An Interest in Habits

I find habits endlessly fascinating. My interest in the subject first began when I was a philosophy student reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle described virtues (such as magnanimity) and vices (such as irascibility) as dispositions of character formed by how we habitually act and feel. Our habitual responses to situations become expressions of our character and thus it is important to develop good habits of acting, thinking and feeling.  Shedding interesting light on this view, neuroscience has shown that a person’s habits get written into the basal ganglia of his or her brain, literally becoming a part of that person. The study of habits raises interesting philosophical questions about free will, voluntariness, human psychology, reason, and moral responsibility.

The study of habits also raises interesting issues in the context of business ethics as well as having practical implications for business management. After all, even in this age of technology, businesses are generally about people; and people, as we know, have habits – a lot of them. Habits exist within business structures too. Understanding habits can be useful for leadership training with respect to understanding how behaviors become habits and understanding why certain behaviors can be difficult to habitsdevelop or difficult to eliminate. Consciously establishing good habits can help create a positive company culture, create safe and efficient routines, promote employee wellness, and even drive company change. Moreover, how a business acts and responds, the things that it does and does not do, the way that it habitually thinks about its employees, customers, community and environment are all reflective of its character.

Given the opportunity, when working with a business, I seek to understand how it operates. What makes it tick? What is leadership like within the company? How does management function? How are decisions made? What is communication like? What is the work flow? Are the employees well-trained? What enables them to be efficient, productive, creative, good problem solvers – or whatever it is that they need to be? Do they enjoy their work and are they good representatives of the company? How does the business interact with customers? How do customers interact with the business? – and so forth. In many instances, so much of this comes down to habits – habits not just of action, but also of thought and emotional responses. For this reason, I think that it is useful for business owners to have an awareness of habits and to do what they can to use this awareness in a constructive, but not intrusive, manner. (There are limits to what habits are germane to review in a business context.)

A full treatment of the subject matter cannot be given here; but a start is to think in terms of owner, employee, and company habits. The following are some very general examples of questions that a business owner might consider.

  • Owner habits: What do I habitually do before starting work each day? What tone does that set for my day? How does that affect the people that I work with? How do I habitually respond to stress at work? How does that affect everyone else? Which tasks do I habitually take on first and which do I tend to neglect? What are the effects of this? Am I in the habit of conferring praise or recognition? What does that look like or sound like and how is it received? How do I think of my staff – as employees? – as team members? – as part of the company? How do I think of customers/clients? – as people who need to be tolerated? – as people who are vital to the well-being of my company?
  • Employee work-habits: Are my employees/team members ready to work when the workday begins? What do they do when no one is directing them? Are they well organized or are they always having to search for what they are looking for? Do they pay attention to time management? Do they pay attention to proper safety procedures? How do they habitually communicate with each other? How do they habitually communicate with customers? What is the impact of these habits of communication?
  • Company habits: Who interacts with whom and on what tasks or projects? What things are avoided? What habitually happens when there is a task that no one wants to perform? What are the things that routinely cause communication to break down? Are there habitual power struggles or is everyone one big happy family? What are the routines that keep everyone happy and everything moving safely and smoothly? What are the routines that keep things static? What are the routines that drive creativity and change?

These questions just begin to touch on the prevalence and significance of habits for the workplace. From these examples, one can imagine how quickly an analysis of habits within the context of a particular business would become quite complex – and I have not even touched on customer habits!

Habits are essential to our functioning both in our individual lives and also in business operations. They enable us to get things done without subjecting each and everything we do to deliberation. Good habits help people function well. Good habits help businesses run well. Bad habits, on the other hand, can be counter-productive and frustrating. They can be perceived as signs of poor character or company culture. They can even be damaging. Given all of this, wouldn’t it be helpful to appreciate what exactly habits are, to be able to understand how they form, to be able to recognize them where they exist, and to be able to evaluate them once found, to know how to be rid of unwanted ones and to establish desirable ones effectively?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere are a number of interesting and useful books about habits and productivity. In fact, reading
is something that is often touted as a good habit for business leaders to possess. On January 11th, Daryn Soldan, Executive Director of the Wamego Chamber of Commerce, and I will be leading a “Read It and Reap” discussion about The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. We’ll be digging into topics such as habit loops and keystone habits, how to capitalize on habits in employee training, habits in the contexts of wellness and professional development, and strategies for intentionally creating or changing habits. It should be a fun conversation and we hope that people will be able to take away strategies for constructively working with habits in their businesses.

There is no charge to “Read It and Reap,” but we ask that people sign up in advance so that we know how many people will be attending: http://ksbdc.ecenterdirect.com/events/22516

Laurie Pieper, Ph.D.
WU KSBDC Business Adviser

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