How To Learn New Habits

By: Bob De Contreras


“If you want the same results, keep doing things the same way.  If you want new results, you have to do things differently.”  You have probably heard this before.  But, you have probably not focused on changing habits – bad habits.  Executives engage coaches and read all the latest books on management and leadership.  But, it is rare that you hear, read or are told HOW to change.  Let’s look at how you can help yourself and your employees initiate change for the better.

 Traits vs. Habits

 We tend to classify people by traits or characteristics. Someone is pleasant or unpleasant, intelligent or stupid. Behavioral psychologists don’t like to work with traits. They would rather work with habits.  One would tell you, “I can’t teach you to be more pleasant, because pleasant isn’t a habit, it’s a trait. But I can teach you to smile more often and criticize people less, because those are habits and we can change habits.  Will that help?”

 If you told a behaviorist, “I want to be thin,” he’d reply, “I can’t teach you how to be thin; that’s a trait. I can teach you to eat less, because eating is a habit.”

 This just means that as long as you forget about traits and focus on habits, you can change your behavior and the behavior of your employees. Often, when we complain about our employees, we look at their traits not their habits. Yet habits are usually what we really mean - and we can do something about them. So your easiest solution will be to define your grievances in terms of habits – then you’ll have something you can measure and evaluate.

 For example suppose you want your managers to show greater commitment to the company.  List specific habits you’d like them to learn: 

  • Attend all staff meetings

  • Spend at least 15 hours per week in networking with business partners

  • Read all regional status reports

 Your employees will have goals to aim at with these habits, which they can learn, practice, and use as a measure for change. You’ll see the difference in their actions.

 But be warned: First, nothing will change if the person does not want to change.  Nothing will change if you and your employees are not dedicated to the change strategy.  Second, while your employees learn a habit, their attitudes may not seem consistent with the new behavior. They may not feel “right” about the change. In most cases, however, once they develop the habits thoroughly, their attitudes will begin to conform to the habits, and you’ll have what you really wanted in the first place.

Learning New Habits

 Most behaviorists use this fairly simple and straightforward technique to help people develop new habits: 

  1. Define the habit you want to create,

  2. Plan the strategy you will use to develop that habit,

  3. Follow the strategy,

  4. Evaluate the strategy’s effectiveness to see if behavior has changed.

 Let’s look at a simplistic example with John (the CEO) and Sam (the marketing executive) that will allow us to focus on the change and not the business issue. John had Sam make up a list of habits Sam could work on building or changing. They discussed the list and decided that Sam was, “…not spending enough time with his administrative staff.”

 Once they identified the habit, John and Sam could plan the strategy to help Sam learn it.  They decided it would have three parts: 

  1. Monday morning at 9 AM Sam would ask the administrative staff what activities they had planned that week.

  2. For each administrative employee on his staff Sam would select an activity with which he could help.

  3. Sam would set aside five hours each week to use for these activities.

 Every strategy must include incentives for following the new habit and disincentives for falling back into old habits. Together John and Sam planned that for each five hours he spent with the administrative staff he would get a 0.2% increase in discretionary marketing budget dollars and if he failed to do so, he would have to buy lunch for the entire executive management staff the following Monday.

 One reason people don’t learn a habit is that they often just don’t give it enough time.  John and Sam planned to leave their strategy in effect for five months, August through December.

 Once they announced the plan to the administrative staff, they were off to a running start.  For eight weeks straight Sam spent the time with the administrative staff. On the ninth week he slipped. He had many good reasons: He got sick and fell behind in his work; he had to attend a three day business conference, and the top executive from their advertising agency “robbed” him of a days work. Despite those good reasons, he had to buy lunch the following Monday and John didn’t have to give him the 0.2% increase in marketing budget.

 The rest of the program went as planned, and at the end of December they evaluated his new habit to see if their strategy had worked. The indications seemed good. Not only did Sam now spend five hours with the administrative staff in their activities each week, he had begun to plan new ones with them, where he could help them even more. He actually enjoyed being with them more than he liked the additional 0.2% budget each week.

