes automatic, then why can’t we just “learn” new behaviours and repeat them on a daily basis until they become habits? Et voilà, you have the makings of a changed culture! The mistake that companies have been making for years is trying to change people’s behaviours. What we should be doing is understanding people’s habits. A “behaviour” and a “habit” are two very different things. Clearly not all behaviours are habitual. As previously mentioned, around 45% of what we do every day are habitual behaviours. So where do we start? Certainly a big strategic decision is great, but it is organisational culture that will determine whether the company succeeds or fails in its decision. What about learning? Creating and nurturing a learning culture, while that might sound great too, needs to be developed in a way that reflects individual and company values if you’re going to get people to consider it. For example, if we say one of our company’s core values is “Transparency”, here are a few questions you should be asking:

How do our people’s work habits reflect that?

Are there systems in place that capture and utilise information throughout the company? In other words, is knowledge shared?

How and where is knowledge shared?

Is there open and transparent communication internally as well as externally with your customers on a daily basis?

What kind of habits could help create a knowledge-based and learning environment?

Keystone habits

Imagine starting with something as simple as making it a habit every day that every employee should bring an email or a story to a short meeting about how they helped someone at work the previous day? Not only will this make everyone sharing their story about doing a good deed feel good, but will make them want to repeat that “feel good” action and will also be sharing knowledge about how and what they did to help someone (be that a customer, a peer, or even a manager). Imagine the enormous implications this would have on “how things are done around here”! By just changing one key action, this will create a ripple effect changing existing practices and ultimately company culture itself. The term “keystone habits” has been described marvellously by Pulitzer prise winning reporter for NY Times, Charles Duhigg, in his book entitled “The Power of Habit” about the science of habit formation in our lives, companies and societies (excerpt from his book here). Duhigg explains how Alcoa ex CEO, Paul O’Neill, created a keystone habit that caused a chain reaction; whereby other habits began to emerge and change as a result. After a fatal accident on the factory floor, he decided to put safety first. He asked that the unit VP write a report within 24 hours of any injury and explain why and how it happened and how they would prevent it in future. And only people who took worker safety seriously would be promoted. This was their reward. Over time, this process became automatic, a habit. When O’Neill said, “I want to make workers more safe”, “I want to change worker safety habits” everyone felt valued. What he was actually saying was, I want to make every single factory more efficient and more productive and producing a higher quality product, because that’s how we make things safer. O’Neill managed to “make one of the largest, stodgiest, and most potentially dangerous companies into a profit machine and a bastion of safety” He knew he had to transform Alcoa, “But you can’t order people to change. That’s not how the brain works. So I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing. If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company.” (P. O’Neill)

In conclusion

For years the goal of advertising and marketing has been to create new habits. Which they’ve accomplished very well. They have managed to create whole cultures around their products. Think of the two very obvious habits most of us engage in every morning automatically; brushing our teeth and having a coffee! These are not considered bad habits, on the contrary, brushing your teeth is a sign of good personal hygiene and drinking coffee “gives you a boost” and makes us feel good, so we will probably continue to engage in these habits. We are almost grateful for these products so why then do companies struggle to nurture a “healthy” culture within their own organisations? Understand your people’s habits, manage and nurture good habitual behaviours by structuring rewards and incentives around those. And we don’t mean the kind of “carrot and stick” approaches to “induce” behaviours. We mean supporting your people by generously giving them the space and learning experiences needed to create their own culture around trust and values. Focus on keystone habits to make it easier for them to create new habits in an ever changing environment, to increase personal wellbeing, flexibility and agility. In short, turn values into action.

With our help, you can achieve this. How? Through values activation!