How Bad Habits Can Be Used To Save Your Organization
Published on September 18, 2019
When you look at the brain from the perspective of addiction, it can seem like a pretty faulty organ. Imagine, for example, if you got a new car, and the engine started consuming gasoline in such over-abundance that it started wearing down and failed well before 100,000 miles. The manufacturer would immediately recall the model. But this scenario doesn’t happen to the engine, because it only takes in the gasoline it needs to get the job done. The brain, on the other hand, has trouble distinguishing between what it needs and what it wants. And, unfortunately, we can’t send ours back to the manufacturer for a replacement. Drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, gambling, food, and yes, scrolling on your phone for the next status update, are all evidence for this seemingly strange design flaw in the brain that self perpetuates often fatally addictive behavioral patterns. However, all of these behaviors are rooted in an older feature that is essential for our survival: habit.
Of course, not all habits are bad. We apply habits in all aspects of our lives to simplify how we move around in the world and achieve goals. In fact, habits are the outcome of an even older feature that all living creatures from ancient slugs to Pavlov’s dog to the modern human use to navigate the world around them: reinforcement learning.
Reinforcement learning has four simple components: 1) trigger, 2) behavior, 3) reward, 4) repeat. To use the most basic example: hunger (trigger) motivates us to eat food (behavior) so that we can feel satisfied (reward), and once the food has been digested, having had the pleasure of feeding ourselves, we are motivated to do it again (repeat) when we get hungry (trigger). In fact, the entire reinforcement learning mechanism is said to have evolved to help organisms when they found a source of nourishment to remember what was eaten and where they found it.
At the level of the brain, this system is fueled by dopamine, a neurotransmitter which many people associate with giving us joy and happiness, but in fact developed to help us learn how to efficiently survive by positively reinforcing behaviors, such as finding reliable, calorie-dense sources of food. Eventually, organisms found a way to repurpose dopamine to solve problems that went well beyond finding calories. As animals evolved complex emotional states, dopamine was recruited through the reinforcement learning process to solve a whole new set of issues. The process is the same, but the initial trigger is different. This time, the process goes: feel sad (trigger), eat food (behavior), feel good (reward). As this process gets repeated, the brain lays down reward pathways that reinforce the pattern.
We can think of this process like grooves in the side of a mountain created by water. Small aberrations in the contours of the earth change the direction of water flow as it rains. As the grooves deepen, the water is less likely to deviate from the given path, making it even more likely for water to flow in the same place the next time it rains. Likewise, random synaptic connections are made, and then reinforced through dopamine (and other neurotransmitter) responses. The more a given synaptic connection in the brain is reinforced, the more likely it is for the behavior to repeat the same neural pathway the next time the initial trigger is present. More importantly, as the reward pathways reinforce the link between triggers and behaviors, the brain begins to anticipate behaviors when only initial cues are present. Anticipation becomes a way to create highly efficient responses to our environment by allowing us to predict present and future behavioral responses and act rapidly and unconsciously. However, our powerful anticipatory capability creates a new monster.
The strongest negative habits (e.g. addictions) are those that are self-reinforcing. Take the case of gambling. The promise of a valued reward (a dopamine spike from occasionally winning bets) motivates us to go to the casino (behavior) to alleviate depression, anxiety or boredom (trigger). Placing the bet temporarily relieves the unsatisfied triggers. Yet, the losses we experience creates a new deficit – an experience of not receiving a reward that had been anticipated.
To resolve this deficit, in the absence of alternative valued rewards, the behavior is repeated. As it’s repeated, the learning pathway is reinforced, even though it results in a net increase in dissatisfaction, which is the very thing that triggers the process in the first place. It creates a self-reinforcing habit loop, and all of the most powerful addictions (alcohol, smoking, overeating, screen scrolling) are perpetuated by this same mechanism.
But remember, dopamine doesn’t care about happiness, it motives learning. The pathways continue to get reinforced because habit formation is concerned with the reinforcing patterns to motivate learning, not with your overall well-being. Negative, self-reinforcing habit loops are the most insidious side effects of the reinforcement learning process. Inevitably, when you have something in your life you would like to overcome, but you are unable to do so despite your best efforts, you are referencing a self-reinforcing habit loop.
How We Change
Good habits and bad habits aren’t any different from one another. What matters is how we harness habit formation towards rewards that service the goals we want to achieve. We cannot re-architect the human nervous system to undo the formation of bad habits. But we can redirect the mechanism of habit formation toward goals we seek. Many behavior change methods have been touted over the years, but recently, the work of Judson Brewer has been famously demonstrating high levels of success in changing behaviors through mindfulness techniques.
