3 Ways Employers Can Support Positive Habit Change Among Employees

August 2, 2017

Take a moment to consider the New Year’s resolutions you eagerly set for yourself at the beginning of this year. Remember that vision of a “new you” you saw parading in your mind?

Now flash forward to the present. Have you been hitting the gym, sticking to your diet plan, and spending more time with your family and friends? If so, good for you. That’s quite a feat. But if not… congratulations! You have a normally functioning response to negatively framed goals. Your neurological pathways for behavior change (or lack thereof) are right on track.

New Year’s resolutions, like many goals we aspirationally set for ourselves, focus on change from an undesired state or behavior to an ideal one. Although we may strive for self-improvement, it’s not as simple as just deciding that we want to be healthier, more generous, and well-balanced people. This process of setting ideals, but failing to reach them is an agonizing, yet very common one.

As an employer, it’s important to understand why you may be seeing performance outcomes by your employees that don’t match your (or likely their) ideals. Just as we all struggle with executing our New Year’s resolutions, employees can also have a hard time reaching their aspirations in the workplace. This is part of the bigger issue that humans can sometimes be our own barriers to achievement and change.

So how can you help employees make real, effective changes to their lives? Read on for a few ideas!

What are habits? A quick overview

Why do 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail? What makes it so hard to stick to the goals we set out for ourselves?

The answer: habits.

Habits are the unconscious, automatic behaviors and decisions that drive our routines throughout the day.

The way we build and integrate such habits into our daily lives involves a system of external cues and rewards around the target behavior. As a routine turns into a habit, the less effort the behavior requires. Believe it or not, 40% of our behaviors throughout the day are habitual. But, when we set out lofty goals for ourselves, we tend to overestimate the impact of a single conscious decision and underestimate the small habitual ones buried in our routines that end up actually defining our lifestyle.

When we think of habits, we tend to focus in on the negative ones: going on Facebook first thing at work, biting our nails when we are under stress, sitting on the couch after work instead of going to the gym. These negative behaviors tend to be the very first ones we try and eradicate through our self-improving goals, like the ones we set at the New Year, for example.

But, even when we do know what’s bad and what’s good for us, making those changes isn’t so easy in practice. We tend to fall into the frustrating cycle of idealism and subsequent self-sabotage. So how do we prevent this?

1. Don’t play the blame game

Here’s an example of a common habit and how it develops:

Your workplace is providing lunch during a company-wide meeting. As usual, it’s got a tempting array of pastries and desserts alongside the salad and pizza. You know you should eat the salad and avoid the pastries with the new diet you started, but your coworkers are enjoying the pizza and desserts and you can always start your diet tomorrow. Long story short, you successfully avoid the pastries the entire meeting, but as you leave, you grab two on the way out. Alas, perhaps next time you’ll successfully resist the pastries.

But, before you start thinking this is a problem of your own sheer willpower, think again. Remember: habits.

The last-minute call to grab the pastries after successfully eating only a salad at the meeting wasn’t just a momentary breakdown of self-control. It was the final step in a habit loop of a cue, a behavior, and a reward. The cue: the announcement of a company meeting, your mid-day fatigue at work, your coworkers eating the pastries, your self-control by eating the salad—all associations with the usual proceedings of a company lunch meeting. The reward: the taste of the buttery, carb-packed pastry, and the rush of dopamine into the synapses of the neurons in your brain. This is a behavioral loop that’s pretty difficult to curb.

Every routine that’s established in our lives occurs via this same cue and reward loop that reinforce a behavior. Our brains are constantly looking for those cues to initiate the go-to behavior to complete the habit loop. We, unfortunately, do not choose these cues—they are external to us and are highly dependent on contexts around a behavior that our brain looks for. And, to add insult to injury, our brain doesn’t distinguish between good habit and bad; all it sees is a neutral cue, a behavior, and a reward.

