In our previous posts, we focused on Pivotal Habits (ones that prepare us to perform by making us healthy, happy and secure) and Work Habits (the ones that make up our jobs).
We discussed the critical role these habits play in creating superior performance for employees and competitive advantage for companies. We explored why habits are frequently missed by businesses as the fundamental driver of performance, and recognized that adopting new habits is in some sense hard for people to achieve, and challenging for employers to create.
In this final post, we will explore how employers can approach the design of their businesses to ensure high employee performance, while also making sure that employees are engaged in and loyal to the business.
Understanding the foundational role of habits, we can frame the employee performance challenge for employers as a design problem:
How do you effectively design your workplace to make it easy, natural and enjoyable for employees to practice their Pivotal and Work Habits, in a way that not only has them perform optimally, but that leaves them thrilled with the experience, grateful for the support and highly engaged with you as an employer?
In solving this design challenge, the first thing to notice is that there are many things that make up the “workplace.” It is the sum of all things that “surround” employees while they work, and these things are highly influential over how they think, feel and act. We can bucket all the things that make up the surrounding elements into four categories that we call Contexts, and they are vitally important to solving the design problem. Why is this?
A fish swimming in water (the Context for the fish’s life) is completely influenced by that water in everything that it does. So too are humans highly influenced by the Contexts of their life, and just like the fish we tend not to notice the influence of Contexts until they’re not there.
Perhaps this explains why most employers focus on employees when trying to solve productivity problems. We see the lack of performance and we typically associate the issue with the people.
We don’t notice, and therefore don’t act on, the surrounding Contexts that influence people in their daily work. In fact, the nature of Contexts (that they are unnoticed by most people, yet highly influential over our actions) is precisely what makes them so important to business designers.
The Contexts for workplace design
There are four Contexts we need to understand:
Physical Spaces: The physical environment in which employees conduct their work, which increasingly includes the home office as well as the more traditional office and factory floor environments. Designing high-performance spaces is more than just ensuring employees have the tools to do their jobs and requires us to understand the ways that physical design choices affect us psychologically.
Workplace Systems: The policies, procedures, business processes or, more simply, the rules (written and unwritten) that employees are expected to follow make up this context. Some of these rules leak into the workplace (like the laws of the land or the fact that we drive on the right side of the road) and can influence how we behave as well. So, it’s important to not only design our own rules but to understand how they will interact with rules that exist in the wider world.
Social Influence: The people that we work with every day. The day-to-day interactions with work colleagues and customers via live conversations, emails, shared experiences, and at events all strongly influence how we work, and what we achieve. We like to think we make all our own decisions, but at least 60% of the actions we take are highly or completely influenced by the people around us.
Individual Self: Our individual experiences, opinions, beliefs, knowledge and other filters through which we interpret the world. The stories we tell ourselves about the experiences we’ve had in the past hold the power to influence us in the present, which is why storytelling is such an effective influence method for employers. It can help employees to rewrite their personal stories in a way that helps to align their actions with the vision and mission of the business.
Each of these Contexts can be designed by an employer seeking to influence the experience employees have while at work. These experiences in turn affect the actions we take, the habits we form, and the way we feel about where we work.
Creating new habits by design
Understanding that designing Contexts is the most effective approach to establishing new habits still does not explain HOW to proceed.
To guide our thinking, we need to ask: What does it take to create a new habit? Or rather, is there a formula for creating new habits?
It turns out there is. Contexts influence us by creating forces that nudge us towards or away from certain actions. Just like the Contexts, there are four forces that influence habit creation.
Two forces that help us adopt a new habit are Compulsion and Capability. Compulsion is the urge to do something and it is a stronger feeling that mere motivation. For example, simply being motivated, or desiring something (like losing weight) never gets the job done. It’s the actions we take that make the difference, therefore we need to be compelled into action.
However, without the Confidence that we can succeed, we’re unlikely to take the first step and without Competence (knowledge and skills) we’re likely to fail even if we are confident. Competence and Confidence together make up Capability and, combined with Compulsion, help us to take new actions and adopt new habits.
Of course, life gets in the way sometimes. We run out of time, we get distracted, or we are derailed by last minute requests or family emergencies. These life events represent the two forces acting against us, either as static impediments to change (Barriers) or as active antagonists that draw us away from the actions to which we’re committed (Temptation).
The formula for new habit creation
The formula for creating habits says that if we’re Compelled and Competent enough to overcome Barriers and to resist Temptation, we’ll take new actions. If the forces stay in our favor over time, those actions will turn into habits. Thus, our habit change formula can be written as:
If (Compulsion + Capability) > (Barriers + Temptation) over time, new habits emerge.
The catch is that the formula needs to be true in ALL FOUR Contexts at the same time, and this explains why creating new habits can be such hard work.
We can use a series of Influence Methods, which are the many and varied ways in which an employer can ensure that the habit creation formula holds true, when designing all four Contexts. Applying these Influence Methods is the art and science of designing workplace Contexts and, when focused on the right habits, the well-spring of higher performance.
Achieving sustainable competitive advantage
In our Behavior Research Lab, BRATLAB, we’ve researched, discovered and applied over 80 distinct Influence Methods that not only support employees in practicing new habits of performance, but do so in a way that leaves them thrilled with the experience, grateful for the support provided by their company and highly engaged with their work and their employer.
Going to work on employee habits is a strategy that will remain hidden from competitors, but one that is massively powerful in producing results.
Employers that wish not only to future-proof their businesses, but to create a difficult-to-copy, sustainable competitive advantage, must learn the value of designing Contexts, and the many ways in which the array of Influence Methods can be integrated into those Contexts to ensure that employees perform at their best, and love working where they do.
This is how, at Habits at Work, we’re reinventing the world of work so employees thrive and companies flourish.
Professional speaker and founder of Habits at Work and BRATLAB, Andrew Sykes will talk about How to become a High-Performance Employer.
During Andrew’s webinar he will:
- Explore why employee habits are the fundamental unit of corporate competitive advantage and why they’re often overlooked by leaders and managers.
- Share research from the Behavioral Research Applied Technology Laboratory (BRATLAB) on which habits really matter, and how to design a business that makes it easy and natural for employees to sustain high performance over time.
- Tell stories about the work of Habits at Work helping employers from a variety of industries to put their money where their mouth is when they say “People are our most important asset.”The stories of challenge and failure serve as cautionary tales of what not to do. The stories of success provide guidance on why design thinking is the key to future-proofing your business from competition and the pathway to becoming a high-performance employer.
Andrew’s webinar represents a brief summary of his upcoming book: Habits at Work: How to Create a High-Performance Employer, due for publication Fall 2017.
The webinar will cover a lot of ground in a fast-paced, lively and entertaining 1-hour session. Prepare to learn a lot, leave with food for thought and a new view on the future of the world of work.