According to Dr. Brewer, the traditional way of attacking addiction and bad habits is by increasing willpower. We fight addiction by focusing on ways in which we can force ourselves to stop and maintain the quit. But Dr. Brewer doesn’t believe in willpower. First, willpower has never been shown to actually exist. Second, if there was such a thing as willpower, it would be controlled by the prefrontal cortex, which handles planning and executive decision making. Unfortunately, the prefrontal cortex is the first thing that goes offline when we are stressed out, which is the primary trigger in the self-reinforcing habit loop.
Instead of increasing willpower, Dr. Brewer suggests that we increase mindfulness, which is something we can control much more easily. Mindfulness has many interpretations, but in this case, mindfulness simply means directing attention to a given behavior and being curious about it, without trying to apply judgment, control or to have a specific goal direction. In fact, in order to quit an addictive behavior, he actually encourages addicts to smoke, eat and drink for a period of time, but to do so with increasing mindfulness about the experience, how it impacts our lives and whether or not is actually makes us happy. Instead of “fighting” the addictive behavior, so the theory goes, we become disenchanted by it.
Mindfulness breaks the unconscious habit loop through disenchantment not willpower, and we naturally let go of the self-reinforcing pattern. Furthermore, through mindfulness, we can change the valued reward (relief from feeling bad, or emotional deficit) by providing an alternative: the absence of pain caused by breaking the loop. Once we become disenchanted and begin letting go, we can stop the behaviors long enough to reinforce a new set of rewards (having money you didn’t lose through gambling, better breathing by not smoking, more energy from not drinking). These new rewards become their own habit loops, but this time aimed at a different, more desirable goal.
Habit Loops in the Organizations
Self-reinforcing habit loops don’t just occur at the individual level, they occur in organizations as well. Organizational habits, often referred to as routines, can be negatively self-reinforcing in ways that are as painful to overcome as any personal addiction. While the expression of the patterns may be different than in individuals, the formation of organizational habits follows the same logic: Bad leadership, market volatility, power vacuums, ambiguous goals, or insufficient management systems (triggers) lead to workarounds, learned helplessness, risk-aversion, micromanagement, discount-revenge cycles, internal power struggles, siloed decision making, or stalled communication (behaviors), which temporarily alleviates the pain of the chaotic circumstance (reward). However, each of these negative behavioral responses act to exacerbate uncertainty and chaos. This creates a deficit that, without alternative behavioral responses or valued reward systems, will be repeated to solve the very problem they are contributing to.
Similar to trying to quit by simply fighting the urge, when managers see a bad habit, they commonly try to undo it by targeting and sanctioning (negatively reinforcing) the behavior itself. While this can temporarily work as a corrective, it can create a reward deficit. If the deficit created by sanctioning habitual behavior isn’t replaced by a more valuable reward, it can amplify resistance, lower morale, and the unwanted behavior will return or be exacerbated. The managerial belief is that if enough downward pressure is applied, the change can be forced, and eventually it may be. But, as we saw above, trying to quit through sheer willpower is a losing strategy. By punishing the behavior without any valued replacement, the habit-forming pathways aren’t given an opportunity to rewire and will persist.
This is especially true when an organization goes through an uncontrolled change. Sometimes the “bad” workplace habit was, at one point, actually quite useful. But the market shifts, new assessment standards, or technological disruption force the organization to adopt a new approach. All of a sudden, those habits that were previously highly valued for organizational functioning are now considered detrimental. In these cases, changing the organizational habits is even more difficult and needs to be handled with even greater sensitivity to the way habit formation works.
How can we apply the lessons learned from Dr. Brewer’s research to effect change in a way that causes less heartburn, lowers costs, and engages organizational members to make it last?
First, we have to find ways to identify and understand what bad habits are present and how they are impacting the system. What is the cost of these bad habits? What is the value locked up in dysfunctional routines?
Second, we have to help organizational members to become disenchanted with bad habit loops by making them visible and providing alternatives that are valuable not only to the organization but the individuals that populate them.
Third, we have to engage and empower the organization to desire and initiate change from within rather than fight them with top-down managerial willpower.
Last, to ensure that new behaviors are maintained, organizations must create sustainable systemic changes that facilitate new ways of working.
Using these four strategies to systemically target and alter organizational habit loops requires dedication on the part of managers. It requires turning toward our own bad habits, being curious ourselves about what we unconsciously believe works and what the actual consequences of those strategies are. To build a better workforce, we first have to become disenchanted by these old habits, thank them for their service in getting us this far, and allow them to die a natural death so that a new set of habits can take root.