Change Habits Not People

Recently, I was having a discussion with a fellow manager about a problem employee. This employee is a great worker; skilled and knowledgeable. This individual is also someone who cares a great deal about doing what is right. The problem is that they don’t have the best people skills. Time and again the manager has tried to coach the individual, and this person has even acknowledged their problem in dealing with people but is unwilling to put in the work to change the behavior. In talking with this manager, I told him that fundamentally you can’t change who people are; you can only set expectations and hold them accountable, you need to focus on changing habits.

Focus on the Development of New Habits

I truly believe that you cannot change other people. That is not to say people can’t change, only that they are resistant to change. You can only change yourself – if you really want to. Because of this you have to focus your time on changing habits. In order to change a habit you have to understand the basic process of habit formation.

Two great resources for this are 1) an article by James Clear titled The Three R’s of Habit Change and 2) a book by Charles Duhigg titled The Power of Habit.

Both of these sources go into detail bout the habit loop. Understanding this concept can allow you to help others change habits.

The Habit Loop and How You Can Utilize it

The habit loop states that every habit a person has follows a three-step process:

  1. Reminder (Cue)
  2. Trigger (Routine)
  3. Reward (Reward)

The reminder is the cue that initiates the behavior. It is something that starts you into the habit or routine. For instance an employee takes a break everyday at 10 a.m. Their reminder might be the clock, or the fact that somebody walks by their work area everyday at that time, or they feel hunger pains everyday at the same time.

The trigger is the actual behavior – in this case they go on break, get a snack, have lunch, or get something to drink.

The reward is the feeling of satisfaction or pleasure they receive as a result of the behavior.

If you have an employee who is engaged in disruptive behavior you can use your recognition of the habit loop to help the employee recognize the loop and put actions in place to create a new, more constructive habit loop.

Example of how to use the habit loop

You have an employee who is constantly focused on what other employee’s do. They see a fellow coworker doing something they don’t like (reminder). This makes them complain to their coworkers (trigger). They feel a sense of satisfaction in having complained to someone (reward).

First, you need to help them see how this behavior is counter-productive and not in their best interest. Explain to them how the behavior creates a distraction in the workplace and does not help to correct the problems they see.

Second, help them to create a new habit based on the trigger. In this case, suggest that when they see somebody doing something they think isn’t correct that they approach the person and offer a helpful suggestion for correcting the behavior. Make sure that they know how to do this in a courteous manner that is meant to constructively correct the situation and is in the best interest of the person being corrected.

Empower the employee to own the solution to the problem. And help them see how this is beneficial to them.

Finally, help them to see the satisfaction they will receive in helping a coworker improve their performance and how this will be of greater value than the feeling they get from complaining.

While this may seem like a simplistic example, I think it illustrates the basics of how you can utilize knowledge of the habit loop to redirect people from negative to positive habits. Instead of wasting your time trying to change people you can work toward changing the habits that individuals engage in, which is a much more successful strategy.