July 25, 2021
Performance Management 27 December 2017
Use Habit Science for an Employee Engagement Breakthrough
Jane Watson
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The concept of employee engagement has been around for nearly 30 years. And while we might still argue about the best way to define it precisely, the fundamentals of engagement are no great mystery. 

At this point, I suspect you’d be hard-pressed to find an HR professional who isn’t familiar with the fundamentals of making an organization a more engaging workplace. Things like treating employees with respect, communicating clear goals, providing timely feedback and recognition, and supporting employee development.

And yet, Gallup and other reputable experts tell us that engaged employees are in the minority, and the numbers aren’t getting any better. Why is this?

It’s because of the knowing/doing gap. We know what to do, but the challenge is actually doing it consistently.

We’re all familiar with the knowing/doing gap in our personal lives. We know how to eat healthily, and that exercise is good for us, but getting to the gym and choosing broccoli over potato chips is hard to do every day, or even most days. 

 Similarly, getting the people in our organizations to consistently do the things that build engagement is a challenge that leads most engagement initiatives to end in failure. 

How can we overcome this? The answer lies in habits.

About 40% of our actions every day are guided by habits. That means that quite often, we’re reacting to the cues in our environment in an automatic way, before we’re able to consider and choose to behave in a way that will achieve a new, long-term goal, like engagement. But if we can make engagement-supporting habits our default, they’ll form durable behaviors that don’t require as much thought, or willpower, to repeat reliably.

The science of habits can help us understand, and overcome the knowing/doing gap.  

Habit Science Explains the Knowing/Doing Gap 

You do a survey, consult an expert, or develop an action plan to engage your employees. Leaders, managers, and team members say they’re on board.  But getting results can't be based on words, it has to be backed up with behaviour change. Habit science tells us why this is tougher than it sounds:

  • The Akrasia effect: Akrasia is a term coined by ancient Greek philosophers to describe the common (and frustrating) human tendency to act against our better judgment. When we set goals that we intend to achieve in the future, like weight loss or employee engagement, no matter how important they are to us we tend to underestimate the competing appeal of gratification in the present. 

    That is, no matter how compelling the goal of a more engaged workplace in the future is, in the moment our brains make it far more likely that we’ll avoid new, perhaps uncomfortable behaviours will help achieve our goal, and default to our old, more comfortable behaviors. 

  • The one coin loop-hole is another concept that will be familiar to most of us. It’s that little inner voice that says “Just this once won’t hurt”. Rationally we know that to achieve any long-term change we need to repeatedly make the decision to engage in new behaviors and thinking. Yet, taken alone, one of those decisions feels inconsequential, almost like it doesn’t really matter.

    Of course, little choices add up to big changes; and if even some of the people in your organization decide that a new behavior, like providing timely feedback, doesn’t matter just this once, then the goal of a more engaged workplace is put in jeopardy.  

Use Habit Science to Your Advantage

So, lasting behavior change is harder than it sounds. Thanks science! Any good news?

Actually, the answer is yes. The research on habits also provides some useful insights we can leverage to improve our odds of employee engagement success: 

1. Identify Keystone Habits

If you’ve done a survey or run some focus groups, you’ve likely come away with a long list of things that you want to change about your workplace. Resist the temptation to develop a plan that targets all of them. Instead, take the time to identify keystone habits. In ‘The Power of Habit", Charles Duhigg defined these as "habits which correlate to other good habits". This makes them higher leverage changes than others because they can trigger "chain reactions that help other good habits take hold"

For example, if you’re seeking to provide more goal clarity to employees, increase transparent communication, and improve the amount of feedback they receive from their managers, a keystone habit might be consistent, monthly one-on-one meetings between managers and their direct reports. 

Once this habit is established and embedded, it is likely to result in increased communication, and provides the channel for more feedback and confirming goal clarity. In this case, you should focus most of your energy on making monthly one-on-ones a habit first, since it is the primary constraint on these other behaviors (that is, without regular one-on-ones the other goals are unlikely to be met).    

