To Spark Meaningful Change at Work, Start Small
Editor’s note: Our co-founder Jim Barnett originally posted this article in Forbes in early April 2020. But we find that, several months into the pandemic, his advice is just as relevant today. We are still in a state of unprecedented change, and some hot spots within the employee experience have emerged. For instance, how can we create new habits to help us improve employee well-being and burnout? Or how can we bolster habits around frequent conversations, goal setting, and learning so that employees feel focused and empowered in this new world of work?
We’d love to hear your thoughts on how to spark meaningful change at work, especially during a time of upheaval. Join the People Success Forum to share your comments or questions.
I am on a quest to… drink more than eight glasses of water a day.
I know what you’re thinking: That is not an ambitious goal. It should be easy to achieve.
Yet the odds are against me. Any way you look at them, habits are stubborn. Starting new ones and quitting old ones can take what at times may feel like a special concoction of brute mental strength, mind-numbing repetition, and ruthless self-flagellation. (The sheer force of nature, like what we’re experiencing now with the coronavirus pandemic, can also expedite habit change.) There’s a reason why the unofficial Ditch New Year’s Resolution Day falls just 16 days after Jan. 1: approximately 60 percent of those of us who set New Year’s resolutions will fail at them.
So how do we change for the better—and for good?
From paralysis to action
I recently had a conversation with Autodesk Chief Human Resources Officer Carmel Galvin in which she described to me how she went from being so afraid of water that she couldn’t submerge her face to swimming regularly as part of her exercise routine.
“Less than 10 years ago, I was terrified of the water,” she said. “I decided I was going to create a project for myself and deliberately embark on learning how to swim. But it’s taught me a lot of lessons that I use every day in my work, because it’s all about breaking it down into smaller pieces [and], probably most importantly, being consistent.”
Carmel hits on two points that have proven to be true when we seek to make change: (1) Start small; and (2) Keep at it.
CEO coach Sabina Nawaz writes that we often overshoot when attempting to make a change or create a new habit.
“We’re indoctrinated to—and rewarded for—thinking big, not executing small,” she writes. “It’s great to dream big, but the way to achieve big is to start small—through micro habits.”
Nawaz defines micro habits as “small components of a larger habit.” Their advantage is that they’re more achievable and build over time to a bigger goal, she writes.
As for consistency, the key is to identify what The Power of Habit author Charles Duhigg calls the “habit loop.” Working from research originating from MIT, Duhigg writes that when we recognize the consistent cue, routine, and reward of a habit we want to start or stop, we know what to do or not do.
“Once you have diagnosed the habit loop of a particular behavior,” he writes, “you can look for ways to supplant old vices with new behaviors.”
Fueling change at work
Carmel also hit on a third important point in our recent conversation. She said she’s applied a lot of the lessons she learned from her swimming project to her work life.
Change at work is especially tough because it involves more than just one person, and we’re often up against constraints out of our control. At Glint, we’ve found that the same tactics that tend to work for personal change—starting small and being consistent, or building good routines and reinforcements—work for organizational change, as well.
Broadly speaking, today’s organizations have vastly improved in using a democratic approach to identify what they need to change. Leaders are increasingly empowering their people, via employee engagement surveys or other avenues, to articulate what they need to bring their best selves to work and do their best work. These insights become a cue for organizations to work toward powerful outcomes—but teams and leaders have to commit to making change.
It’s the how where we’re often seeing organizations get stuck. It’s basically the Bystander Effect in the workplace: Co-workers may agree on the thing that needs fixing, but then no one takes action.
Many organizations attempt to combat the inertia by introducing an over-engineered program or a burdensome process. But this is precisely where starting small and keeping at it can have the same effect with change in the workplace as it does with personal change. Organizations—and their people—can ingrain new habits by identifying both their routines and their reinforcements (like the satisfaction they feel when making progress on a goal).
We’ve found in our work with hundreds of organizations that a few key micro routines can ignite positive change in the workplace and set people up for success.
Conversations. Both one-on-one and team conversations are critical. The Bystander Effect happens because no one is communicating or feeling ownership for action, and that’s what ongoing conversations can solve. To improve conversations, we use a framework called ACT: Acknowledge where you are; Collaborate on where you want to go; and Take one step forward. And then start over and do it again. And again.
When organizations build ACT-style conversations into team meetings, one-on-ones, and other regular components of their workflows, they’ve created their own habit loop.
Goal setting. When ownership is lacking, it can be easy to ignore the steps we need to take to make a change. Goal setting is a fundamental practice that organizations apply almost universally to provide focus, mark progress, and give meaning to what we do.
We’ve found that organizations are successful at this practice when they set goals based on insights from employee feedback and conversations. When leaders and teams align, they keep each other accountable and are more likely to make change together.
Starting small is still crucial here. Organizations initially should create simple key results en route to achieving bigger goals. They can then rely on ongoing conversations to maintain social accountability for progress on the larger goal and make course corrections as needed.
Learning. Learning and change go hand in hand. To get better at anything, we typically need to learn new capabilities or unlearn bad habits. Yet often we don’t know how. When we start with our goals and are honest about what will help or hinder our progress, we can then seek out the specific learnings that will spark the change. This is where the “micro” approach—identifying small, persistent steps to move forward—is particularly important. The fulfillment people feel from learning a new skill or making progress towards a goal becomes a reinforcement that is likely to spur further action.
Organizations use these practices for introducing a wide array of changes—from improving safety habits to implementing new productivity software. With these steps, our customer Varian, a cancer care technology company, has created better conversation habits across the organization, increased employee engagement in regular learning opportunities, and even helped team members change the way they use their workspaces.
Keep your eyes on the prize
Once we successfully start small and stick to it, research tells us that the clincher in making changes stick is to return our focus to the bigger goal. I set my goal to drink at least eight glasses of water a day after a blood test from a recent doctor’s appointment revealed I’m often dehydrated (which is both more pervasive and problematic than you might think). So I’m focused on a larger effort to care for my physical health—and I’m not leaving this habit change to chance. I’m using the Mind Jogger app to nudge me throughout the day, and purchased a one liter water bottle to make it easier to measure my progress. It’s been a fun journey.
Learn more about Glint’s People Success Platform.