Changing Organizational Habits

Have you ever sat down to work and emerged two hours later wondering why you’ve been scrolling social media?

You went to your email but then you started processing your emails. You want to respond to a question on a JIRA ticket, but need to find a Pull Request for context. You jump on Github to find the PR, but then start reviewing PRs, and need to look something up. You Google it, find an amazing article, and decide to quickly share it on Twitter before you forget, and 2 hours later wonder how you got there.

Why didn’t you stop yourself?!

Because most of that behavior was entirely unconscious – our conscious mind mostly turns off when we’re in a habit routine.

This is great most of the time. For example, driving would be extremely stressful if most of it didn’t become automatic at some point. Do you remember your first time behind the wheel, and how much thinking was involved?

Interestingly, memory seems to be mostly uninvolved in the process. Just repetition. In The Power of Habit, a patient known as Eugene is able to learn new behaviors in a new house. The twist is he has complete and total amnesia. He doesn’t know where he is. But somehow he’s able to learn. When asked where the kitchen is, he doesn’t know. Or how to get to the bathroom. But he does it anyway.

Habits aren’t learned like facts. They are rehearsed, until they can be done without thinking.

Organizational Habits

Organizations have habits as well. And they are also largely unconscious.

There are routines of behavior that come up over and over again between various team members, where particular interactions tend to go wrong in predictable ways, which often leads to an avoidance of real communication in other subjects.

These habits not only affect behaviors, but they affect the way we perceive ourselves and other teams as well.

When we routinely do not do what we said we would do as a result of our meetings, we tend to perceive meetings as a waste of time. They’re not where the real decisions happen. As a result, we don’t engage, and don’t attempt to make decisions there, thus reinforcing the perception (i.e. living into our notion) that meetings aren’t where real decisions are made.

These perceptions are contagious.

In a famous experiment, Solomon Asch subjected male college students to a vision test. The test was simple. Each student would say which of 3 lines on the right matched a line on the left. And the answer was obvious. The only catch was that before the experimental subject gave an answer, 11 actors confidently gave the wrong answer.

In most cases, the subject of the experiment would give the answer that the other 11 gave.

What’s striking about this is that while some of the participants lied (they wanted to fit in) and others simply doubted their judgement and assumed they saw wrongly, one group actually started perceiving the situation differently based on the answers of the preceding 11 actors.

So it turns out that our underlying assumptions that cause our habits can also be communicated by our actions and actually affect the basic perceptions of others about the nature of a situation.

Habits form situationally; situations occur to us in language

Habits all requires triggers that produce cravings for something we want, which largely happen in a particular context. It is not the things themselves, but rather how we relate to them, that causes the habits to form.

If you ask someone who simply finds sugar or smoking to be disgusting and gross about those statements, they will disagree. Those things have no appeal to them.

But why?

Because the trigger of the habit, as well as the reward that is craved, both exist in how things occur to us, and how things occur to us arises in language.

In Three Laws of Performance, the authors assert that “how people perform correlates to how situations occur to them”, and “how a situation occurs arises entirely in language.”

It turns out that underlying our habits is a basic occurrence about the world. The cookie looks good. The cigarette is relaxing.

What we say about the cigarette and the cookie is usually more of a statement about ourselves.

When we can’t see that we’re talking about ourselves, we can’t see what is in our power to change.

It is only through awareness that we become capable of making a choice. We must surface the things we were unaware of, or the things that go without saying, in order to evaluate them and decide if they still serve us.

Changing the language can change the habits

If our habits about the cookies and the cigarettes emerge from our relationship to those things, and our relationship to those things can be expressed in language, then it would follow that organizational habits also have to do with relationships that can be expressed in language.

And these relationships are largely conversations that happen between people, often in the form of behaviors. And those behaviors, as we showed above, change what we think about the things in our environment.

Conversations are not simply verbal or written. They also consist of gestures, facial expressions, posture, clothing, and anything else that is expressive and communicative.

All of these conveyances can be expressed, though often with some effort, in words.

In the same way as you can change your mind about smoking by simply changing your associations with it, you can change your mind about anything by surfacing and becoming aware of what’s going without saying.

In order to change the conversations, we have to put into words the underlying communications that happen in behaviors, and then evaluate the truth of those things, and see if they serve us.

It is not something you can do without creating trust.

Many leaders make themselves incapable of this kind of transformational work because they look at their team as people they want something from instead of people they want something for.

Until we deeply care about the people we work with as people, many of our change management techniques and programs will fail. Because we will never get to the root causes because the conversations that are happening don’t fundamentally change.

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