By Dave Crisp
Every human resources operation has to be concerned with developing leaders and leadership.
I keep reading the latest on the topic, and set out to review a new book that a friend recommended, which I’d only glanced at — The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. I wasn’t sure how to approach it since habit is one of my own five keys to leadership and success, but clearly not the only one. For years I’ve been saying all self-help and leadership books basically point to the same five elements and there are entire books on each one or any combination of them you pick. I still believe what’s missing is the balanced overview.
In other words, my reaction was: "Nothing new, right? Just one more book on just one of the five keys?"
But reading it brought a number of things to mind. First, it has some very interesting examples I wouldn’t have initially associated with individuals’ habits. One is the story of how Paul O’Neill turned Alcoa around by focusing on safety habits, thus changing a culture (culture being the combined habits of staff). It’s a great story of how he raised share price 200 per cent and sales 1,500 per cent in 10 years as CEO. The other is how Target uses analytics about buying habits to predict shoppers’ actions before they consciously plan them — how individuals’ habits form dependable patterns even with no conscious patterning or consulting among the group.
At the same time, I was reading the new book by British psychologist Richard Wiseman, Rip It Up, which, true to the title, suggests you rip up all the self-help and psychology books and counselling you’ve been exposed to and replace them with one single solution to all problems. That solution is, in a nutshell, to act “as if” you are… happy (if your problem is depression, for instance) or smart or creative or successful or… you name it.
The book is filled with reports of studies and examples of how this works — pretend you are (whatever) and keep acting out the pretense until it becomes established habit. Then it is actually you — you have become what you wanted to be. The actions you wanted are now automatic, comfortable and feel "right."
The one caveat is that "until it becomes established habit" can be a very long time for some behaviors to reach into every area of life, such as my own struggle to stop acting shy. I’m now quite over it in many areas, but those I practice less often or some new situations, not so much.
If you stop worrying about getting "fixed" and simply start living "as if" you are already what you want to be by copying and performing the behaviors you know (or read) are those of a happy or creative or whatever person, you will become that step by step by developing the consistent habits such people have. As you turn repeated behaviors into solid habits, you will in fact, be happier, more creative or whatever — and with each step forward you will notice and be able to add more.
Strategically the same principles apply to group endeavors like operating a business. From appreciative inquiry we know that just beginning to act from a more positive perspective, instead of continually trying to fix what’s wrong, is the key to making the most rapid progress. If you can get one or more team members acting "as if" and making the new behaviors into habits by repetition, you actually change the culture of the team or organization over time. So habits are very useful and important as a lever.
I can recommend both books. Both have immediately useful lessons if you’re trying to improve your own results or help others. But in Part 2 next week we’ll explore why these ideas aren’t so new and ask, "What will it take to get more people using them?"
Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit www.balance-and-results.com.