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BEHAVIORAL MANAGEMENT: The Power of Habit to Determine Our Behavior

As leaders there’s always one behavior or another we’re trying to shape or change in others.  What about the chronic latecomer, the constant complainer and the time management challenged? We attempt to give constructive feedback, help them set bodacious goals or focus on teamwork and continuous improvement. Sometimes it clicks; sometimes it doesn’t. What’s fascinating is to learn how much our habits impact our behavior choices, how habits by-pass our decision-making function and how these negative habits can be changed.

The recently published book, Habits: Why We Do What  We Do in Life and Work by Charles Guhigg provides new insight into the human brain and how behavioral habits emerge and can be changed – both for individuals and organizationally.

Guhigg presents research suggesting that our more sophisticated, cognitive processes are actually used very little in determining how we behave, if the behavior has become a habit.  Rather than logically and rationally thinking something through, the basal ganglia, deep within the primitive brain, recognizes the decision as one that has been made many times before.  In order to minimize the demand on the cognitive brain function, the basal ganglia executes the decision with little or no thought – somewhat like automatic pilot.  Brain researchers now agree that the basal ganglia is the decision maker for a myriad of little decisions we make all day long.  We decide to brush our teeth each morning, back out of the driveway, have breakfast, and exercise after work, all from this portion of the brain.   Ironically, the more we use the basal ganglia, the less mental activity is actually used.  The brain does this purposefully to conserve energy.  The goal for the brain is to create habits to ease the pressure on our cognitive thinking.  For example, when I arrive at work, I go get a cup of coffee; later on in the afternoon, I might go “grazing” for a snack because I need a boost of energy.  Most times these activities are done without any conscious thought.  The trigger for this behavior is deep in the automatic center of my brain.

According to Guhigg, the habit process begins with a “cue” that triggers our response.  Let’s say we open the cupboard and see chocolate; there’s our cue.  Based on the “cue” we execute a routine or habitual response: “I deserve to eat some chocolate because it’s been a hard day.”  After we consume the chocolate we get the “reward” – a bit of sugar high that feels good. As this cue-routine-reward habit loop repeats itself, we form a habit.  Now let’s take something at work.  Let’s say we hear the ding of an email coming in: the cue.  Our routine is to open the email whether it is important or not, receiving a “reward” when we catch an important one early.  Soon our time management has significantly deteriorated as we open every email coming in.  The basal ganglia has taken over the automatic decision making, and we are no longer checking whether the email is important.  As soon as the cue happens, we respond automatically, in anticipation of a reward.  The basal ganglia has executed the habit behavior even while the rest of the brain is asleep.

Our brain works at the beginning of an activity to find the cue that provides a hint as to which pattern, or habit, to use.  Once that is located, the brain automatically responds.  The “cue” is the trigger that tells the brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use.  The physical, emotional or mental routine follows.  The result, or reward, helps the brain determine if the particular habit loop is worth remembering for the future.  As this pattern continues again and again, we actually develop a powerful craving for the anticipated reward.  Guhigg states, “When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making.  So unless you deliberately fight a habit – unless you find new routines – the pattern will unfold automatically.”  He suggests that habits never really disappear as they are encoded into the structures of our brains.

To change a habit, such as reading every email, we have to create a new routine when the cue occurs that will overpower the previous behavior.  Let’s say we want to stop eating at McDonald’s.  First we have to realize that the golden arches are actually a very carefully orchestrated cue that McDonald’s has designed to appeal to our habitual brain.  See the golden arches…hmmmmm…craving starts based on the cue, routine launches as I drive in, and I purchase some fries (the reward).  Every time I repeat the pattern, the habit becomes stronger and stronger.  To break the habit, I have to see the golden arches as a cue that starts a craving and develop a different routine (response) that will still give me a reward.  It’s important to remember that the craving, built as the reward occurs over and over, is what powers the habit loop.

As a leader, I want to create certain habits in employees:  engagement, promptness, courage, continuous improvement.  If I can develop a “cue,” teach a routine response, and administer a prompt reward that develops a craving to repeat the process, then a habit will be formed.  Tony Dungy, former coach of the Indianapolis Colts, did just that as he had players practice routine responses to “cues” over and over until they became automatic.  However, those automatic responses only worked when the “cue” was exactly as it had been before.  When the stress of a championship game changed the cue, the players would engage their cognitive brain to “think through a different solution.”  As soon as they did that, the routine was broken, and often they were unsuccessful.  Dungy realized that the players had to believe that the routine would work.  Guhigg states, “”We know that a habit cannot be eradicated; it must, instead, be replaced.  If we keep the same cue and the same reward, a new routine can be inserted.  But that’s not enough.  For a habit to stay changed, people must believe change is possible.  And most often, that belief only emerges with the help of a group,” even if it is a small group of two people.

Guhigg shares the story of Paul O’Neill and his work transforming Alcoa.  He focused on one habit, safety, and from the improvements to that one habit came loads of other improvements.  He calls these critical habits such as safety or quality – keystone habits (because they shift, dislodge and remake everything else).  For O’Neill he identified a simple cue; an employee injury.  He instituted an automatic response; he had to be notified within 24 hours and a plan had to be presented to ensure the injury would never happen again.  Only those managers who embraced the system were promoted (rewarded). By focusing on a keystone habit with small wins, he created widespread shifts throughout the organization.

As leaders, how can we use the insights from this new research on brain functioning?  First we can look for the keystone habits and the “cues” in the environment that cause them to occur over and over, creating a craving to respond in a certain way (It worked in the past, didn’t it?).  We can examine the existing routine responses to the cues and implement new routine responses to the cues, making certain that the reward does not change.  If the new routine is repeated over and over to the point where a new belief is formed, the routine will become the new and better habit. Not only can we do this with work, but also to lose weight or initiate an exercise program.  As an example, let’s identify a quality problem, such as human error, as a keystone habit.  Now we look for the cues in the environment that are causing the errors to occur.  Maybe it’s a message from management that speed is more important than quality and I get rewarded when I’m fast.  My routine will then be to rush, rather than to be careful and double check my work.  To change my habit of rushing, I still get the “cue” to do my work, but now my routine has changed to specific quality checks that result in a reward (recognition) for work well done.  The more I do the new routine and believe that quality work will be rewarded, the more the behavior will become a habit performed automatically, without cognitive thinking.

What habits do you want to change as a leader?  Which ones do you want to add?  Try the cue-routine-reward habit loop; repeat it until it becomes a craving where you believe in its success, and you will have a new habit.  Once you have the habit the basal ganglia will go into automatic response and your cognitive brain can rest.  Not a bad plan, huh?


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