Human Resources: Change vs. Habit

Dear Stumped,

Introducing change in an organization is one of the toughest challenges for an owner or manager. There is inherent resistance to change and it requires real determination to overcome it. I have been reading a new book, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” by Charles Duhigg. This book focuses on the fact that habits cover everything we do, from the time we arise in the morning until we close our eyes at night. They permeate not only our personal lives, but also what happens in businesses and organizations.

Clearly, there are good habits and bad habits, but the studies highlighted in this book show that the key elements of the habit are the cue that triggers it, the routine that is followed and the reward that is the motivator. It is a problem when the routine becomes destructive to the individual or the business. Obvious examples are alcoholism and gambling.


How to Create Change

The examples and case studies in the book about the success of changing habits leads to the definition of the Golden Rule of Habit Change: If we keep the same cue and the same reward, a new routine can be inserted. That is what you are trying to do when you attempt to institute change in your company. But the ability to insert a new routine is very dependent on the willpower to stick to the new routine. Since the habits are so often ingrained, it is all too easy to lapse back into the bad routines.

So if you are trying to change a routine, you need to recognize the cue and the reward and then change the routine. However, it requires major emphasis and the creation of the belief that the new routine will provide the reward.

A few years ago, I gave a presentation for Xerox Premier Partners about what it takes to inculcate a good culture in the business. In preparation, I had the opportunity to talk to key managers in successful businesses. Reading this book and thinking about the need to create a belief reminded me of the thoughts that came out of those conversations. You must take the steps to “hardwire the culture” to accept and believe in what you are trying to achieve. That means the processes you want followed must become part of all of your conversations: staff meetings, employee performance reviews, management by walking around, and every other opportunity to reinforce the culture, the new process, and the new routine.


Understand Motivation

As if it wasn’t complicated enough to try and change old habits and institute new routines, there is one other factor that contributes this complexity. The majority of our staff working in production areas have a common set of behavioral characteristics.

Time and time again, when we use our Thomas International DISC-based profile to evaluate either candidates or employees, we find that they have a very common set of characteristics. They typically have both High S (Steadiness) and High C (Compliance) and that is why they are a good fit for the production environment.

High S individuals are steady and stable and they are good listeners. They get on the job and they stick to it. High C individuals are detail and process oriented, they can follow procedures, and have a desire for accuracy. It is for those behaviors that we value them in the production environment.

However, there is a flip side to their personality, and that is what you encounter when you try to implement change. As we noted, High S people are steady and stable but, as a result, they do not like change. When I talk about the difference in personalities between owners and employees, I say that High D (Dominance) people lay awake at night trying to figure out what to change the next day, but High S people lay awake at night worried about what will change the next day. High C people like procedures, but if you decide to change those procedures, then they need to know why. They are full of questions and they need time to process the idea of the change and agree to accept it.

So, the bottom line is whether you are dealing with changing routines that have become habitual or overcoming natural personality resistance, you have to “sell the change.” And you have to continuously reinforce the need for the change. So when you announce the change, you may get some early buy-in, but the fact is you have not made it part of the culture and gotten a commitment to it. And unfortunately, that is hard work and it is a non-stop effort.


Debra Thompson is president of TG & Associates, a consulting firm specializing in “The Human Side of Business” specifically for the graphic industry. Visit to find out about the new book by Debra and Bill Greif: “No More Rotten Eggs–A Dozen Steps to Grade AA Talent Management”. Send your “Dear Debra” question to