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Breaking routine

Changing personal or corporate habits needs time, commitment

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If you really stopped to think about it, you'd find that much of your life is simply a series of repetitive, unconscious habits. For instance, when you wake up, what you eat for breakfast, where you sit at the table, what you wear and what time you leave for work aren't just conscious decisions; they've become habits. In other words, over time, your behaviour becomes automatic; it's just the way you do things, good or bad.

What about habits in your workplace? Do employees and organizations have habits, good or bad? Is it possible for individual habits to impact career success? Is it possible for organizational habits to impact corporate success? The answer to both is yes.

That's because, no matter what, your reputation will always precede you. Therefore, bad personal habits will undoubtedly result in limiting your career opportunities. For instance, developing a reputation as a procrastinator will prevent your ability to move into roles where effective decision making is required. Being consistently late with your assignments and/or being known for poor quality work and/or a negative attitude will create major roadblocks to your career success.

Finally, mistreating your colleagues with continuous gruffness and rudeness only serves to create enemies and when you are looking to take on more responsibility, you need friends in your corner, not enemies.

The key to individual success then, is to build a repertoire of good habits, ones that when applied consistently and persistently will enhance your personal and professional success. This requires considerable self-analysis where you must address the question of how much potential loss and/or lost opportunity you are willing to endure by not changing a bad habit and adopting a more positive habit.

Once you have identified one specific habit you wish to change, attach a pleasure/pain rating to your goal.

In other words, identify the negative implications of not forming this new habit and then identify the positive implications for forming the habit you are focused on. Once you have reviewed the implications, create an accountability link by asking someone to help you develop your new habit and report your progress to this person on a regular basis. Remember, it takes approximately 28 days to break an old habit and create a new one.

Organizations on the other hand, also have specific routines that are really nothing more than unconscious habits. These so-called routines or habits are essentially what create organizational culture or in other words, "the way we do things around here." They are also tactics for creating and maintaining a sense of consistency in how work is done and how employees behave. And, just as with individuals, the strength of the dominant habits and routines can ruin an organization and/or take it forward to outstanding success.

If fact, James L. Heskett, university professor and author of The Culture Cycle, suggests that an effective organization culture can account for up to half of the differential in profit performance between organizations in the same business. In his view, the reason for this is that engaged leaders and employees are more likely to stay with an organization. This in turn creates higher productivity per employee, reduces overall talent management costs and ensures a stronger and more loyal customer base.

Most organizational habits and routines typically reflect the beliefs and behaviours of earlier leaders and/or corporate founders and therefore changing these habits and behaviours requires significant leadership effort. In many cases, new executive leadership is required in order to start the shift toward new ways of doing things.

At the same time, changing organizational habits, routines and culture is far more complicated than changing an individual habit. In other words, 28 days just won't do it. New organizational leaders especially need to engage in a systematic diagnosis of their current situation in order to both confirm the need for change and the organization's capability to change its habits and routines. Whereas long-term employees are often resistant to change, the leader must also engage in an in-depth review of organizational dynamics, employee tenures, skills, attitudes and their ability and desire to change and grow.

Once a future vision for the organization has been created, the leader must work with key stakeholders -- including employees -- to communicate and inspire others to support the vision for change, be it creating a new routine and/or making wholesale change. People need to know how the change will benefit them personally and how it will benefit the organization. They also want to know details such as where, when, how and who is involved. In many cases, extensive educational programming and training is needed to upgrade skills and organizational capabilities.

Leaders need to expect some form of discomfort and inconsistency as employees begin to change behaviour. Watch for open resentment, denial, repeated questioning, and/or malicious compliance. In these cases, offer employee counselling to those individuals who are significantly challenged by your changes. With extreme cases, leaders may need to graciously move those employees who no longer fit with the vision out of the organization.

No matter what, new behaviours need to be incorporated into every-day organizational processes and old behaviours and routines need to be replaced. New reward systems need to be developed to support the new ways of doing things. And finally, leaders must continue to reinforce and measure the organizational and employee behaviour changes. Heskett suggests that leaders start by tracking what he calls the four Rs -- employee retention, returns to labour (productivity), relationship with customers, and referrals as well as the rate of innovation.

It is also well known that many change-management efforts fail, causing significant financial burdens as well as the loss of time and productivity. One key reason for failed change programs is the lack of commitment by senior executives. Secondly, just as with individuals, if an organization attempts to make too many changes to employee behaviour at the same time, the result will be confusion and diluted commitment.

It's a common social truism that individual behaviour change will require at the very minimum 28 days but in reality to sustain the change, much more time is required. Organizational change on the other hand will require anywhere from three to five years. However, the behaviour change process is much the same; examining the current status, addressing the potential loss and/or lost opportunity by not changing routines, then setting your goal, putting steps in place to make it happen and establishing rewards that will reinforce the new behaviour.

Source: Habit Forming, Identify and reinforce actions that inspire your business, Kathryn Tyler, HR Magazine, November 2012, The Profit Power of Corporate Culture, Sean Silverthorne, September 2011

Barbara J. Bowes is president of Legacy Bowes Group and vice-president of Waterhouse Executive Search. She can be reached at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 24, 2012 H1

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