Habits Make or Break us and our Companies


“Our virtues as much as our vices are habits.Our lives are but a mass of habits. Bearing us irresistibly towards our destiny.” — William James, Harvard 1892

Tabula rasa

Proponents of Tabula Rasa believe that we are all born with a blank slate, with no pre-installed mental content and that all knowledge comes from both experience and/or perception.

In the quote above from 1892, William James was addressing teachers. He was emphasising how important the role of a teacher is. If you subscribe to the notion of tabula rasa the role of a teacher becomes even more important. It is a teacher who inputs “content” to our children, it is a teacher who sets a group of children on a course of habits. Couple this with the fact that we are all but a mass of our habits and the role of teacher is crucially important.

If you are still in agreement, then the role of a leader of any type, CEO, MD, mentor, teacher or local football coach raises in importance.

Shadow of the Leader

“Every great institution is the lengthened shadow of a single man. His character determines the character of the organisation.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

The leader sets the tone of any organisation, no matter how big or small, no matter if it is an amateur football team or a Fortune 500 behemoth.

“Shadow of the Leader” is a phrase used to describe a common phenomenon in business where people in a position of authority, through organisational habits, beliefs and values can influence the culture and ways of doing business of those around them. (This influence can be good or bad).

In order to get ahead in an organisation, in order to fit in, employees take cues from their manager.

The role of the leader is hugely important for innovation to thrive.

If there is only lip service paid to innovation initiatives, these initiatives will ultimately fail. We see this a lot with digital “transformation”, data and innovation initiatives.

Often there are only token gestures paid to such projects simply to tick a box and say such projects are done.

“Our lives are but a mass of habits.”

Our brains are constantly seeking ways to conserve energy. To do this the brain looks for short cuts. Routine short cuts include punching in your phone password or setting the alarm at night or simply locking your door.

You know when someone asks you “Did you put the alarm on?”, you sometimes can’t remember, but you can automate it when you need to. Oftentimes, you need to avoid thinking about a pin number in order to remember it. This is a primed embedded habit. This is your brain at work saving you precious energy.

Almost 50% of what we do every day is driven by habit. Like the example above many things we do, we do on autopilot.

When you view yourself as a mass of habits you can address your habits and reform the less desirable ones and enhance the desirable ones. The word habit often carries with it negative connotations, but habits can be positive and most importantly negative habits can be replaced by positive ones.

Once you agree you are made up of a mass of habits then you start to view what you input as much more important. This is also why the adage “Show me your friends and I will tell you what you are” rings true, because we pick up habits from every input in our lives.

Going a step further, this is why if you live with a healthy person, it is easier to be healthy, this is why if you live with a reader, you will read more, this is why if you live with a positive person, you will be more positive.

Corporate Habits

Just like a person can be viewed as a mass of their habit, so too can an organisation be viewed as a mass of the habits of their employees. Hence, the importance of the habits of the leadership team.

We have all been in companies where you go from one department to another and the energy changes, as does the way the department dress, behave and do their job.

When you amass all these individual habits into a corporate or organisational one you get a corporate habit. A company can sing a mission statement from the rooftops, but without living their values by living their corporate habits, they will ultimately be found out and in today’s world most likely fail.

This week’s Innovation show is dedicated to the topic of habits and I talk to two leaders in this field authors of “The Habit Factor, Martin Grunburg and author of “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, Nir Eyal.

Martin tells us that when you think about it companies are constantly setting goals. The companies, which have the best habits and thus best corporate culture are most likely to achieve those goals. Nir talks about the ethics of habit setting.

Keystone Habits

If you are a leader who has inherited a negative corporate culture and a company littered with bad corporate habits all is not lost.

A suggested first step is to identify a keystone habit. Keystone habits lead to the development of multiple good habits. They start a positive domino effect for example, if you go to the gym you will naturally drink more water, sleep better and eat better.

If you input a new habit in your company, even if it were a mindfulness programme it will have multiple positive effects on the company as a whole.

Will it affect the bottom line?

In the late 1980’s aluminium manufacturing giant Alcoa hired new CEO Paul O’Neill. O’Neill features in”The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business,” by New York Times writer Charles Duhigg. Duhigg tells the story of how O’Neill focussed on one Keystone habit that drove the company to success.

The habit O’Neill chose was safety. Under O’Neill’s watch, Alcoa dropped from 1.86 lost work days due to injury per 100 workers to 0.2.

Focussing on this keystone habit made the company focus on efficiency and ultimately higher profit margins.

Hire for Habit Train for Skill

I am long a proponent of hire for attitude, train for skill, but I have realised through my reading of ‘The Habit Factor’, ‘Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products’ and ‘The Power of Habit’, that attitude is heavily influenced by habit.

Therefore, I propose that we might also consider:

“Hire for HABIT , train for skill”

To do this Martin Grunburg gives some killer advice, both in the book and on the Innovation show. Martin suggests we ask this killer interview question when we are hiring:

What are your 5 best habits?

However, in order to know what you are looking for, you need to identify the habits required to fit your corporate culture and ultimately lead to success.

I leave you with this great quote:

“We first make our habits, then our habits make us.” — John Dryden

If you like the topics covered here you will love this week’s innovation show, we talk to two leaders in the field of Habits authors of “The Habit Factor, Martin Grunburg and author of “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, Nir Eyal.

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