The Power of Habit

I was just reading a book called the Power or Habit by Jack Hodge.  The primary narrative of the book is that we, more than anything else, are defined by what we do, and close to 90% of what we do is determined by habits both good and bad. I am not sure how he determined the 90%, but we all know that our habits are a powerful force in our lives.  However, I would argue that we as managers may underestimate the power of habits in managing and coaching our teams.

This make me think back on a conversation I had with one of my past employees a few years ago.  She came into my office to discuss the relevance of my monthly training topic.  Her point was that everyone already understood the best practice we were going to discuss.  It was in her eyes a waste of time.  It was then that the light bulb went off.  I wasn’t training because they didn’t already understand the best practice; I was training because they weren’t doing the best practice.   So in a way, my training was an infomercial on the best practice and a platform to explain my expectations to the team.   Not a very effective way to change behavior.

This was a classic case of using the wrong tool for the job.  Classroom training is an effective way to transmit knowledge and somewhat effective at setting expectations.  However, it cannot on its own, change employee habits.  Changing employee habits resides in the world of ongoing leadership and management of which only small part is found in a training room.  How management can coach their team to better habits varies from individual to individual.  However, I would suggest looking at two different types of habits to make management efforts more effective.

Activity Based Habits

Staffing is a business driven by individual performance, and because of that we tend to be very good at measuring the activities of our employees.  We capture all types of metrics to help our employees maneuver through an increasingly competitive marketplace.  After all, if you make so many calls, meet so many buyers, get so many job orders, the numbers dictate that you will make so many placements.  So when our people are struggling we can look at the metrics and try to identify what activity based habits are falling short and coach them accordingly.  The employee now knows how to better spend their time in order to be successful.  Mission Accomplished?  Not quite.  Depending on the business model, the focus solely on activity can fall short of providing the coaching an employee needs to be successful.  Oftentimes, employees not only need to be coached on what they are doing, but also, how they think.

Thought Based Habits

“Think outside the Box” is one of the more common phrases in business.  Why is that?  I believe we inherently understand that our abilities to craft creative solutions are oftentimes limited by the assumptions we have developed over time.  It is those assumptions that encourage habit based thinking and limits creativity.  My first clear experience with habit based thinking was during account planning sessions discussing clients with formalized staffing programs.  Overtime there were account executives that lost the ability to see opportunities outside of the context of the staffing program.  They were involved in managing the program for so long that the program provided the assumptions about the client, and embedded thought based habits that stifled creative thinking.

So as managers we typically understand and manage activity well, but I would argue that competitive advantage can be found by also breaking the boundaries of thought based habits.  So when you are conducting your reviews, are you just discussing metrics or are you challenging how your sales people think about their accounts?  If you’re focusing on just metrics and activity I would encourage you to break that habit and use your reviews to challenge assumptions and break the box.