2. Use the Habit Loop

So, you’ve set your collective sights on establishing consistent one-on-ones as the first step in your engagement strategy. Publically, everyone agrees this is a great idea – hurray! And then…our brains get in the way. The Akrasia effect and one-coin loophole derail managers’ best intentions. They’re so busy with other things, and that conversation is going to be tough, so maybe they cancel it, just this once… 

Help managers help themselves by pre-empting these tendencies. Instead of just communicating “Monthly one-on-ones are now a thing”, lead them through a habit loop exercise. Ask them to consider the obstacles that will prevent them from doing this. Once these obstacles are identified, it becomes easier to pre-emptively plan how to overcome them.

Research done by Andras Tilcsik for his forthcoming book ‘Meltdown: Why Our Systems Fail and What We Can Do About It’ shows that this exercise is even more effective and specific if we ask our future selves to do it: “It’s Q4 and I haven’t had consistent one-on-one meetings with my team members. What most likely happened?” Maybe its workload, an unpredictable schedule, or anxiety about what to say. 

Regardless of the reason, this information can help individual managers define a habit loop: “If my workload that month makes it difficult to have my one-on-one meetings, instead of canceling them I will shorten them” or “If I am anxious about what to say, instead of delaying the one-on-one meeting, I will jot down a quick outline, or call my colleague for advice”     

3. Focus on Process, Not Outcome

So many smart organizations get this wrong. They do an engagement survey and suddenly the survey score is the objective. The problem with that is that a score is an aggregate, so you can improve your score and still have pockets of employees who are really disengaged because you haven’t effectively implemented changes across this organization. 

Once you’ve spent the time to figure out the most important changes required to improve engagement, and zoned in on the keystones habits that you think will make the biggest difference, make those habits your objective. Forget about the engagement score (for now, anyway). Measure the consistency and quality of those one-on-one meetings (or whatever your keystone habit is).  

Get obsessed with the process, not the goal because (spoiler alert) there is no finish line with engagement

It’s not a pass/fail, it’s a continuous process of improvement and iteration.

That’s not to say that metrics don’t matter. Embedding habits takes time, repetition, and requires immediate feedback. That helps avoid that sneaky Akrasia effect, where the goal (engagement) seems distant and vague and thus less urgent. Instead, measure progress to provide a more immediate and compelling goal. 

Ask managers if they met with all of their direct reports this month. Ask employees to rate the quality of one-on-ones and suggest ways those meetings could be made better. Treat it as continuous feedback on the habit to help managers track their progress, not as punitive monitoring of the individual. Technology can help here (full disclosure: my organization Actionable.co has a commitment engine that helps build habits and measure behavior change).

4. Make It Easy (or Easier)

Habit science tells us that establishing a habitual behavior requires energy, but that this requirement isn’t consistent. The initial phase of starting a new habit is the hardest. It requires a considerable amount of activation energy, and the more complex the behavior is, the more energy it requires. We can use this information to intelligently design the new habit we’re trying to embed; 

  • Simplifying the new behavior as much as possible.
  • Providing significant support to employees and managers at the onset of the habit change effort/
  • Reminding them that it’s normal for it to feel difficult initially, but that it will get easier.

There may be things we can do to make the habit even easier. Identifying a clear trigger (or cue) can help, such as a reminder message from the CEO on the 1st day of each month to confirm those one-on-one meetings are scheduled. We might even ask employees to take the responsibility to send agendas to their managers for their one-on-one meetings in advance, as an additional cue. We can build in rewards for progress on the habit, like recognition for those managers who meet their targets each month and quarter.

Lastly, we should take care to identify friction points in the habit loop we’re trying to get employees and managers to establish. Have you ever had great intentions to exercise regularly, only to find the gym class is always full or machines are crowded? That’s friction, and it can easily derail our efforts. 

If you’re asking people to use a clunky system or a confusing form, you are introducing friction into the habit loop, and that will lower the chances of successfully embedding the new behavior. See the behavior through the eyes of your managers and employees and streamline where ever you can.

Make an Engagement Breakthrough

I continue to read and hear reasoned and passionate explanations of why we should commit to employee engagement. Perhaps I’m naïve, but I believe that the case has been made and progressive leaders and organizations are on board. As HR practitioners and leaders, our energy is better directed to helping our organizations create new behaviors that contribute to a more engaging work experience. This won’t be easy, but habit science can be a key tool in our engagement toolbox. 

Following 15 years in HR across several industries, Jane is now Head of People and Operations for Actionable.co, where we help make organizational learning and change sticky and measurable. She writes about people practices in organizations, culture, and the future of work at Talent Vanguard.