Why do we do what we do? For most of us, and for most of the time, we act on habit. From the number of times we hit the snooze button in the morning to the specific Internet browser tabs we open to how we do our jobs, our habits rule our lives invisibly and inflexibly.

In his book The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg shares an interesting example of how small habits lead to large consequences. He relates a story from wartime Iraq, where public riots against American soldiers were fairly common. People would gather in a public square, the crowd would grow in size, food vendors would come to profit from dinnertime, and by the evening the crowd would start throwing rocks and turn violent.

One army major noticed this process, and decided to make one small change: he asked the local city officials to keep the food vendors out of the square. Duhigg details the results:

...a small crowd gathered near the Masjid al-Kufa, or Great Mosque of Kufa. Throughout the afternoon, it grew in size. Some people started chanting angry slogans. Iraqi police, sensing trouble, radioed the base and asked U.S. troops to stand by. At dusk, the crowd started getting restless and hungry. People looked for the kebab sellers normally filling the plaza, but there were none to be found. The spectators left. The chanters became dispirited. By 8 P.M., everyone was gone.

Just this one small change made all the difference in the outcome, saving resources and possibly lives. It sounds like clickbait, but it's true. And making small changes in how you do HR can lead to equally dramatic changes when you target the right habits. Here are three hidden habits that HR managers should consider adjusting when trying to improve their HR practice.

Habit #1: Pleasing People First

If there's one thing I've noticed about HR, it's that it attracts some of the nicest people on the planet. These are the people who spend their career caring for others and putting the best possible face on their organizations. It's rare to hear them complain and inconvenience others.

But this habit of pleasing people can leave HR without the support it needs. The real problems they face won't just go away with enough positive thinking. Either HR will handle them personally, or they'll escalate until other resources are required, causing much more trouble than a small complaint.

Complaints serve a purpose: when done constructively, they give people the feedback they need to make needed changes. So while you've never heard someone make a New Year's resolution to complain more, this might be a good one to pick up for 2017.

Habit #2: Sticking with History

This second habit is related to the first habit. HR has been around for more than a century, and it has developed some strong institutional habits. Since HR was created as a reaction to changing laws and attitudes, many HR departments have a legacy of being reactionary rather than proactive. There were time cards to record, strikes to resolve, actual pink slips to hand out. Technology has improved since those days, but the habits of handling day-to-day transactions have sunk in deep.

Whether you're an HR professional or looking to build your own business, take a moment to consider two points: why you need to accomplish a task, and how you accomplish that task. While no technology platform will ever completely replace a human at the head of Human Resources, automating the menial but essential tasks can help free time for more advanced concepts, like creating and communicating your organization's values or improving employee engagement.

Habit #3: Assuming No News is Good News

When HR spends all its time putting out fires and processing paperwork, they don't end up with a lot of bandwidth to take and receive feedback. This is unfortunate, because without effective feedback channels, HR is left on the defensive. For example, if an employee goes through the training process, it may be tempting to think that they've learned what they need to learn. But if there's no assessment between the end of training and a traditional annual performance review, that leaves plenty of time for misconceptions and mistakes to turn into permanent bad habits.

Whether you follow GE's example and implement a smartphone app or set up in-person feedback sessions between management and employees, encouraging honest, frequent feedback helps you make sure that your efforts are having their intended effect.


In the end, habits take control when we're too busy reacting to events to make a plan. Get into the habit of being proactive, and a whole new world of possibilities opens up for you and your organization.

Published on: Jan 31, 2017