Writing for Strategy+Business, Jon Katzenbach observes that a disruptive event can cause people to change behaviours immediately. However, he also points out that it will rarely have a lasting effect on deeply embedded cultural flaws unless a leader uses the event to spread critical changes.
Nevertheless, Katzenbach insists major events can have significant impact on cultures.
He comments: “Disruption makes people question what they are doing, and it makes them more willing to change. Indeed, the more disruptive the event, the better.”
In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg describes the effect created when a “keystone habit” is created; this is a habit that starts off a ripple effect, changing other habits as it passes through an organisation.
So, Katzenbach insists, if leaders can start disrupting habits around one issue, they have the chance to spread the good effects across the company.
Senior managers in a position to influence and motivate behaviours for the long term can use a disruptive event to isolate three or four behaviours they would like to turn into habits. Also, “authentic informal leaders” can operate as “special forces” to assist in reinforcing these behaviours.
This method is powerful because:
• Habits are difficult to break. According to Duhigg, change only occurs when one habit is replaced by another. So it is essential to harness the keystone behaviours affecting performance, transforming them from one-off actions into habits. This creates “an enormous – and lasting – cultural force”, comments Katzenbach.
• Habits are triggered rapidly in the brain. The neural process that forms habits takes place in the basal ganglia of the brain, and little sustained thought is required, explains Katzenbach. Thoughtful behavioural change, however, occurs in the prefrontal cortex, with a much longer processing time.
• Keystone habits influence other behaviours. Once a habit is changed, it prompts other changes that are consistent and supportive of the new habit.