3 steps to change employee habits & transform business

“The most successful businessman is the man who holds onto the old just as long as it is good, and grabs the new just as soon as it is better.”  Robert P. Vanderpol

A successful business leader constantly redefines her strategy and let it evolve as a force that continuously seeks opportunities. She also understands that building consensus amongst her peers and gathering acceptance of her subordinates is crucial to success of any business change.

Managing people side of change typically suggests changing people’s mindsets and attitudes towards a new order of things. Such deep-seated change is long-drawn and hard to manage.

However, In most cases, resistance to change is not in fact the resistance to the actual change but to the change in ‘routine’. Changing employee habits can prove to be a quick win and sufficiently good start for any business change program. An organizational change can be brought about by the accumulation of positive employee habits.1

Smart advertising executives have been using the power of influencing and changing consumer habits to make them buy their products for a long time.  We regularly buy toothpaste, deodorant and other personal hygiene products out of habit. Kellogg’s marketing strategy for increasing the sale of its breakfast cereal is to change Indian breakfast habit of cooked breakfast. Hence their advertisements focus on quick, nutritious breakfast served to kids rushing to school.

Habits keep forming innocuously in a whole plethora of activities we do. The first time; we learn how to do something new, but soon it becomes our second nature. Charles Duhigg proposed a “habit-loop” that explains how habits are formed.

Cue — something that triggers the habit

Routine — where we instinctively perform the habitual activities; and

Reward — where we get some pleasant outcome as a result of performing the routine.

An example of good habit is

Cue: running shoes left next to the bed, Routine: run first thing in the morning, Reward: Endorphine rush and a healthy breakfast

Equally, getting into bad habit also follows the same process

Cue: Feeling sad      Routine: Drink              Reward: Forget troubles

Understanding this loop can help build good habits and break bad ones.

The question remains on how a business leader can use this understanding to bring about Organization transformation. Paul O’Neill, CEO of Alcoa (Aluminium Corporation of America) set the most compelling example back in 1987 when he focused on changing workplace safety habits of employees. The keen focus on safety led to improving communication between teams, change in the hierarchical structure and delivered record profits.

We suggest a three-step process that change agents can adopt in order to build desirable employee habits. To make it real, we have taken the context of a Project Manager encouraging her team members to submit regular and accurate timesheets that give meaningful project update.

  1. Eliminate ‘must’: “Must” is a feeling that results from a habit. The only way to change a habit is to first decide that “must” can actually eliminated.

In order to adhere to managerial diktat of producing weekly timesheets, the project team members have the habit of filling in and sending timesheets on the fag end of Friday. This process often yields very little desired output since majority of the employees fail to track the daily work activities and rush their timesheets on Friday in a rather haphazard manner.

To eliminate this Friday rush, the Project Manager starts by educating team members to keep daily track of their work. She makes them believe that such a practice will not only be helpful for the management in tracking spent time vis-à-vis productivity but also save employees’ time to fill-in all the data on a single day with the mere intention of following a process.

  1. 2.  Decipher the habit pattern:
  • Determine the cue: It is then pertinent to determine the cue that triggers urge for that habit. The trigger in this case for employees is a rather false sense of achievement on ‘complying’ with a managerial process.
  • Understand the routine: In this case, the need to provide meaningful updates is routinely avoided and a there is a mad dash on Friday evening to meet the submission deadline.
  • Identify the reward: Procrastination is the ultimate reward. The team members are not only rewarding themselves with a choice to do something else by putting off the timesheet but also feel proud about completing a task at the last minute.
  1. 3. Make a new habit pattern:
  • Eliminate the cue: The first thing to do when rewiring a new habit is to eliminate the cue. In this case, the Project Manager decides to remove the Friday deadline.
  • Create a new routine: Daily stand up meetings with the entire team are introduced to ensure that everyone provides an update. The Project Manager keeps the discussion meaningful by encouraging the team to discuss the individual updates. One volunteer is assigned to gather the information and enter into timesheet format.
  • Create a new reward: Morning coffee is served during daily meeting and a dashboard showing overall project status is projected for all to see. Before leaving at the end of workday, the team members sign off their individual timesheets so that the project dashboard captures their update.

By creating a new habit, the Project Manager has now eased productivity tracking . This ultimately results in projects delivered with better quality and in a more timely fashion resulting in higher motivation for the team-members.

This simple example highlights the latent power of changing employee habits. As the first step towards transforming your business, identify an employee habit that will bring maximum benefit and use the three part method to instill the same in your organization.


1.     Power of habit – Charles Duhigg - http://www.amazon.com/Power-Habit-What-Life-Business/dp/1400069289

 2.     Made to Stick – Chip and Dan Heath - http://www.amazon.com/Made-Stick-Ideas-Survive-Others/dp/1400064287

3.     Switch – Chip and Dan Heath - http://www.amazon.com/Switch-Change-Things-When-Hard/dp/0385528752


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One Comment

  1. bijay Majumdar

    Great ….
    Habits are sources that can really make huge difference in life.And their use in business transformation is very much amazing and worth learning.

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