Old Habits Die Hard

How to develop new habits – seven tips from Caroline Cooper for managers to support their teams.

New Year, New Start
Photo: Getty Images

At the start of any new year many of us set goals and plans for the year ahead. In many instances achieving these means changing the way we do things, establishing new habits and ditching old ones that stand in our way. If you’ve ever tried to swap the TV and couch for an ambitious exercise routine (particularly in the New Year, with damp and dark evenings) you’ll know just how difficult that can be.

Breaking habits or forming new ones isn’t just confined to changing our routines. I recall recently going back to driving a manual car having become used to driving an automatic. For the first week or so I kept stalling it, simply because I’d got out of the habit of having to use the clutch!

In the business context, breaking old habits and establishing new ones isn’t just restricted to your own habits; it often means changing the habits of people in your team. Knowing how hard it is to break our own habits, it becomes even harder when we need to change someone else’s.

Before even contemplating trying to change someone’s habits, think first about why you want to change them. If you’re introducing a new procedure or changing an existing one, is it to save time, make better use of technology, a legal requirement, to make things safer, or to give customers a better experience?

If you want to make a change to people’s attitude or mindset, is this to promote teamwork and create a better working environment, to generate fresh ideas and innovation, or simply to help everyone through a tough period?

There may be some tasks which people haven’t done for a while; it simply hasn’t been a priority recently, so people have got out of the habit of doing it. Or they’ve got into some poor habits as a result of time pressures, poor equipment or simply cutting corners.

These too can end up being the new norm, the embedded habits that need to be broken before going back to a previous ‘right’ way. So you need to re-establish the original habit.

1. What’s in it for me?
Most of us like familiarity so, without having a compelling enough reason, people are unlikely to put much effort into changing their habits. Most people really do need a very compelling reason to do so that’s in their best interest, not just yours.

If you’re asking someone to do something in a way that’s doing away with something they took pride in in the past, this can make them feel their contribution wasn’t valued. So be sensitive to this and that your reasoning focuses on being even better, rather than discrediting the old way.

2. What good feels like
It can help to ask your team to imagine achieving the new habit and how it feels. For example, a recent client had got into the habit of putting off taking and making calls to customers who she knew were demanding. So rather than her focusing on the potential negative outcome of the call (which was increasingly likely to be the case the longer she put off dealing with the customer) I got her to focus on the ideal outcome.

If people can envisage the perfect outcome it helps clarify what’s needed and gives people more motivation to change.

3. Obstacles
It can take a while for a new way of doing something to feel comfortable. Try this exercise. Take a sheet of paper and grab a pen. Now write your name 10 times using the opposite hand to the one you normally use to write. If I asked you to continue to write with the opposite hand you’d probably find it too slow, too untidy or simply darn right uncomfortable. So your natural tendency will be to revert back to your normal hand as soon as you can.

After you’ve shown someone the ‘new’ way of doing something, once they get back to their normal day to day pressures the slightest obstacle will send them back to their old, comfortable way of doing it. Ask your team to identify anything that might stand in their way. Common obstacles include time or conflicting priorities, not having all the right resources, or being worried they don’t have the authority. Resolve any obstacles promptly, otherwise it implies it’s not important.

Woman thinking
Photo: Getty Images

4. Perception is reality
Look out and listen for hesitation. If someone believes they can’t implement the new habit, find out why. Other than the practical reasons above it could simply be an unwillingness on their part to change (see point 1).

In many instances it’s due to confidence. Maybe they need a little more feedback, support and coaching. You may believe that they have everything they need and that they are capable, but if they don’t believe so, it’s important you understand why before you can overcome this barrier. Their perception is their reality, so you’ll need to change this perception before moving forward.

The longer it takes to remove that barrier (be it real or imagined) the less likely the new habit will even get started, let alone last.

5. Subtle differences
If people keep going back to the old way, even though you’ve picked up on the same thing, time and time again, it is naturally very frustrating for you. But, it’s probably just as frustrating for them if they really don’t know what it is they’re doing wrong. Particularly when they really do want to get it right.

Sometimes there are only very subtle differences between the new way and the old habit. Once people know what’s different and why, it’s considerably easier for them to grasp the new way, or even to identify the right way for themselves.

Be specific on the tangible and measurable indicators – the differences between the new way and the old way. This will make it easier for them to realise then measure their own performance, and more likely for them to spot when they’ve slipped back.

6. Early wins
It’s all too easy for people to revert, particularly if the old way feels more comfortable, is easier or is quicker. Human nature says we’ll always take the path of least resistance! If someone tries to change their habit, and doesn’t get results early on, they may decide it isn’t worth the effort. In their mind it’s not working, so it’s all too easy for them to give up too soon.

Reduce the risk of this happening by recognising and feeding back on their progress and just how far they’ve come, to encourage them to keep going.

7. Patience
It takes time to establish new habits and to create a new norm. Back to my driving example – at every junction for the first few journeys, I simply forgot. It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to change gear, I simply forgot to use the clutch. Of course, when you stall the car you get instant feedback that you’re doing it wrong, but in the workplace it might be a little less obvious. So, keep an eye on people until the habit is firmly installed.

Some say it can take as many as 66 times for a habit to be embedded. On that basis, if you’re asking someone to change the way they do a task that they only do once a day, this might take two months or more. So be patient, continue to monitor, coach and correct as needed until the new habit is simply second nature.

Forming new habits doesn’t necessarily mean you need to retrain people, but they might need a little bit of a helping hand, some feedback and maybe some coaching to keep them on track.

picture showing the steps to reach unconscious competenceCreating Conscious Incompetence
If someone has picked up some bad habits, they won’t drop the old habit unless they know there is a need to change. Understanding the four levels of learning in the Conscious Competence Learning Model, developed by Noel Burch in the 1970s, can help overcome this.

When we learn anything new we begin at stage 1, ‘Unconscious Incompetence’, and end at stage 4, ‘Unconscious Competence’, having passed through stage 2, ‘Conscious Incompetence’, and 3, ‘Conscious Competence’.

Before people learn anything, they start off at stage 1, being unconscious of what’s involved. As they start to learn they become consciously incompetent, i.e. recognising the gaps in their knowledge and what they need to learn.

As people learn they gradually move from consciously incompetent towards conscious competence. When consciously competent, they still have to stop and think about how they do something; it doesn’t flow naturally. It takes longer and they’re still learning a little from trial and error. Confidence can be low as they get to grips with it all.

Stage 4 ‘Unconscious Competence’ will only come later with application and practice. This is when we can start to do things on auto-pilot, which is great when it’s the right things. But when people get into bad habits they often don’t recognise this. And, in fact, they have reverted to being unconsciously incompetent! This is when it can be more difficult to break the old habit. We need to move people from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence; that is to make them aware of the need to change.


About the Author
Caroline CooperCaroline Cooper is the founder of Naturally Loyal and has over 30 years’ training and development experience in hospitality.

Recognising that managers in hospitality often get promoted into positions without much training, her key focus is on developing newly promoted and junior managers to lead and engage their teams effectively. You can download her free A-Z of Managing People here: www.naturallyloyal.com/oaba2z

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