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Leading Off
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In the arcade game Whac-A-Mole, players whack plastic moles with a mallet as the hapless creatures pop their heads out of burrows, but as soon as they whack one, a new one pops up. That’s similar to what happens when organizations implement behavioral-change programs without preparation: they may pound one mole (behavior) into its hole only to find another immediately rearing its head. Organizations can’t move forward with change unless they can create and reinforce behavioral changes. But the task becomes daunting in a remote or hybrid work environment, which rarely allows for face-to-face reinforcement. This week, let’s focus on what you can do to build the behaviors and capabilities needed to effect lasting change.
Abstract illustration of red balls on a blue wave like sculpture
Change behaviors through innovation, skill building, and role modeling
In other words: show, don’t tell. At a time when organizations must build new skills to renew themselves, it’s worthwhile for leaders to reinforce a positive environment and different ways of working. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, several companies used the situation as an opportunity to try out new ideas, protect the core of their organizations, and inspire and energize their workers. One organization redeployed 1,000 retail-store employees to internal sales and retrained them in three weeks. Another tried to find temporary jobs for displaced team members by partnering with companies that were expanding their workforces. A leading company donated $10 million to expand online learning, and, in an inspiring example of role modeling, a manufacturer’s top executives deferred between 20 and 50 percent of their salaries.
That’s the share of time that people habitually enact everyday actions, such as shopping or exercising, while thinking about something else, according to research by the Wood Habit Lab at the University of Southern California. Context often triggers habit-forming behavior—for example, the more often a behavior occurs within a certain location, the stronger a habit can become. In the current era of remote and distributed work, location might not help as a trigger, but leaders can still support their teams in building better workplace habits by providing the right context and cues. Changing cues in the environment by using formal mechanisms, such as subtle interventions or behavioral nudges, or offering personalized coaching is a powerful way to disrupt old habits or develop new ones.
“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits—practical, emotional, and intellectual.”
That’s the 19th century psychologist William James on the vast influence that habit wields over people’s daily lives. In his lecture series Talks to Teachers on Psychology, James urged teachers to ensure that their pupils formed good habits that would eventually turn into automatic daily behaviors. Today’s business leaders seeking to cement lasting behavioral change can turn the power of habit to their advantage. Consider the “influence model,” which uses four key actions to win—and keep—employee commitment to organizational transformation. For example, helping people understand why the change is happening, instead of assuming that they already know the reason, can influence them to change their behavior. One way to do this is to develop a change story that describes the company’s new direction and why it is important. Another tactic is to instill a sense of control and competence in people, helping them develop better habits to achieve performance goals.
Illustration of paper butterflies
Want your change program to succeed? Before putting any formal mechanisms in place or defining any potentially desirable behaviors, understand your employees’ mindsets and why they’re behaving as they are. “As soon as you get into this mindset realm, you get to the root cause of why smart, hardworking, well-intentioned people aren’t already behaving in the way that you want them to behave from a management-practice standpoint,” says McKinsey’s Scott Keller in this podcast. “You’ve unlocked the key to transformation because if you can shift that mindset, people can’t go back.” For example, employees who are convinced that their job is to give customers what they want may perform entirely differently—and better—if they shift their mindset to believing that their job is to add value by helping customers understand what they really need.
Illustration of octagonal rings of different colors
It’s all too easy to focus solely on employees during a change program. “Leaders can make or break a company transformation,” say the authors of a McKinsey blog on improving leadership teams’ behaviors. Discord among senior leaders can destroy trust, skew priorities, and diminish employee engagement. Only 60 percent of leadership teams report being aligned on their purpose, and although most teams rank consistent communication as a priority, less than 40 percent report practicing it. To boost team harmony, identify and act on three to five behaviors that are most critical to delivering your organization’s value agenda.
Lead by behaving well.
— Edited by Rama Ramaswami, a senior editor in McKinsey’s Stamford office
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