Why developing personal habits is more important than intelligence or force

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Why developing personal habits is more important than intelligence or force

Why is there such a gap between average and high performing employees? While there’s no simple solution, recent research suggests that your company may be looking in some of the wrong places for answers.

The difference between the best and worst companies is huge, according to The Economist: the top 25% of companies are a full 40% more productive than their counterparts. It’s not luck – they have learned how to inculcate repetitive behaviours.

Most of us don’t relate to habits this way. We are surprised by their power and unaware of their origin. Generally, we refer to them as negative practices we want to get rid of, but cannot.

This popular but limited understanding blocks us from a higher realm. For high performers, habits are actually a creative enabler.

Unfortunately, habit-building is not a part of our schools’ curriculum. Instead, we are encouraged to get results by being smart, or forceful.

The Limits of Being Smart

As Jamaicans, we have a propensity to “big up” intelligent people who establish a track record of academic success in GSAT, CAPE and university exams. Typically, we encourage them to enter established professions such as law, medicine, accounting or engineering.

However, if you have ever sat waiting in a doctor’s, dentist’s or lawyer’s office wondering how they manage to keep any of their customers, you may know why intelligence is not enough. It’s necessary, but not sufficient to run these tiny, one-person business ventures.

As a tool, being smart doesn’t scale very well. A small company which fails to develop the habits required for good customer service or time management is one which needs more than book smarts. It requires a very different approach.

The Limits of Using Force

We Jamaicans have a love-hate affair with the use of force. Strongman leaders ranging from Bustamante to Dons gain our admiration when they intimidate others into action. We want more.

However, when we are on the receiving end of forceful treatment, we complain about injustice and resist. This makes force a double-edged sword. Even though a few bosses bully their way to success, it’s always short lived. Over time, they develop a well-earned reputation for abuse which repels good people.

The fact is, force only works with those who are fearful so like smart-ness, it’s only effective in a few narrow situations – it just doesn’t scale.

What Works – Habit Creation

A habit is defined as an action which is performed without conscious effort. It’s a cognitive freebie which is triggered by something in our physical environment or by a specific event.

Unfortunately, the skill of developing positive habits and practices so that they drive business processes isn’t taught. We certainly are never shown how to develop them consciously. The lack of this knowledge hamstrings your company in several ways.

  1. Underestimating the slow, steady approach to learning and training

When you don’t understand the power of habits, you rely too much on smarts and force, believing that a sudden flash of brilliance or a single decisive action are remedies to complex business problems. They are just “shortcuts which draw blood.”

Even most training has the same fault. We are impatient, putting faith in a solitary day of instruction, while studies show that a behaviour change which starts in the classroom is just the beginning. A full 60% is driven by what happens after the class, rather than during it.

  1. Not uncovering key behaviours

In my work with companies I am often surprised to learn how little effort is spent to decode the keys to their success. As a result, managers are blind to places where their idiosyncratic actions lead to unique, positive results.

By not deciphering their hidden code, they dishonour it; the first step towards losing it altogether. Over time, unexplained, preventable failure sets in.

  1. Not showing employees how to teach themselves new habits

Perhaps the biggest failing of all is that companies don’t instruct employees how to pick up and learn new behaviours, then turn them into habits. Instead, this skill, which benefits every single area of corporate life, is left to chance.

When you teach employees the mechanics of habit-creation, they learn how to baseline their current behaviours. This baseline becomes a starting point for developing higher-level skills. Then, habit development is far more than a matter of luck – it’s a conscious act which, when repeated, sets employees up for success.

Over time, an organisation filled with such people outperforms its peers who are looking for short-term improvements. There’s no need to outmuscle or outsmart the also-rans. Instead, focus your attention on specific behaviours which can be turned into habits. Collectively, they represent a unique source of sustainable competitive advantage.

Francis Wade is the author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity, a keynote speaker and a management consultant. To receive a free document with links to his articles from 2010-2015, send email to columns@fwconsulting.com.