Changing Habits in the Middle

cbw-stuck in the middle

Strategy Session: Changing Habits in the Middle (Alberta Venture, September 2015)

by Marzena Czarnecka

I have terrible news: the answer is, you can’t, you shouldn’t, it won’t work.

Oh, wait, right. First, the question—hold on a minute, I want to get the quote right, where is your email message? Ah. Here. You said: “I’ve just started working with a new team. And they’re great people, very talented. We have the potential to be something great together. Unfortunately, I think there are a lot of bad habits in the group. Mostly, it’s bad habits around communication, with each other and also with other teams in the company. There’s a lot of complaining about others not pulling their weight, or not being efficient, and there’s a lot of negative talk about the overall culture of the company. I’ve just read The Power of Habit [by Charles Duhigg] and I want to change the habits of my team for the better. I’m not in a position of sufficient authority to try to change the company, but I know I can change my team. Could you write about how a team leader or a middle manager can change his team’s habits and his team’s culture for the better?”

I’ve just read The Power of Habit too, and I got so very excited about this request, because, Alberta individualist to the core even under our new orange flag, I’m all about personal responsibility and personal agency and changing organizations by acting as if they’re already changed. Were I not maniacally afraid of needles and pain, I would have “Be the change you want to see in the world” tattooed on my forehead. (Were I not maniacally afraid of commitment, I might get it bumper-stickered on my car, but I’m not sure how long I’ll keep the car and I don’t want to affect its resale value, so… no.)

So. Tools and best practices for changing your team’s habits, regardless of what’s happening with the top-of-the-food-chain leadership and company-wide culture… um… mmmm… as I was saying. Terrible news.

You can’t. You shouldn’t. It won’t work.

You know that Peter Drucker quote, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”? Company culture, organizational culture and company-wide habits devour and destroy grassroots and team-level initiatives 99 out of 100 times.

I’m sorry. I don’t want this to be true, because I want you to be able to change your little fiefdom, and, perhaps, to change the meta-culture of your company from within. But your odds of success are not good if you’re working in a vacuum—because nothing works in a vacuum.

I go to Melody Wisoley, an organizational effectiveness facilitator with In Tandem HR Consulting Inc., hoping to find you a loophole.

“Culture is primarily driven by the leadership,” she slams me down, immediately, heartlessly. “It’s very hard to effect change from the middle. I have had middle management come to me and say, ‘I need help with my team.’ They see it as a lack of motivation or lack of cohesion at that level, but when I go in there, what I usually see is the dynamic of tension between what the employees are being asked to do—or what they believe they want or need to do to succeed and make the organization succeed—and how the organization’s processes, structure, rewards and all of those things are set up. Many times, the organization’s processes and structures effectively counter what employees are asked to do.”

Well. Yeah. We all know this—most of us have been unfortunate enough to serve time in such an organization. But… give me hope, woman!

“Most employees come into organizations and into roles genuinely wanting to do good work,” says Wisoley. “They want to be successful and to help the organization succeed.” Right. Exactly. So. All we have to do is tap into that desire and run with it. At the team level. Why does it have to come from the top, be company-wide?

Because company culture is effectively a collection of meta-habits (Duhigg calls them keystone habits), and meta-habits are more powerful than individual habits. (Changing meta-habits is no task for the weak-of-heart either.) If you’ve tried to quit smoking in a smoking culture—or to maintain your “No, thank you, I don’t drink” commitment during the Calgary Stampede, Klondike Days or the festive Yuletide season—you know this power dynamic intimately. You know how much effort it requires to maintain the individual habit against the peer-pressure of meta-habits. The same rule applies at work, in business. Their collective habits are going to do battle against the new, emergent one you’re trying to establish.

And they’re going to win, 99 out of 100 times.

Now, if you’re willing to play those odds—there are things that you can do. The premise of Duhigg’s The Power of Habit is, really, that the brain is lazy and will cut corners and do everything and anything to minimize effort and energy, and the creation of habit and routine is the weapon in its maximize-ROI-do-as-little-as-possible arsenal. The key to changing a bad habit into a good one is deceptively simple—keep the trigger and the reward (outcome, sort of) the same, but insert a new routine after the trigger. Say, for your team, it goes like this: you get the green light on a new project. That’s the trigger—and here come the bad habits. The complaining. The in-fighting. The poor communication. Now, despite all of that, most of the time, the end result is that the project gets done, perhaps even done well. And the poorly communicating, complaining wankers you work with—er, I mean, your team members—get rewarded: they’ve met their metrics, they get to keep their jobs, maybe even get a bonus.

So. Trigger: new project. Insert excellent, transparent communication. A different type of meeting—in a different place, at a different time of day, ran on completely different lines—at which the new way of approaching the work, sharing information, celebrating milestones and success is laid out. Understand that the old habits will rear their ugly heads—recognize them, redirect them. Celebrate the more successful (fingers crossed) outcome. And repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat… until the new habit is formed. (It can take years. Yup. You heard me. Not days, weeks or months. Years.)

Alas, alas… at team level, department level? If those new habits of your nascent, evolving team culture constantly rub up against the meta-habits of the organization, if your CEO thinks you’re misguided or downright wrong… it’s not going to work.

“Not even if someone’s really, really determined?” I ask.

“Incremental changes can come from middle management,” Wisoley grants me. But then she crushes me again. “Focusing on their sphere of influence, doing whatever they can to help their employees be more successful—that’s terrific, and depending on how much influence that leader has, can have effect. But depending on what type of change they are focusing on, sometimes there is a corporate-wide process or structure that will interfere with how they want to change their team.”

So… don’t. You can’t. You shouldn’t. It won’t work. Exception: if the leadership at the top supports your attempts at changing your team’s habits—and is, perhaps, willing to learn from you? Watch what you’re doing as a pilot project, and then deploy it in other departments if it works? At the very least, to not actively combat you: if what you’re doing does rub up against other processes and structures, be willing to make exceptions, adapt to your changes… If that’s the case, okay, try. Maybe you’ll be that one out of 100 that works.

Otherwise? Darling, you’re clearly amazing, a high potential, marketable and desirable. So you have a choice. Stay in a company with a toxic culture and a leadership that makes managing in the middle impossible and become habituated to the toxic meta-culture that you’re trying to change—or take your talent somewhere where it will be supported and valued.

Damn right I just told you to quit your job. Downturn, recession? Meh. It’s a cyclical thing. You’re talented. You’ll be okay. Be the change you want to see in the world in a company where you stand a chance of success.

P.S. Incidentally, more bad news: contrary to what Internet memes tell you, Mahatma Gandhi never said “Be the change you want to see in the world.” He did say, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”


The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business by Charles Duhigg (Random House, 2014)

Tipping Sacred Cows: Kick the Bad Work Habits That Masquerade as Virtues by Jake Breeden (Jossey-Bass, 2013)

The Crossroads of Should and Must by Elle Luna (Workman Publishing, 2015)