Studies show that quitting smoking and losing weight spread through networks like diseases do. Many other behavioral changes work similarly.

If you lead, you change behavior in yourself and others. You may find changing teams may change someone's behavior more than trying to change them directly.

Here's relevant research:

From Harvard Medical School and the University of California, San Diego, based on studying a social network of over 12,000 people over 32 years:

Over the past 30 years, the number of smokers in the United States has steadily decreased--a tribute to the efforts of public-health workers everywhere. And while this fact is indisputable, less obvious are the social and cultural forces that lead an individual to kick the habit. In fact, when someone crumbles that last empty pack of their favorite brand and vows to never buy another, he might not realize that he is less like the heroic individual grasping his own bootstraps and more like a single bird whose sudden left turn is just one speck in the larger flock.

I highlighted how much harder the social part of changing a habit can be because we can use it to work for us too. I like academic studies, but we don't just want information. We want to use it to improve our lives and businesses.

Instead of trying to change ourselves against a flock, we'll change more effectively by finding a new flock. Or, as leaders, creating new flocks for people we lead.

If you want to influence someone to, say, become more punctual, instead of trying to change them directly, try teaming them with a team that's already consistently punctual.

Obesity research at Brown University found similar trends. According to the lead author, Tricia Leahey,

In our study, weight loss clearly clustered within teams, which suggests that teammates influenced each other, perhaps by providing accountability, setting expectations of weight loss, and providing encouragement and support.

In other words, we're social and we respond to social cues.

Make behavior you want into habits

Trying to change behavior through willpower alone rarely works in the long term. Willpower gives out. New behavior sticks in the long term when you make it automatic.

The lesson of the research is to use your relationships or make new ones to reinforce the behaviors you want.

Make your habits social, and therefore contagious

Think of the behaviors you have now that you like. Maybe some habits you like started out of the blue, but I bet you "caught" many from friends and peers, which then you passed to others.

Think of how you started them:

  • Do you have a behavior you love that was hard to start but now habitual?
  • Did you learn it from someone?
  • Are you grateful to them and think about them when you do it?
  • Did you pass it to someone?
  • Does that passing help sustain you?
  • Are they grateful to you?

Do you see how the person who passed it to you helped create it and helps you maintain it? Likewise, do you see how your passing it on helped create more of it in your world and thereby help sustain it?

The lesson: Interact with people with the behavior you want

If you wanted to catch a cold or flu, how would you do it? You'd spend time with people with colds and flus.

If you want to "catch" weight loss, do the same thing: spend time with people who have lost weight. It's a lot more effective than trying to do it on your own, especially if no one around you has the weight-loss "disease."

If you want your team to "catch" producing quality results, have them spend time with teams who consistently produce quality. It's a lot harder a habit to start from scratch. 

When you want to create a habit, think of who already does it, interact with them, and "catch" their habit. Lead your teams the same way.

You'll also want to keep away from people with the habits you don't want.

Quarantine them.