Breaking Bad Habits: How to Create Change that Sticks

By Joe Laipple

When I first started working in a call center, I asked a supervisor of thirty years to estimate how many change initiatives she had seen in her career. I shouldn’t have been surprised when she said she had seen an average of one new initiative every six months. Those sixty new initiatives typically start with high promise, positive talk, and good intentions but then fade away.

Launching a new initiative covers the tracks of the previous one and attempts to erase it. It is easy to start a change effort and, for some reason, it then becomes hard to implement those changes. When the hard work of implementing change begins, companies shift to the fanfare of a new and different initiative. Employees who have been through this drill before know the smart money is on waiting it out: Something new will come along again anyway, so why waste the extra time, work, and effort trying to do the new thing?

This cycle inevitably creates resistance to change. There are lessons here on how to start change initiatives, but more importantly, on how to make them work over time to create sustainable change. Let’s review the common errors that prevent companies from achieving sustainable change followed by several tips that can help change to occur and make it stick.

Pitfalls to Successful Change

Buy-in is overrated: Buy-in is great when you can get it, but spending too much time trying to get everyone to buy into a new initiative is a waste of time. You should ask for buy-in and enjoy it if you get it, but a small percentage of the group will never buy in. It is important to ensure that this group doesn’t stop the change before you even get started. The majority of those who don’t buy in today will begin to buy in when they see the changes starting to work. Your best bet is to put your efforts here rather than spend extra time trying to get false verbal buy-in from the small percentage that will, no matter what, never buy in. Your focus should be on helping employees to see even the smallest changes that are making a positive difference.

Focusing on too many things: I once worked with a group that developed plans to bring about change. Only the plans that focused on one or two things worked; those that attempted three or more things didn’t.

Placing the burden on frontline employees: Most change efforts I’ve seen start with the results and outcomes upper management would like to achieve and the behaviors and actions employees need to engage in to bring about the improvements and changes in results. Missing are the daily and weekly commitments supervisors, managers, and leaders need to make in order to follow up and follow through on these changes.

Impatience about results: When organizations invest in change initiatives, the goal is usually some improvement to business results. Impatience with the speed of achieving results is a major threat to any initiative. When improving lagging results is your goal, be sure to have actions and behaviors you can observe on a daily and weekly basis. These provide a path forward toward your results goals. If you want to be impatient about something, be impatient for individuals at all levels to take daily action that moves you one step closer to your end goal.

Overplanning: One client of mine spent six months coming up with the perfect plan. By the time he was ready to implement it, his team had changed, and he ended up scrapping his “perfect plan.” I recommend a “good enough” plan that can be tweaked and fine-tuned as you implement it. When too much time is spent on planning, the focus somehow shifts to the plan on paper rather than observations of positive change on the floor, where the real work happens.

Emphasis on compliance rather than commitment: Companies are shortsighted when they think the easiest way to get change started is to tell people what you want them to do and then manage the exceptions. While this way gets things started, it is an ineffective means to get change to stick. Telling individuals repeatedly what you want them to do only creates compliance. Managing exceptions creates a workforce who will give you exactly what you ask for but no more. When employees are told what to do and then do things to avoid the boss, this is a sign that the change will not stick.

Tips to Making It Work

Fight to keep it simple: Avoid piling on extra activities throughout an implementation. Good intentions sometimes lead to adding things as you go. Before you know it, the change is too hard, too complicated, too tedious, and too much work. Strive to keep it simple, easy, quick, fun, and just the right amount of work (think iPhone).

Follow up and follow through: Frontline employees aren’t the only ones with a job to do. Supervisors, managers, and leaders shouldn’t just be there at the beginning when there are good speeches and fanfare. Daily and weekly follow-up and follow-through are needed to bring about sustainable change. This follow-up should reinforce incremental changes and encourage more good examples for the change initiative.

Do something daily and weekly: When bringing about change that sticks, repetition is required to create new, desirable habits. This applies to all levels within the company where new habits are needed to demonstrate the changes and influence others to continue to demonstrate them.

Emphasize good examples: When supervisors, managers, and leaders follow up, they should not look for problems and issues; instead, they should find good examples to show that the changes are working and sticking. Good examples are good for business and demonstrates how people within your company are “cracking the code” for how to get change to stick.

  • The 3-Minute Meeting is a tool to help employees tell their stories. It can be used to build trust and show employees that their bosses are listening to them. It also can be used to help employees describe what they did to create good outcomes, and it can provide a forum for them to describe how they are taking greater ownership for their area.
  • These stories serve to recognize what has happened, help employees repeat the same good outcome, and encourage others to replicate the actions that led to good outcomes in the future.

Manage poor performance: When we allow patterns of poor performance, we show by our actions that it is okay to not perform well. Manage this group by emphasizing the good examples that are happening in your company. The vast majority of your employees who intend to do a good job will thank you.

Ask questions: Questions help you to get beyond compliance and encourage self-management. If telling people what to do creates compliance, asking questions creates commitment. Ask questions to:

  • Encourage employees to share stories of how they are making the changes work
  • Assess the effectiveness of your coaching
  • Allow employees to describe how they have cracked the code

It’s Time to Break the Bad Habits: When dealing with change, encourage people to try it. Once they have, find the best examples of it working well. Next, shift your focus to figuring out how to make it work over time. Avoid the pitfalls of overpromising that this time things will be different; show your employees that it will be different by your actions. Get started today with the first step on the path to the long-term changes you desire.

Joe Laipple, PhD, is senior vice president of strategic services for Aubrey Daniels International, specializing in getting change to occur and making it stick. He has extensive experience in coaching and leadership, team development, and change management and acceleration. Laipple has more than twenty years of experience designing and implementing change as a consultant, coach, and mentor.

[From Connection Magazine Jan/Feb 2013]

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