It’s Not the Behavior, It’s the Habit!

As long as we think behavior is the problem, our actions will be focused on rewarding punishing or, at best, shaping or reducing context. What we should search for instead is the gateway to identity. Through this gateway we can shape rituals and habits. They are the ultimate context to anchor sustainable behavior change.

As modern managers we know that the effects of a carrot-and-stick management style are limited to the short run benefits. In the long run the effects disappear as soon as the perpetrator of the punishment or the rewarder of the reward disappear from the scene. In the best case scenario, carrot-and-stick management leaves no traces, but most of the times it numbs people into employment and education systems that produce sheep.

Fortunately there are alternative ways to stimulate behavior change, other than rewarding or punishing. Instead of focusing on the behavior, we can focus on the context. The only problem with this approach is that changing a context is rarely sufficient for sustainable behavior change. Let’s have a closer look and see how we can fix that…

Shaping Context

If you think behavior is the problem, then you will only respond with measures that will alter that specific behavior and nothing else. Unfortunately, measures that are focused on behavioral change are not lasting because … they focus on the behavior! Let’s face it: behavior is a temporary thing that is determined by circumstances. As an illustration, have a look at this video of the musical staircase.

What we see in this video is that people are changing their behavior because the path – to be taken literary in this video – shapes the new behavior. These approaches to behavioral change are popular because they are measurable in time and volume. On top of that, the cause-and-effect relationship is very clear because the ‘stimulus’ and the ‘response’ are matching very well. Pavlov knew this. It’s called behaviorism.

But what happens after the round of applause? Ultimately, when the excitement of the newest and coolest thing has passed old habits take over and people will use the moving staircase again.

Reducing Context

In a closed setting it is possible to switch off the moving staircase and to force users to use the only staircase that is left. This is what we often do in major ERP projects: we disable all other legacy software that was previously used to get the job done. That way the users have no other choice but to use the new software that was installed.

Later you may hear that we did excellent communication work, but what we did in reality was produce a branded one-way information stream geared at making sense of the changes that we forced upon the people. Goebbels knew this. It’s called propaganda.

The problem with a closed setting is that the times are changing: even IT systems and HR policies will have to open up eventually. In a changing world there will be moving staircases everywhere. Herding the people by means of narrowing down the is not an option anymore. In fact, it is a time bomb because, not only will this waste your energy in controlling, policing and monitoring what people can and cannot do; it will also make sheep out of them. It’s just another carrot-and-stick technique – and a harmful one. Pavlov knew this as well. It’s called learned helplessness.

Shaping Habit

So if rewarding, punishing, shaping or impoverishing a context are not guaranteeing sustainable behavior change, then what is? A while ago I underscored the importance of rituals and habits. A ritual is a way of shaping reality so you can deal with it. And if you and your community fellows have that thing in common it becomes a distinctive feature of your community.

A habit is the same as a ritual, but on the individual level. It’s how we deal with reality. We do certain things our own way. Little things. And it’s the sum of a million simple things a day that give us a sense of security and identity. Habit is the daily victory of forgetting that the nature of reality is unpredictable and groundless. It’s never the same river twice, but through our habits make it so. We would go crazy if we were to approach reality without rituals and habits.

If we want a behavior to stick it is essential to break through to this level. The one thing you need to remember is  that there is only one gateway to mold a behavior into a ritual and later into a habit, and it is called identity. People will only permanently adopt a new behavior if:

  • it is shaped by the behavior of peers (i.e.: a ritual)
  • they can identify with this behavior (‘this is who I am’)

A great example of such a behavior change is the Don’t Mess with Texas anti-littering campaign that is illustrated in the best seller Made to Stick by the Heath Brothers. Texas had a roadside litter problem — and it was diagnosed to be conflicting with­ the self-image of Texans. Instead of running an ad campaign pre­sent­ing new facts about the damage litter causes, they re-framed con­cern for litter into a matter of Texas-pride, where Texan celebrities came out against littering, say­ing “Don’t mess with Texas.”

This quickly became a favorite bumper sticker, was known and could be recalled by 73% of Texans just a few months after the campaign was launched. Roadside litter in Texas declined nearly 30% within a year. The campaign was so effective that the state abandoned other expensive anti-littering campaigns, and five years into the “Don’t Mess With Texas” campaign, roadside litter had decreased 72%. Identity seems to be the gateway to anchor behavior into habit. Instead of shaping a new context like the musical staircase, or reducing the context, the campaign focused on the identity of Texans.

What this means for Organizations

The one thing we should remember is that behavior is not the problem, identity is. As long as we think behavior is the problem, our actions will be focused on rewarding punishing or, at best, shaping or reducing context. What we should search for instead is the gateway to identity in order to shape rituals and habits. They are the ultimate context to anchor sustainable behavior change.

So how would this alter your rewarding strategy, your branding, your employer branding and ultimately: your employee branding? One thing is certain: you will have to look for the different ways for people to connect than the reporting lines and boxes of the organization chart. No identity gateways there. Instead, visualize the social architecture of your organization. Chances are you will find plenty of gateways to communities, rituals and habits in there.

  • Wow, nicely linking up stuff and putting a name to things I’m experiencing right now. It read like therapy :))

  • Thanks!

  • Hi Luc. Thanks for your post. It seems to me that a habit is simply a behaviour that is anchored very deeply. So to try and differentiate a habit from a behaviour is somewhat difficult and nonsensical. Whether you call them habits or behaviours, organizational change requires that we focus on understanding why people do what they do now and what they need to do differently in order for us to achieve results we desire. I agree with you that how we go about changing behaviours has traditionally focused on BF Skinners model of reward and punishment. We also know that this only works for mechanical tasks and not tasks that require even small amounts of cognition. As you put it, the most important place to start with motivating behaviour change is with people’s values and identity. Thanks again for the post.

  • Thanks Jean-François, I am still chewing over that identity-habit-context thing and it will continue to spin in my head for some more time I’m afraid…
    On LinkedIn the other day, Lucy Hampton suggested that it may be the belief about a habit that makes it into an identity. And this too makes sense.
    Anyhow, this is fun stuff to dive into. Thanks again for participating in the discussion.

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