How to build habits that spark sustainable change in your organisation

Understanding how to drive behavioural change among employees is critical for every organisation. Why? Because aligning ways of working across the business helps to unlock impact and level up your ability to build a high-performing culture and accelerate the delivery of your strategy.

The power of habit formation may not be a new discovery, but when used in the right way it can still be your secret weapon to ingraining those desired behaviours. It’s all about making small, incremental changes which, over time, add up to reinforce positive actions and shift mindsets.

As communications, HR and engagement professionals, what can habit formation teach us about sparking lasting change at scale and how can we nudge people in the right direction?

Habit formation still matters. Here’s why.

Decades ago, researchers at MIT discovered the secret sauce to building a habit. In his best-selling book, The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg sums it up as what he calls the Habit Loop. It’s a set of neurological processes which help switch a behaviour into autopilot mode:

The Habit Loop - adapted from The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Over time, the repetition of ‘cue, routine, reward’ shapes a habit, which in turn makes the related behaviour completely automatic.

Understanding this process, and regularly putting your organisation’s habits under a microscope in this way, means you can identify when and why certain behaviours occur and even reroute the autopilot behaviour – allowing you to break down bad habits or build up good ones to best serve your business’ needs.

Try hacking the habit loop

Habit formation, and its component parts, can be leveraged at scale across an organisation to help trigger and embed the behaviours you want to make part of your company’s DNA.

Whether you’re looking to cultivate a culture of innovation, inspire continuous learning or empower teams to take calculated risks, the necessary behaviours to make it happen could be kickstarted by building up the right habits among employees.

All you need to do is figure out the habit loop. Which cue will help trigger the right behaviour? And which reward will help reinforce it? Keep in mind that the answer to these questions will look different for every organisation, so you’ll need to get under the skin of what specifically makes your employees tick. How well you understand your audience is the make-or-break factor in driving behavioural change.

Start building habits with these ideas

If you set a New Year’s resolution this January and failed days later, you’ll know habits can be tricky to crack. Here’s some suggestions on how you can make habit formation work in your organisation.  

Get creative in inspiring the right behaviours.

There’s a ton of ways you can cue the habits you want your people to build. Nudge theory subtly influences behaviour to help people make the right decisions on their own through positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions. Microlearning breaks bigger tasks down into manageable chunks – Google’s whisper courses are a great example of this. You can even gamify processes to help you achieve your goals as an organisation. Think about the behaviours you want to instil and how some of these principles could help.

Test out the two-minute rule.

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, argues that you should make a habit stick before trying to perfect it. For example, if you need to create a more customer-centric culture, why not allocate a 2-minute timeslot where you challenge your team to put themselves in their customers shoes for whichever task they are tackling? Once the activity becomes a habit, you can then optimise it, for example by switching up your processes to approach tasks with a customer-first mindset.

Put in place a commitment device.

In behavioural economics, a commitment device helps a person to follow through on something they might not want to do by either holding the individual more accountable or making it more ‘costly’ to fail. For example, if you want your people to become more proactive learners, you could introduce a buddy system where colleagues partner up to hold each other accountable for completing their personal action plans. We’ve also worked with companies to run 21-day challenges, helping teams to discover what they could do differently before working to embed the right behaviours together over a three-week period.

Incentivise good habits.

This should go without saying, but it’s really important you find a way to appropriately reward those who are demonstrating the right behaviours. This could be simply through recognition, whether personal or public, or could involve a more tangible or monetary reward. For example, if you want to boost innovation, try rewarding the individuals who push boundaries and challenge the status quo by giving them access to a creative outlet or course of their choice.

Build persistence through short-term benefits.

Studies show that while delayed or long-term benefits can motivate a longer-term behavioural change, immediate or short-term benefits are more effective at building the habits that will ultimately make this change happen, because immediate benefits help build repetition and persistence. HBR Ascend shared some fascinating insight on the research and how to make it work for you. For example, factoring in enjoyment helps build habits. If you need to break down silos across teams, what about introducing a monthly office-wide idea exchange, complete with drinks, snacks, games and socialising?

Learn more

If you want to dig in further to habit formation, here’s a couple of resources to check out:

If you need help driving the right behaviours in your organisation, we’d love to hear from you. You can get in touch by emailing connie.berry@unitedcultureco.com.