The corporate world surely can be a challenging and high-pressured environment to work in. It is a place where people with very different backgrounds, education and beliefs have to collaborate and work together.

In the hopes of building and sustaining a successful project within competitive industries, organizations have to look deep inside their own dynamics with the goal of harmonizing everyone’s interests in the search for a common goal.

Human behaviour is considered one of the most difficult things to understand completely but one thing is certain, we are creatures of habit. Our brains are subject to numerous stimuli every day and forced to make millions of decisions, so as an evolutionary feature, we evolved to have programmed patterns, routine processes that allow us to save our much needed mental energy.

The American psychologist William James once compared habits to water, he said “water hollows out for itself a channel, which grows broader and deeper, and, after having ceased to flow, it resumes, when it flows again, the path traced by itself before.”, revealing this way, how we systematically repeat behaviours without even realizing it. These habits show up in our daily lives in the form of automatic routines: we don’t have to think about the route for work or university, and we end up drinking the usual morning coffee in the same shop without realising it.

the power of habit

However, it is possible to redirect the path this water takes and adjust behaviours by creating new habits.“The Power of Habit” explores this deeply. According to the author,  the best way to get rid of a bad habit is simple: create a new one. From a more scientific perspective, we form habits following a 3 step loop: Cue (the external or internal stimulus that makes you perform the habit), Routine (the act of practicing the habit)  and Reward (the satisfactory feeling from performing the routine) which can be anything. From a feeling of accomplishment by finishing a task to a dopamine release when you open social media and see dozens of messages and likes. By being able to identify the cue, that is, what triggers a bad habit, you can change your routine to a new one and adjust the reward accordingly.

However, one must understand that there is no secret formula to do it. It depends on multiple factors like will power (highly subjective), personal background and it’s even harder when dealing with the habits of possibly thousands of employees that, altogether create what is the company culture. Some habits appear harder to change than others and some people can go a lifetime without realizing or being able to change any of them.

Some explanation could be found when looking to groups of people that are designed to fight (bad) habits. It is not enough to get used in fighting habits or even change it for a new one. As shown in a study from the California’s Alcohol Research Group for the Alcoholics Anonymous, in most cases, respondents revealed that when a stressful event occurred, the habit tended to come back, as they found comfort in the reward associated (quoting William James, the habit path never entirely disappears). In this perspective, organizations might have to play a vital role.

As stated, habits depend a lot on will power and this is highly correlated to the environment surrounding each individual: social norms, peer pressure and other phenomena can either make the ground for beneficial or bad habits. Is about which group and which norms you’re exposed to that determines how your behavior will be beneficial or not. As for drinking (often a group activity), take the AA: they try to provide individuals with a feeling of inclusion, understanding, and offer a base of support to fight addiction (assigning a mentor, sharing with fellows struggling like them…). By finding a common ground and goals to move towards together, organizations might have the base to form a stronger group identity: a culture.

Some organizations fail to succeed in the corporate world for the lack of an identity, something that everyone in the company embraces and fights towards. But even though a unifying culture is vital for success, it is even more imperative that this culture is the right one for the organization.

Take what happened at the Rhode Island Hospital a couple years back. This hospital, one of America’s leading medical institutions, was known as a place with many internal tensions. The relationship between doctors and nurses was difficult and after years of strikes by the nursing staff, the situation remained similar by the lack of effort of the administrators.

Nurses came up with a damage limitation solution: they created a blackboard where they could all see the doctors they would work with on the operation room and they would write those names with different colours, so that each nurse knew what to expect when entering the room, if the name was written in red or black, they knew they shouldn’t even make a suggestion or they would be in trouble.

This way, nurses thought they would avoid unnecessary conflict. But how wrong they were… Without noticing, the nurses created a habit: if the name is written in black or red, I will not intervene and correct the doctor’s decision, no matter what.

The result? Malpractices, one after the other, that sometimes, led to deaths.

Whenever a surgeon (human after all) was about to make a mistake, due to past conflicts, nurses would simply follow their habits and not intervene; these habits were instilled through unwritten rules that have been interpreted as part of the culture.

Rhode Island Hospital, one of America's leading medical institutions.

Rhode Island Hospital, one of America’s leading medical institutions.

Sometime after, due to all the pressure from the media, the administration came to their senses and applied measures that eventually conceded nurses a voice and created new habits that changed the organization’s dynamics. However, it remains a perfect example of how an undirected bad culture within an organization, can lead to harmful outcomes (in this case, for the health of patients). Corollary: in moments of crisis and public exposure, organizations have a unique opportunity to make changes. When everyone involved is in some way or another negatively affected and there is a sense of collective struggle, the chance to set aside divergences and move towards a common goal, rises.

Let’s relate to the covid-19 pandemic. For a company to survive these uncertain times it is essential to maintain its culture. However, with most people having to work from home, the overall company dynamics had to be changed or completely reinvented. By looking at some top renown companies we can see the path that company cultures’ development is taking.

For instance, Google has allowed its employees to work remotely until the end of 2020. Besides, it also provided a work from home allowance of 1000$ for equipment costs. Such action made it possible for workers to create their own home office environment with less propensity of getting distracted and more sustainability.

Take instead the measures taken by Target. Target’s main priority was to ensure employee safety by extending sick leave for everyone and offering high-risk workers a thirty-day paid leave in case they were uneasy to come back to in person work. In addition, Target also offered financial aid to employees working in the stores (and implemented similar programs for ones who wished to contribute.)

On the influence of leaders, we have an example from a firm: Alcoa, an aluminium company. When their new CEO, Paul O´Neill took over in 1987, everyone was confused by his presentation speech. His main goal, he said, was to “make Alcoa the safest company in America”, he added, “I intend to go for zero injuries”. Every shareholder in the room was surprised, not only did he not talk about raising profits and cutting costs, he intended to transform one of the most risky workplaces into the safest in the country. One year after his speech, the firm hit an all time record of profits, and by 2000, when O´Neill left, the annual Net Income of Alcoa was 5 times larger. So, what happened?

The CEO was aware of the power of good practices, good examples, and more importantly, of the impact of a good culture. By defining a clear goal that everyone could work towards and support (relatable), Paul created a culture where everyone felt part of something bigger and got each worker excited to do their best for a company that defended their interests.

With this measure, everything improved: happy workers were more productive, less accidents meant less costs and more available workers, but, more importantly, in order to achieve the goal of zero injuries, everyone had to be well aware of what everyone had to do. In other words, the change of a habit triggered a chain reaction. It made workers not only be more careful and productive, but they also felt entitled to give suggestions to improve the company: they felt like they mattered more, and had a saying in the path the firm took.

This just goes to show that even though managing thousands of workers, pleasing shareholders and simply put, running an organization, can be difficult, it is possible, even with simple ideas, to create a good culture, unite everyone and run a successful business.

More recently, Dan Price (CEO of Gravity Payments) made the news cutting his own wage to reach a minimum salary of 70k$ for all its employees. Deemed as a madman by the media, actually had a more interesting effect: its company valuation went from ~4 b$ to ~11 b$ dollars in 4 years. More than 10% of the company have been able to buy their own home, in one of the US’s most expensive cities for renters. Before the figure was less than 1%. People even started having babies all of a sudden.

The examples presented painted very different pictures, however, both help prove the argument that an organization is much more than the individualities and much bigger than an idea.

Dan Price, CEO Gravity Payments

Dan Price, CEO Gravity Payments

Companies and institutions are made of every single person involved in the final product or service provided, and without a common ground, an identity or a culture to unite the interests of everyone, it is only by chance that success lasts.

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