Thinking consciously, unconsciously, and semi-consciously – Part II

November 2, 2012

In Part I Wednesday we ended with the thought that cues (sounds or smells), delivered while subjects were unconscious (asleep), may affect memory and creativity the following day.  Here we continue on the subject of cues, but as they relate to changing habits that are performed semi-consciously; and on how that has applications to organizational performance.

In The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, author Charles Duhigg describes the three parts of the habit loop – cue, routine and reward:

Every habit has three components.  There’s a cue, which is like a trigger for the behavior to start unfolding; a routine, which is the habit itself, the behavior, the automatic sort of doing what you do when you do a habit; and then at the end, a reward, (which is) how our neurology learns to encode this pattern for the future.  Most people, when they think about habits focus on the behavior or the routine.  But what we’ve learned is that it’s the cue and the reward that determine why a habit unfolds.

Duhigg goes on to explain that the reason for this is found in the neurological difference between conscious and semi-conscious thought:

(A)bout 40% to 45% of what we do every day sort of feels like a decision, but it’s actually habit…  What happens in our neurology is that most behavior originates in the prefrontal cortex, the area right behind our forehead.  What we think of as thought, that’s where it occurs.  It’s one of the most new, from an evolutionary perspective, parts of our brain.  But as a behavior becomes a habit, as it becomes automatic, it moves into the basal ganglia, which is one of the oldest structures in our brain and it’s near the center of our skull.  And when things happen in the basal ganglia, it doesn’t feel like thought. That’s why a habit feels automatic – because it’s happening in this part of your brain that for all intents and purposes, from what we think of as thinking, is completely exempt from that process.

He then applies the theory “down in the basal ganglia of the organization,” where company habits form but aren’t really noticed:

(I)n the last 10 or 15 years there’s been this real wealth of an explosion in research in looking at organizational routines or organizational habits and trying to understand how those influence how work gets done. And what we’ve learned is that a huge amount of whether a company succeeds or fails is based not on sort of the big strategy decisions that people make, but on the habits that emerge within the organization…  (I)t’s a little different… what we know about organizational routines or habits that occur among hundreds or thousands of people is that very often the habit loop differs a little bit from person to person.  And yet the entire organization seems to move in the same direction.

And so what researchers have done is they’ve said, basically the same framework seems to apply within a company.  There seems to be this cue that triggers a kind of automatic behavior.  And then people just do things automatically.  And then there’s a reward, which is usually financial or promotions or something like that.

When you talk to good CEOs, great CEOs, what they talk about are habits. Lou Gerstner at IBM, Jack Welch at GE, sometimes they talk about these big strategy decisions.  But 5% of your job as a CEO is making the big strategy choice.  95% is managing small choices, managing what your culture is going to be like, managing how you structure the rewards and the incentives that determine how people kind of automatically behave.  Good managers understand the importance of habits and they think about it. Bad managers pretend like organizational habits don’t exist. And so when habits emerge, they end up being distortive or toxic.

What recommendation does Duhigg offer to help snap out of habits?  We’ll cover that in Part III on Monday.

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