 An unrealistic example?  Maybe, but it illustrates the process for initiating change and helping your staff put plans in place to initiate change for the improvement of the business.

 Focus Leads to Progress

 Although it’s not the focus of this article, it should be obvious that before you initiate change you need to prioritize the changes that will make the biggest difference in your business success.  Typical areas that need focus have been the subject of other Paladin articles available on the Paladin Web site. 

 When Paladin works with executives on forming new habits, we warn them that they may find their first efforts disappointing. Their original plan may need several revisions before they reach the goal of a new habit or the expected business success.

 You’ll need patience and optimism in your efforts to develop good habits and improve your business. You’ll find, though, that even limited progress can make your business so much better that you’ll begin to see the new growth and success developing.




How To Learn New Habits Case Study

By: Bob De Contreras


We have several client CEOs who have a major role in sales activities, and a serious bad habit.  They have the habit of telling prospects about their products and/or services and how the prospect needs these offerings.  In a few cases we have found success in forming the new, good habit of asking questions (to determine the prospect’s needs) and allowing the prospects to tell the CEO what they want and need. 

 The strategy we applied was to assign one of our sales professionals to go on sales calls with the CEO.  The sales professional would do all the talking and show the CEO how to ask questions.  In the beginning the CEO couldn’t keep his mouth shut and he’d be back in telling mode.  As time went on and the CEO had been on several sales calls the new habit was visible as the CEO started asking questions rather than telling the prospect what he needed.  It didn’t take long to effect the change to the new habit.  It only took a couple of months.

 Another bad habit we see over-and-over again is the CEO who does not address the poor performing employee.  Sometimes we see this as not addressing the problem and sometimes we see it as not address the problem quickly enough.  In some cases we hear this as, “…I can’t fire him – he’s been with me from the start of the company, over 17 years ago.”  Other times we here it as, “…I can’t fire him – he’s critical to the project he’s working and no one else could finish it if I released him.”

  The strategy we have used in these cases is to coach the CEO on the high cost of avoiding action and the high cost of lost productivity due to bad morale caused by the non-performing employee.  In parallel we have the CEO start the search for a replacement.  This includes interviewing candidates even before the offending employee is released from the business.  In some cases we have had the CEO have another employee “shadow” the offending employee, so that if a replacement can’t be found in a timely fashion, at least there is someone who can keep projects going in the absence of the offending employee.  Then to make sure the CEO is focused on poor performance as an ongoing practice we ask that he rank his employees based on performance and to always be focused on the employee at the bottom of the list.  That means working to improve the performance or work the person out of the business and replace with a better performer.

 To summarize this strategy for habit change: 

  • Determine the cost of avoiding action

  • Determine lost productivity from avoiding action

  • Search for replacement employees as an ongoing practice

  • Assign “shadow” employees

  • Always be focused on the lowest performing employee in the business

 Often we are not working on changing a habit from bad to good, but rather simply adding a good habit.  We meet business owners and CEO’s who don’t manage their businesses based on the financials.  They measure their success by how much money is in the business bank account.  In at least one case we helped the CEO implement the following change strategy: 

  • Have accounting provide a weekly cash flow report

  • Have accounting provide a monthly report of 12 month trailing average revenues, expenses, margins, cost of goods sold, AR days outstanding, and AP days outstanding

  • Make spending decisions based on available cash flow – not money in the bank

  • Insure that AR days are less than AP days – i.e., don’t spend faster than you earn

  • Insure that cost of goods sold percent of revenue is less than the industry average

  • Insure that margins are better than the industry average

 These talks with Paladin are real examples of how our clients improve themselves and their businesses by improving their business management habits and adding new habits to aid in the growth of their businesses.  Our hope is that these examples may be of help to you in finding the habits you can improve by putting strategies for change in place.


Brought to you by:                                                         [BACK]

            Bob De Contreras                                                  
            Rich Kramarik                                                     


RTBA | Cary | Greensboro | Raleigh | Research Triangle Park | North Caroliina
Contents © Copyright Research Triangle Business Advisors 2008, All rights reserved.