Habits and empowerment

Organisation have habits too.

Recently I did a 45 minute presentation about empowerment. I presented to a group of middle managers about how to increase their empowerment. It took me quite some time to think about how to approach the topic. The organization had provided me with their working definition.  I also went to a number of references to see how it was defined.

Here’s one from Nahavandi (2010), The Art and Science of Leadership, page 164. “Empowerment involves sharing power with subordinates and pushing decision making and implementation power to the lowest possible level. Its goal is to increase the power and autonomy of all employees in organisations”.

Nahavandi also says that to have empowerment flourish there needs to be a combination of leadership and organisational factors in place. An example of a ‘leadership factor’ is creating a positive emotional atmosphere. An organisational factor likely is rewarding empowering behaviours and decentralising the structure.

This was all very well but what was I present in 45 minutes that would spark discussion and also get each person to consider the topic a bit differently? I was keen that the managers walk away challenged to try to do something differently in the way they went about their work.

The power of habit

In the end I drew upon the book by Charles Duhigg (2012), The Power of Habit. Every habit has a structure that is made up of a cue, a routine and a reward. Importantly, we all have “keystone habits”. These are habits that underpin significant everyday behaviour.

It’s possible get shifts in both individual and organizational behaviour if you can work out what are the keystone habits. Habits are developed because our brains like efficiency. If our brain can find efficiency for everyday behaviours like how to get to work, or how to dress in the morning, then we free up mental energy for more important things.   To bring about a change in our behaviour we must consciously practice small but significant behavioral shifts on a daily basis to make them into habits.

Understanding habits helps us understand why change can be so challenging for us. When we set goals for changing our behaviour we have a tendency to make them big and ambitious. Sometimes this works. More often it doesn’t.  We would do better if we narrowed the activity so it’s quite specific and more easily achievable. We also need to stick to it for an extended period of time so it can be habituated. What is most challenging is identifying undesirable keystone habits.

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Maryanne Martin