As the world adapts to a once-in-a-century shift in the way we work, it’s natural for organizations to want to cling to what’s worked in the past. The human brain craves certainty, a trait that has kept us alive and steered us away from danger. It makes sense, then, that leaders may feel tempted to hunker down and stick with what’s familiar — holding back on behavior-change initiatives to avoid creating additional disruption during an already tumultuous time.
But contrary to popular belief, times of great upheaval are actually a perfect opportunity to build new habits. “There’s an intuition people have that in times of uncertainty and external change, like we’re in now, that it’s a time to put on the brakes and not make additional changes,” Elliot Berkman, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, explained at the 2022 NeuroLeadership Summit.
But as it turns out, that intuition is wrong. Because habits are powerfully influenced by context, times of massive disruption are actually a unique window of opportunity for changing behavior at scale. “When your life and the structures around your life are changing, that’s a time to form new habits and change how you’re doing other things as well,” Berkman said.
As leaders and employees adapt to hybrid work, now is the perfect time for organizations to build new habits. By being intentional about how they make the transition to hybrid work, organizations can use the context to create enduring change before people once again become set in their ways.
The science of habits
On a technical level, a habit consists of three elements: a cue to engage in a behavior; the behavior itself; and a reward for the behavior. Put together, cues are triggers in the environment that activate behaviors, and rewards are what reinforce them.
One of the reasons it’s so difficult to build new habits is because our environments are rife with cues that trigger old, undesired behaviors. Cues are powerful, and once they’re linked to a behavior, trying to inhibit it is prone to failure. Willpower alone isn’t enough to change behavior, and trying to simply resist undesired behaviors — like telling yourself “Don’t eat the cookies” — can actually backfire, since studies show that trying to suppress a thought actually makes it more likely to surface.
A far more effective strategy is to put yourself in a new context where the behavior won’t get triggered in the first place. “One of the fun things about habits is they’re actually easier to form in a new environment, in a new context,” explained Berkman. “Because you’re not battling the old habits as strongly.”
That’s why, for example, the humorist David Sedaris decided to move to Japan to help him quit smoking. In his life back home, Sedaris was overwhelmed by triggers that cued him to smoke: being drunk, being on drugs, leaving the dentist’s office, leaving a movie theater, waiting for a bus, even crying. “There were cigarettes lit because the phone was ringing, because the doorbell was ringing, even a passing ambulance was an excuse,” writes Sedaris in his book, When You Are Engulfed in Flames. By changing his surroundings, he removed those old associations and succeeded in kicking the habit.
Similarly, studies of people first entering retirement have found that it’s easier to make deliberate change during periods of life transition. Because the context is so novel, people are more intentional in choosing how to structure their world. Likewise, a study of students transferring to a new university found that the disruption was actually helpful, since it “placed behavior under intentional control so that participants acted on their current intentions.”
Knowing this, organizations can design a behavior-change initiative when so many other things are changing by first remembering that our brains have limited capacity, so people should focus on building one habit at a time, over time. With that in mind, here are three principles to make behavior change succeed.
1. Harness the power of social norms
Habits are contagious, and we tend to adopt new behaviors when we think everyone else is doing them. Organizations can leverage this principle in two ways. First, since employees infer the norms of the organization by observing their leaders, shifting leadership behavior is a powerful lever for transforming culture. By role-modeling desired behaviors within their own teams, leaders can create waves of change that radiate outward through the organization. Second, it’s helpful to roll out behavior initiatives to the entire organization at once because it allows employees to see others adopting the behaviors — creating a surge of social momentum.
2. Create moments of insight
To get people to change their behavior, it’s not enough just to tell them what to do. A far more effective catalyst is to create situations that lead employees to the experience of “insight.”
An insight is that sudden rush of understanding when everything comes together in your mind — the “aha” moment when you suddenly make a connection, spot a pattern, or discern the solution to a long-vexing problem. Our research has found that strength of insight correlates with likelihood of change. Moments of insight literally transform the brain, unleashing a powerful surge of energy and motivation that helps make new habits stick. The more an organization can promote such experiences, the more learning and behavior change is likely to occur.
3. Make learning social
Studies show we have specific brain regions devoted to social learning — distinct memory networks that are activated only during social interaction and social thinking. When learning takes place in a social context — when we talk things out, see other people’s reactions, or imagine how others might conceptualize an idea — the brain’s social memory networks are engaged.
Moreover, social learning activates more intense emotion and greater levels of attention. When we feel like people are watching — especially those who matter to us — we experience social pressure to not embarrass themselves. We pay closer attention, allowing habits to become easier to recall and activate later.
By linking the context of hybrid work with behaviors they want to instill, organizations have a chance to reimagine and redefine how they want to be. As NLI co-founder David Rock put it: “Change is inevitable, so why not be intentional about how we want to do it?”
Author: Jay Dixit