Let’s begin with a case study…
A renowned neurological case study that triggered neuroscientists to explore the realm of habits and unconsciousness was that of Mr Eugene Pauly. In 1992, Eugene had contracted viral encephalitis, which severely damaged a part of his brain called the medial temporal lobe. This meant that he could not recall old memories, form new ones and he was no longer able to effectively regulate his emotions.
To be closer to his daughter, he moved to a new house with his wife. Despite not being able to draw a layout of his house or explain how to get to a particular room, when he was hungry, Eugene was able to go to the kitchen and open a jar of nuts and he would go to the bathroom when he needed it. Naturally perplexed, neuroscientists did some further investigation…
Unfortunately, Eugene had not got his memory back. The research discovered that Eugene was relying on habits that had been stored in his basal ganglia – a non-damaged area of his brain (1).
What are Habits?
A habit is an action or behaviour that you do so regularly and often that you do not consciously know you are doing it (1).
“A habit is an action or behaviour that you do so regularly and often that you do not consciously know you are doing it…”
Why is it Important to Set Habits?
Take the example of driving a car. If we really think about it, the concept of driving a car is quite a daunting task. You are not only responsible for yourself but you are often responsible for getting passengers safely from A to B whilst taking into consideration other drivers, pedestrians, cyclists, knowing what to do at traffic lights, roundabouts, driving at speed down a motorway etc. However, this is routine for so many of us. This routine is important because habits help conserve mental energy for when something out of the ordinary might happen i.e. an unexpected diversion. In the context of the workplace, habits and routines enable us to reserve cognitive resources for challenging situations and important decision-making processes.
A key part of OE Cam’s psychological approach to learning and development is to take full advantage of these processes and use them to embed learning. This is why our approach to learning adopts the principle of ‘The Habit Loop’.
The psychology behind habits is broken down into three steps:
- Cue: to trigger you to carry out the action
- Routine: the action itself
- Reward: positive outcome of completing that action
With this loop in place, over time these behaviours become routine.
Let us take a very common example of a cue – the ergonomics of a door. Think about it, a handle indicates we need to pull whilst a flat surface indicates a push this right here, is the cue. The surface of the door lets us know what our next move is. Now, without even thinking, when we approach a door, we know exactly what to do! A habit has been formed – brain notices a handle or no handle (the cue), to push or pull the door (routine) going through the door without any issues (reward).
Habits can be good and bad. Some bad habits we often hear about are often related to our health i.e. smoking or biting our nails. Understanding how habits are created can help us develop new good habits and can encourage us to break bad habits or avoid developing bad habits all together!
Creating Habit Loops at Work
Taking this approach, OE Cam works with people to proactively set this habit loop. We do this by:
- Understanding what it is that the individual / team / organisation wants to achieve (desired reward)
- Work with the individual/organisation to discuss and set appropriate actions to be carried out in order to achieve the reward (routine)
- Identifying and setting relevant cues so that positive behaviours will follow (cue)
For example, we recently applied this technique through a series of one-to-one 360 feedback sessions with a senior management team as part of a leadership development initiative. See box out below.
For us, forming habits is the key to embedding learning and implementing positive behaviour changes. But how can you consciously encourage new habits? In our experience habits are best formed through a technique called ‘nudging’.
“With this loop in place, over time these behaviours become routine”
Creating a Habit Loop with Company X:
- Define the reward – Firstly we crystallised what the individuals wanted to achieve from the development programme. With this particular organisation, the goal was to have the whole team working more effectively together. Keeping the habit loop in mind, the reward is the goal that the individual wants to achieve from the development.
- Set the routine – Taking data from the 360 feedback review, we identified the individuals’ strengths and areas of development. Using this information, we determined what behaviours/actions would maximise not only the individuals performance, but maximise the relationships of the people around them. Referring back to the habit loop, the routine is the set of actions/behaviours that should be carried out in order to achieve the reward.
- Develop relevant cues – The 360 feedback data highlights which cues warrant a certain positive action. For example, “when morale is low in team meetings Joe Bloggs could do more to motivate the team.” Here the cue would be for Joe Bloggs to evaluate energy levels of his team when he chairs team meetings.
What is nudging? Nudging is essentially giving an individual a prompted choice to carry out an action that acts in their best interest. Actions are usually nudged by relevant cues.
So, how do we take these nudging principles and apply them to the workplace?
The Power of the Push Notification
As part of OE Cam’s blended learning approach, we have been able to use our interactive online platform to set bespoke habits for each individual taking part (either in a client bespoke programme or general learning programmes). This involves setting learning outcomes for the individual and these objectives being sent to the learner through an email reminder or a push notification to their phone. For example, as part of a ‘developing team effectiveness’ module, learners were nudged to remember their team members’ information processing styles when speaking/writing to them. “Do they need the detail or just the bigger picture?” This reminder was pushed out to them once a day for one week.
Nudging in More Ways Than One
Do you often find that when you want to remember short pieces of information, whether it is a shopping list, the names of your colleague’s children or a phone number, we tend to repeat it a few times? This is because repetition takes the information from our short-term memory and moves it into our long-term memory store. The frequency of nudges helps to set positive behaviour as a habit.
Coaching sessions also adopt principles of nudging. One aspect of our 1-to-1 coaching sessions (which are tailored to an individual’s learning style) is to reinforce key messages by exploring how the new changes are being implemented, managing feelings of cognitive dissonance and asking key questions such as: “what is working well?” “what could be developed further?”.
Ensuring that the learning is embedded and maintained in all of our deliveries is key to our work. Therefore, it is important that we work with individuals to set the right habits and work with organisations to ensure that the right systems and processes are in place to support these habits in the longer term.
Maintaining Habits With a Habit Culture
Building on Julie Brophy’s article on the psychology behind nudging mindsets, habits can and will be sustained long term if the organisation encourages a habit mindset. To reinforce the two points in Julie’s article:
- The organisation must ensure communication around change is positive and encourages experimentation and risk taking.
- Keep employees engaged in a risk-embracing approach through providing opportunities to make use of prototyping, fast failure techniques and setting and celebrating marginal gains.
If you are interested in understanding how to use the habit loop as part of changing employee mindset then please get in touch with OE Cam.
Let us nudge you in the right direction!