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How to change bad workplace habits to improve your own performance and work culture.

It’s true that nobody’s perfect, and we all make mistakes some of the time. But that doesn’t mean self-improvement is pointless. Changing workplace habits isn’t so easy as flipping a switch. In fact, managing away bad habits in your team requires a practical and considered approach.

When behaviour needs to be changed

There’s a lot to be said for taking a hands-off approach as a manager. Effectively self-motivated employees often work best when given autonomy, and not having to micromanage them frees up your time for more important things. But even if that’s true for you and your team, employees still look to you for guidance. As a manager, you need to be observant enough to know when to intervene.

It’s easier to maintain an old habit than form a new one. In other words, bad habits can easily become self-sustaining. If an employee gets caught in a negative feedback loop, then changing workplace habits is probably something they’ll need help with.

For example, maybe someone’s performance is deteriorating because they keep working straight through lunch. They burn themselves out, then show up tired the next day. They don’t get as much done in the morning, so they skip lunch, become more exhausted, and the cycle continues.

Another sign it’s time to get involved in changing workplace habits is when someone’s behaviour spills over and impacts their colleagues. Disruptive colleagues start out as annoyances, but can quickly become productivity blockers and sources of resentment. A study on workplace disruption from Samsung Electronics found that 83% of respondents rated their most disruptive colleagues were those who constantly complained, and that disruptive employees cost businesses 22 minutes a day.

How to break bad work habits

Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts when it comes to changing workplace habits. In fact, according to a study published in Jeremy Dean’s book, Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick, while a simple habit (like drinking a glass of water after a meal) can be established in around twenty days, more demanding or complex behaviours can take months or even the better part of a year to become habitual. The average time it took for a participant to form their intended habit during Dean’s study was 66 days.

Managing away bad habits is difficult, but you can get your employees on the right track by following these steps:

  • Identify problematic behaviours: Firstly, you need to sit down with the employee and discuss the habits that are causing problems. The aim should be to arrive at a shared understanding of what needs to change. But it’s also your employee’s opportunity explain their behaviour, so you need to be prepared to listen to their side of things.
  • Establish the consequences: No, we don’t mean the disciplinary consequences of not improving. If you want them to understand why their habits are bad, you need to actually educate them. Explain how their behaviour causes disruption for others, and if your organisation uses goal tracking, you could easily highlight the slump in your employee’s performance statistics to make your point.
  • Find beneficial alternatives: Finding healthier or more beneficial alternatives is the best way to make positive change stick, which is a core aspect habit-altering therapies such as addiction treatment. For example, if one employee keeps using their break time to distract colleagues, they might just be restless, and could benefit from taking a walk during their break instead of being cooped up in the office. Or, if someone is bringing their colleagues down with constant negativity, you could encourage them to take up journaling as an outlet.
  • Check in with employees regularly: Checking in regularly is the best way to have ongoing feedback in the workplace. Not only is it great for general performance management and people analytics, it means that you can periodically revisit an employee’s bad habits to see how they’re doing. This makes it much easier to change tack if your initial approach isn’t working.
  • Recognise employee development: It’s all well and good to point someone in the right direction. But, if they put in the work and it isn’t acknowledged, that discouragement alone can be enough to knock them off their stride and back into old habits. It’s important to take the time to acknowledge when someone is trying to change.

Overcoming resistance to change

Resistance to change is one of the most frustrating obstacles for any manager. It’s typically the result of skepticism on the part of employees, who can see what you’re asking of them as more trouble than it’s worth. In other words, resistance to change is essentially a lack of employee buy-in. Typically, we talk about these things in relation to new technology or office policy, but it can also be a problem for individual interactions too.

To overcome resistance to change when managing away bad habits, you should:

  • Educate, don’t belittle: As we’ve said, you need to put the work in to educate employees if you want them to be better. But you need to do it in the right way. People don’t respond well if they think you’re having a go at them.
  • Slow things down: Changing habits can mess with your flow. Pressure to perform can easily push people back into old habits, so consider easing their workload for a bit while they readjust.
  • Model the behaviour you want to see: People are less likely to listen to you if they think you’re being hypocritical. But if you practice what you preach, then it’ll have more of an impact. For example, if an employee isn’t practicing self-care, show them how it’s done by taking a personal day or an early lunch.
  • Come down on habits fairly: Hypocrisy isn’t the only double standard to watch out for. Employees won’t take your advice to heart if they think they’re being singled out. Before you confront an employee about their work habits, ask yourself if they’re the worst offenders.

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