Create a Workplace Environment that Sustains New Habits

By Danielle Geissler, Ph.D.

When it comes to bettering ourselves and our lives, we’re likely to get inundated with a range of different resources. Over the years, publishers have continued to release hundreds of books devoted to growth and self-improvement. More recently though, consumer trends find readers gravitating towards material that focuses on how we can develop new habits that are genuinely positive and radically sustainable.

Business Behavior Change_wideDeveloping New Habits: Do we really know what it takes?

Experts, critics, and influencers pride themselves on suggesting unique and sometimes glossy ways for us to develop new habits. It’s worth noting that their advice benefits from a century’s worth of research on the science of behavior. A common thread running through this research is the link between the formation of habits and some kind of trigger, prompt, or informational cue that tells us what the “right” behavior is for a given moment. This link isn’t meaningful in isolation though. A habit is a recurring behavior, so it must also be associated with consistent, positive impact. We need to experience positive outcomes and avoid unfavorable ones. For instance, laying out your gym clothes on the dresser at night should encourage you to put them on and go for a jog the next morning, which in turn should get your endorphins going and produce a runner’s high. In that example, we can easily identify the prompt, the behavior, and the positive outcome that – over time – should have lasting positive impact.

If this sounds simple enough, we know that life is a little more complicated. At any given moment, we can usually identify several different prompts that support a desired behavior plus additional prompts for competing behaviors. For example, seeing your partner happily sleeping while you reach for your jogging shoes could tempt you to go back to bed and snooze a little longer. Likewise, the impact of a behavior produces several different outcomes which may also compete. A good morning run can lead to severe soreness or an ankle sprain, and short-term endorphins may not be enough to motivate you on subsequent mornings, especially when temperatures drop, and your bed becomes that much more appealing. Before it really becomes a habit, a behavior’s prompts and outcomes will compete, and the impact can go a variety of ways.

Developing New Habits at Work: Are we really on track?

For most of us, the challenge to develop new habits follows us from our personal lives to our professional lives. After all, modern work environments are dominated by dozens of transitions that are simultaneous and, sometimes, sudden. It’s no wonder that we’re repeatedly asking different groups of people in our organizations to abandon old ways of working (the ingrained habits) so they can embrace new ways of working. To support our change efforts, we launch all kinds of reorganizations, trainings, communications, role reclassifications, and other such informational cues. We align all stakeholders by defining new ways of working and evaluating how to best reinforce them on an ongoing basis.

And then…people don’t stick to these new ways of working. Even if they change for a brief period, they default to legacy ways of working.

There are many reasons why this happens. On the one hand, employees may get bombarded with a slew of transitions that can’t all take priority at the same time. On the other hand, outcomes may not be positive enough to make new behaviors and expectations outweigh the old ones.

Setting Up Prompts: Why not try absolutely everything?

If set up the right way, prompts, or triggers, can initiate changes in behavior and sustain them until they become habits. As a consultant, I often find that organizations are really good at setting up prompts. After all, they take pride in planning launches and kickoffs intently, and they invest a lot of time, money, and resources into doing so.

What I’ve learned in recent years, though, is that organizations may not realize which of their actions and investments are most helpful in supporting the prompts that, ultimately, will establish new ways of working and make them habitual. Partly to blame is the internet. Why?—because it offers too many tools, best practices, and expert advice at no or low cost, and so leaders end up trying many different things all at once. Their intent is always positive, but from an employee’s perspective, the sheer volume of takeaways, tips, and tests can be overwhelming at the least, paralyzing at the worst. If multiple employees feel this way, organizations run the risk of creating major resistances to change. Even if the prompts seem obvious, the new ways of working may neither stick nor become habitual.

Understanding Prompts: How do we keep doing the work?

So, how do we simplify our prompts and help our people follow them? Well, we make sure we understand our prompts within the context of our workplace. The steps in the infographic below include a series of questions that will invite you to do just that. Your individual answers are the key to establishing an environment that presents as focused and that operates with purpose. Commit yourself to these steps, and then return to them when changes demand that you re-understand your prompts. Trust this: all the good work that your people do can, in fact, turn into all the good habits that your organization values.


If you’re also interested in how these new habits can amplify and energize the culture within your organization, then check out this on-demand webinar. Our thought leaders are always ready to dive into the science of behavior for the sake of your business.

Topics: Behavior