Five steps to creating healthy team habits

Five steps to creating healthy team habits

It is amazing how many things we do every single day without even thinking. So much of our daily lives are on auto-pilot, and despite all the efforts, New Year resolutions and wanting – we so often revert to our previous grooves, both good and bad.

But how do we shift from our set ways? Why are some people able to click their fingers one day and become fitness freaks, while others give up trying to change after two weeks?

What about in our working lives? How can we create great team habits to make everyone happier and more effective? The traditional approach is for managers to see an undesirable habit, take the team member aside and ask/tell them not to do it again. Unfortunately this ignores the way habits are formed and reinforced.

Let’s explore the five steps required to really establish strong and long-lasting habit change.

1. Identify the habit you want to change

If you lead a team you should be able to distance yourself from the daily grind long enough to have the top-down view that helps you identify bad habits on the team. How do they respond to stress? How do they talk to frustrated customers? Do they help each other or act in isolation? Is there a culture of backstabbing and behind-the-hand whispers that needs changing?

We start by focusing on the existing tendencies or bad habits. If you can understand the genesis of the bad habit, the effort in shifting to a good habit is much less.

2. Look for what happens immediately before that

What is the trigger for this behaviour? If you have someone in your team who often undermines colleagues in meetings then look for what the trigger is. Perhaps it is others saying things they disagree with, perhaps it is a person they don’t respect offering an opinion.

Another example is when people act in isolation. You may see a situation where someone is overtly struggling with a piece of software or hardware in the office. (e.g. they are shouting “Why won’t this printer work!”) The inaction of colleagues is a habit. The trigger is someone needing help, and the response is to keep one’s head down.

In client-facing roles we often see people that struggle to respond constructively to a rude or aggressive customer. This is undesirable even if at times understandable. It can be extremely challenging, but we must find ways for everyone to deliver a good outcome for the customer while at the same time feeling positive and proud about our own professional approach.

Spending too much time on social media is an ever-increasing challenge for managers to deal with. Whilst some workplaces block those sites, emails and smartphones may provide regular alerts and a constant stream of triggers for the employee to shift from what they’re supposed to be doing, onto social media. Interestingly, social media is a very low-involvement activity and some people can develop social media habits thereby avoiding difficulties at work – it becomes an escape. In this instance the feeling of overload is the trigger. 

3. Work out the pay-off for the habit

Bad habits can be really hard to understand in terms of ‘pay-off’. Eating junk food every day can impact your wellbeing and health can suffer dramatically – yet so many people do it. The pay-off here is that intense flavour burst of salts, sugars and oils in your mouth. Remember, our minds find it much easier to pay attention to immediate pleasant/positive stimuli and have a tendency to shut out unpleasant/negative stimuli.

In the case of the team member that regularly shoots down colleagues in meetings, the pay-off is a feeling of power. It makes them feel smart, dominant and perhaps in favour with the boss. As a manager, knowing the pay-off gives you amazing access into removing the pay-off (and ensuing reinforcement) for this behaviour.

When people are rude to customers the pay-off is the maintenance of their dignity. So often we see people in customer service roles that feel like they have to endure unfair treatment, which is demeaning and demoralizing. If you start to see that the behaviour is about maintaining self-respect then you can help to build strategies that serve the customer without sacrificing your employees, in which everyone wins.

4. Re-engineer the habit

The unproductive behaviours that your team may engage in are often their short cut to a payoff. Carving out new habits from scratch is really difficult, but replacing bad habits with good ones is much easier.

Speak openly to staff members about why they may be behaving less effectively – and discussing the whys and the triggers is a great way to open the analysis of the situation as it seeks to understand. They learn to be mindful of the drivers of their behaviours so they can work to change them. Discuss the stressful triggers such as:

  • overload of deadlines
  • heavy influx of customers
  • a rude, aggressive customer or colleague
  • a mistake causing a quality issue, delay or delivery problem
  • last minute or constant changes of expectations
  • ridiculous organisational rules that block performance

Drill down to those triggers that are most likely to result in an employee behaving less well, even lashing out aggressively.

Competitive behaviour is rewarded a lot in organisations. Salespeople get a bigger bonus for bigger results but the results may mask an unfair allocation of territory, or ‘taking over’ clients from a colleague. The loud, outspoken employee is listened to more than the polite, quietly spoken one. Bosses thank employees that betray the confidence of others and promotions are sometimes given to the most ruthless people. If you don’t carefully consider which behaviours will be incentivised you may find yourself as the leader of a culture with a lot of undesirable behaviours.

Distractibility and procrastination are bad outcomes of the modern workplace. Employees are rewarded for looking busy, responding instantly to emails and juggling a lot of balls simultaneously. Although many roles demand this, imagine if we rewarded thoroughness and focus in the same way that we speak highly of people that look busy all of the time? Praise and promotion are the two biggest pay-offs in the workplace, and managers need to be extremely prudent in how they’re dealt out.

5. Be extremely transparent

Subtlety can be a shortcut to miscommunication. It can really help by telling your team that particular behaviours are desired and will be rewarded in particular ways. It is how you set the team habits and overall culture of your organisation.

Employees will thrive in the knowledge that they are doing exactly what is expected of them. Most people intuitively try their best and work as hard as they can. Those that are less effective are usually experiencing a wide range of frustrations and roadblocks that can be addressed through transparency.

The difference between great teams and poor teams are the habits they have. Some offices are so obviously warm, friendly and happy places to work, while others house discontent and frustration in every corner and every cubicle. If you take a conscious, deliberate approach to deciding which habits you want your team to develop and display, and which triggers and rewards you’ll use to encourage them then you are well on your way to creating a great and effective work environment.

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.


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