So before you start to believe that your failure to avoid the pastry—or whatever thing you’re feeling guilty about—is a shortcoming of your own control, think again. Blame your environment, blame your reward pathways in your brain. If you’re looking to change, start thinking more about your external environments rather than the things you feel like you’re doing wrong.

As an employer, think about how your workspace or environment might include habit cues that lead to undesired behaviors among employees. How might you create an environment that facilitates goal execution? In the example given here, perhaps you’d opt to replace the pastries with a healthier option, like fresh fruit.

2. Always keep the glass half full

With time, unaccomplished resolutions can wear on us. Soon, we may find that there seems to be little correlation between what we do and the outcome. As we learned with habit formation, much of this is true: Habits are a product of our environments, not our direct control. But this is where optimists and pessimists differ. For pessimists, losing a sense of ownership over their own actions and wellbeing creates a sense of helplessness and personal fault. Optimists, however, view the lack of control and error as a product of external and situational issues and can more easily rebound.

Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, developed a process he called “learned optimism,” in which the way we cognitively process events changes from a negative frame to a positive one. Rather than viewing a lack of accomplishment of a New Year’s resolution, for example, as originating from ourselves, a learned optimist sees it as a contextual issue that can change in the future with different conditions.

The first step in breeding your optimism is in the very type of goal you set for yourself. Instead of making a goal that recognizes a habit you need to break, set a goal that builds a new habit loop into your life. That way, anything that you don’t—or do!—accomplish won’t be about a personal failure you have yet to change, but about something you still have yet to learn and add to your life.

On the employer side, think about creating a culture of dos rather than don’ts. If there’s an aspect of your work culture that you find ineffective, think of ways to replace those behaviors with new positive habits rather than restricting or punishing behaviors.

3. Choose non self-improvement goals

A core problem with many resolutions and goals that we set for our ideal selves is that inherent in the goal is self-criticism. Whether or not it’s a goal as basic as “going to the gym every day” or “not snapping at my partner when I get home from work,” the formation of such a goal is frequently based in something we aren’t: “I am not as active as I should be” or “I am not patient with my partner when I’m under stress.”

Self-improvement can seem optimistic and positive because the end result seems better than the start. But the very act of judging that starting point for being lesser breeds a dissatisfied and judgmental attitude about the present.

As the author James Clear explains, “the problem with this mindset is that you’re teaching yourself to always put happiness and success off until the next milestone is achieved. ‘Once I reach my goal, then I’ll be happy. Once I achieve my goal, then I’ll be successful.’”

This is why fixing the bad and replacing it with the good can be a process of guilt, shame, and frustration—none of which are empowering emotions to engender change.

A tactic to break this easily degrading cycle of resolutions is to set goals that aren’t directly related to personal improvement.

In one study, scientists found that shifting the way that people thought about decisions in either personal or objective ways changed their ability to resist temptation. So, think about shifting a goal away from yourself and toward an interesting task instead.

As Gardner, one of the lead scientists, put it: “We’re thinking about what is most motivating to them and having them pursue those goals, with better health tagging along as a side effect.” For example, rather than “eat more salads” as a resolution, shift the frame: “Learn to make the salad at my favorite restaurant.” Rather than thinking about what you can change or become, think about what you can learn and acquire. This process of building positive habits (rather than breaking bad ones) will bring out the optimist in you.

For employers: Encourage your employees to find ways to channel their personal goals into more objective aspects of their life. Are there ways you can promote learning and acquisition of new skills? And how can you include programming in your work environment that might support some of these lifestyle goals?

Putting it all together

You’ve now seen how habits take place in response to external cues, why there’s no point in blaming an individual (including yourself) for not sticking to goals, how an optimistic outlook can help you create goals you’re more likely to achieve, and why it’s better to think about something you can learn or acquire rather than change or become.

You don’t need to be a behavior change expert, but it’s helpful to keep these points in mind as you consider employee wellbeing programs. Are your offerings setting employees up for success with their goal-setting and achievement? Or are they the employer equivalent of a New Year’s resolution that doesn’t stand a chance of being kept?

Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash.
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