Cookie jars and communication: The power of habit

Both individuals and organizations can be slaves to habit, but learning how to properly manipulate these routines can lead to great success. Although not your typical beach fare, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” is one of the best reads of the summer, with fascinating insights for corporate communicators.

While his presentation of the science is intriguing, author Charles Duhigg is essentially a storyteller – one of the reasons the book is so compelling. In it, he explores the habits of individuals, organizations and societies, based on the premise that habits can be changed if we understand how they work.

From Procter & Gamble to Target, Starbucks and Alcoa, companies have seized on this insight to influence how work gets done and how employees communicate. It’s the view into how these organizations have changed their habits that makes “The Power of Habit” so appealing for communicators.

The process behind a habit is a three-part loop: First, a cue – a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use; second, a routine that follows, whether physical, emotional or intellectual; and, third, the reward, which helps your brain decide if the routine is worth remembering. Over time, this loop becomes automatic.

Here’s an example you might recognize: Out of boredom, you wander into your kitchen – a cue. You head to the cookie jar – a routine. (You’ve starred in this scenario before.) You take a cookie and eat it – the reward. (Nothing like a quick rush of sugar to enliven your day.)

When habits emerge – as is the case the umpteenth time you head for the cookie jar as an antidote to boredom – the brain stops participating in decision making. Further, habits are powerful: Unless you deliberately fight it, the routine will unfold. How do you avoid becoming the cookie monster? According to Duhigg, you keep the cue and the reward, but you alter the routine.

From Procter & Gamble to Target, Starbucks and Alcoa, companies have seized on this insight to influence how work gets done and how employees communicate. It’s the view into how these organizations have changed their habits that makes “The Power of Habit” so appealing for communicators.

Take Alcoa. In 1987, when Paul O’Neill became Alcoa’s new CEO, he took on workplace safety as his primary concern – not revenue, not profit – workplace safety. O’Neill felt that the organization needed a goal everyone could share. His goal: zero injuries. Who could argue with that? But, to get there, it was necessary to review manufacturing processes, quality-control procedures and safety plans.

He identified the cue – any employee injury – but he changed the routine. O’Neill decreed that within 24 hours of any employee injury, a unit president had to report the incident directly to the CEO as well as to present a plan to ensure that the incident couldn’t happen again. The reward: Only those who embraced the system would be promoted; those who didn’t would be fired.

The effect on communication? Suddenly, unit presidents had to be in constant contact with their vice presidents, vice presidents with floor managers, floor managers with workers. Workers were encouraged to raise red flags, warning of any potential safety problem. Any success – any “win” – was positioned as “saving lives.” Within a year, Alcoa’s profits hit a record high. When O’Neill retired in 2000, the company’s annual net income was five times larger than it was the day he arrived.

Duhigg provides numerous examples of how changing habits can change a workplace: At IBM, Lou Gerstner rebuilt the firm by concentrating on IBM’s research and selling routines; at McKinsey & Company, wide-ranging internal critiques for every assignment have created a culture of continuous improvement; at Starbucks, training baristas in self-discipline ensures the high-quality customer service that helps justify $4 lattes.

Whether you read it at the office or read it at the beach, I highly recommend that you read Duhigg’s fascinating book.



© 2017 Betty Henry Communications