Make Habits, Not Rules

Guest post from Jurgen Appelo:
I recently ordered a fruit salad in Raleigh, NC. The pecans were generously sugar-coated; the croutons came fresh out of the frying pan; and the accompanying biscuit covered the Holy Trinity of Sugar, Carbs, and Fat. I have no idea what was in the dressing, and I prefer not to know. The salad was not the healthy option that I thought it would be.

I had done my best earlier that day. I had been running around the city the same morning, over sidewalks that looked suspiciously wide. But after eating the salad (which I certainly enjoyed), I felt like I needed another long run. And I thought, “My God, are they even trying to make healthier living easy for people around here?” Where I come from (The Netherlands), the default side option for a fruit salad might be dark sourdough rye bread, best used for weight-lifting, not eating.

So, how can we change this? What can we do to change the behaviors of people in a way that would be good for them and for society?

The primary approach used by governments is threatening people with rules and punishments. If you don’t pay your taxes, you are punished. If you drive too fast, you are punished. If you sell or use an illegal substance, you are punished. Besides rules and punishments (augmented with some taxation and propaganda), there seems to be little variety in the ways governments attempt to influence the behaviors of their citizens.
The primary approach followed by businesses is the promise of rewards. If you increase sales by factor X, you get a bonus. If you get better performance ratings than your peers, you get a promotion. If you do what you’re asked, you can get in line for a raise. Again, the variety of approaches to improve behaviors among employees in most organizations seems rather poor. It is all about carrots and sticks. Mostly carrots, but also some sticks.

What should we do instead?

How do we get people to exercise and eat healthier foods?
How do we get creative workers to follow safety procedures?
How do we convince anyone to be on time, follow a checklist, or be more supportive and appreciative toward their peers?

Most managers and politicians make the mistake of relying on rules. If it’s important that employees wash their hands before work, then let’s make a rule. If they should not forget to wear a helmet, turn it into a rule. If it’s important that they keep a healthy work-life balance, let’s make another rule!

More than once, I’ve seen rules and laws in social systems (such as businesses and societies) being compared to mathematical rules and natural laws in physical and chemical systems.

Molecules interact with each other by adhering to laws and rules and, thanks to self-organization, this leads to emergence and change in complex adaptive systems. Likewise, people interact with each other in businesses and societies by following laws and procedures. And, with a bit of self-organization, this should also result in creativity and innovation. Right?
Well, almost. But not quite.
Why do you take a shower in the morning after waking up? Is it because of a rule? Is it because you are promised a reward or punishment by someone? Probably not. Even scientists say there is no need take a shower every day. And yet, most of us do, because…
It is a habit.
In social systems, it is the habits of people, not laws and procedures, that can best be compared to the rules and laws in physical and chemical systems. Molecules behave predictably because they have an “urge” to follow natural laws. People behave more-or-less predictably because they have an urge to follow their habits. We act because our neural wiring tells us to do so, not because of something written in a document or something displayed on a sign.

As a driver, I stop at red lights because my brain tells me that not doing so would be dangerous. But as a pedestrian, I often ignore red lights because my brain tells me it’s OK to trust my eyes and legs. The fact that there are laws and rules defined somewhere, that are supposed to guide my behaviors, doesn’t even register consciously in my brain.

In organizations, it is the same. Workers don’t wash their hands because there’s a rule that tells them to do so. They wash their hands because they have developed a habit of doing so. This means that, instead of making rules, management (and government) would be wise to learn how habits develop and how they can be influenced. A visible reminder to wash your hands, such as a placard on a wall, may be helpful. But other subtle changes, such as the strategic placement of the faucet and basin, a powerful hand dryer, and a clean-smelling restroom, could be much more effective at the subconscious level.
Managers and governments are always trying to change the behaviors of people: healthier lifestyles, safety procedures, professional practices, etc. They attempt to do most of that with carrots and sticks, by passing laws, adding taxes, documenting rules, and communicating rewards and punishments, so that people know what is expected of them. But most people have difficulties changing their behaviors because their habits send them in other directions. Sure, they want to live healthier lives! But the fruit salad is still soaked in fat, covered with sugar, and decorated with carbs.
As managers (and politicians), try making fewer rules. Start learning how habits get formed and how they can be changed. It’s more difficult, for sure. But it’s also a lot more rewarding.

Jurgen Appelo, a Top 50 Management & Leadership expert, is pioneering management to help creative organizations survive and thrive in the 21st century. His most recent book Managing for Happiness offers concrete games, tools, and practices, so you can introduce better management, with fewer managers.