Social Habit Loops

Here’s a common scenario in organizations struggling to increase openness and collaboration:

Aaron figures out a work around in a finance system that will save time and money. Knowing it’s value, he emails the information to his manager, Susan. Susan acknowledges Aaron’s innovation in a glowing reply. Aaron continues to use the new process but the organization gains little.

Aaron’s organizational communication system has conditioned him to act automatically and maybe unconsciously. His habit is one where when he finds relevant information, he shares it in a way that provides him a reward. This is the Habit Loop Charles Duhigg wrote of in his book, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business“, and I think it holds the key to helping organizations advance their efforts to be more cooperative and collaborative.

Duhigg wrote of the powerful habit loops we all have, claiming that as much as 45% of our behaviors are unconscious habits; from how we brush our teeth to our drive to the office and maybe even how we communicate. The habit loop is defined as having a “cue” or trigger which begins a “routine” to achieve a “reward”. In his book he shared a negative habit story of going to the cafeteria at a certain time each day and buying a sugary treat. Surprise! After much analysis it wasn’t the donut being craved, it was socialization with peers. The reward for this routine of walking to the cafeteria each day around the same time was getting to chat with friends. To get healthier, one just needs to alter the routine so that socialization takes place in a calorie free context.

Companies moving to social platforms usually aren’t factoring in the habits and systems that reinforce these habits. Most come at deploying an ESN either by a large scale roll-out with active C suite involvement or a grassroots, slower start focused on business use cases. Each of these can lead to adoption but not necessarily long-term behavior change which means the business value won’t be achieved.

In the simple organizational scenario I gave above, it’s Susan, the manager, that needs to address her habit loop not Aaron. Helping Aaron to share openly is a tall order, since the reward for his behavior is Susan’s approval and there may be a expectation system at play to reinforce this. Aaron has shared and may want to help others but his system reinforced, automatic action is to send an email to Susan because communication is up and down the silo only. This is very efficient for individual recognition but ineffective for altering company performance as we know. Here’s what Aaron’s possible habit looks like:

My advice – Susan needs to change her routine to change Aaron’s. In an organization our habits are often intertwined; one person’s routine is another’s cue. Susan needs to kindly reject Aaron’s informational emails as part of her routine change. She needs to get this into the open by pushing the email back to Aaron to post in the ESN. It won’t change Aaron’s habit if she posts it for him. If however Aaron begins posting directly on the platform, Susan will see and praise openly. In a perfect world Aaron changes his routine and still gets his reward, Susan is rewarded with a happy, motivated employee and others throughout the organization see the interaction and mimic (it’s Social after all).

Susan’s routine change can alter Aaron’s habit loop:

I realize that the example is small and simple but it’s meant to remind that there is more at play than CEO buy-in and cool tool features. Social is much more about psychology and sociology than technology. In a budding social organization, one person’s routine is another’s cue and it’s often this loop of interrelated actions where lasting transformation can happen like a socially supported chain reaction.

If your organization is an email focused, knowledge hoarding, top down, permission first culture – then examining the human systems and the collective habits working within these systems is the key to change. Systems->Behaviors->Beliefs->Culture.

Silos Are Chosen, Not Imposed

It’s been an interesting week in the midst of the national anthem kneeling controversy here in the US. In two separate circumstances a close and a distant friend on Facebook decided to unfriend or block me when I politely disagreed with their “it’s an insult to the military” stand. It took only my one shortdissenting point for them to “shout” at me and cut me off from their safe, ego-stroking echo chambers. Those within the conversation threads do not know that I was blocked but rather probably assume I whimpered away with my tail between my legs. All within now rest easy as uncomfortable dialog was avoided, loved ones empowered, and complex issues made simple. The lesson: Shout loud, shout angrily, and have the last word.

Little Children

The action each of these people took surprised me, one more than the other stung as it was my childhood friend, but I was left seeing them both still as children; not getting their way (a unified voice of support) they chose to slam the door and stomp away. No matter how you feel about politics or The President of the United States, this was his strategy throughout the campaign and even today; shout, shout angrily, and have the last word. No debate, no dialog, no conversation. Mr. Trump’s behavior is disturbing but it is more clearly a reflection of much of our society.

We Live in Silos
The silo analogy, like the idea of the echo chamber, is an easy one to understand in both life and the world of work. It comes from agriculture – silos of different grains sit spaced across expansive fields, separated, isolated, contained. And although structures exist to contain people in similar homogeneous groups; Social technology where we can choose our “friends” and in organizational departments with unique responsibilities and processes, we do ultimately have the choice to be open-minded and engaging with others… but we often refrain for emotional reasons in one and economic reasons in the other.

A silo mentality can occur when a team or department shares common tasks but derives their power and status from their group. They are less likely to share resources or ideas with other groups or welcome suggestions as to how they might improve. Collaboration in a business culture with silos among teams or departments will be limited, unless collaboration benefits the members of the department. In addition, the members of a silo tend to think alike. They get their power from association with their function and their shared technical knowledge.

– Audra Bianca
Where Difference is Divisive 

I’ve been striving to dissolve these business silos with my work in social technologies over the years. I have helped my own company’s people understand and use technology to find others, find resources and share more openly. The company leadership always welcomes it as they believe correctly that it will help them remain agile, keep people engaged and lead to innovative solutions. However, they quickly realize the organization’s culture stands in the way. No org culture is one where people are shouting however snuffing out difference is still accomplished. Organizations have systems that separate and prevailing beliefs that hoarding knowledge leads to power, failing is not acceptable, and being wrong is a sign of weakness. Their people seek agreement not because it is the right approach but because they don’t want to be ostracized and seen as difficult. So debate is suppressed, monologue is chosen over dialog, and conversation is contained.

Sorry, technology is not going to save us, it only reinforces who we really are. In the end I don’t care about the national anthem debate, I care about social justice and I really care that there is no debate happening. We cannot advance social or even organizational issues without being ego-less, honest, humble and open… which ironically is the natural state of being a child.

Social Tech Made Easy Makes for Soft Social

When we want to improve our health, we often have to make small, difficult choices like climbing the stairs rather than taking the elevator. Similarly, if we want to improve our organizations we need to make small, difficult choices like starting a debate, engaging the strangers within other departments, and being critically honest.

Enterprise Social could do better by doing less. In an effort to make social tech more like public social tools, vendors have actually made the tools less social by making them easier and familiar. Yes, ease of use is positive as it is all about adoption but adoption is the vendor’s end game, it can’t be the goal of organization. For example by simply “liking” or adding a GIF or emoji as a comment, we end the potential for conversation before it can really start. This is fine outside the organization as people flit from post to post in Facebook, yet how many times have you seen anyone there ask “I see you liked my comment. Why?” Maybe it was obvious but maybe not. And similarly when we choose to hold critical discussions in private groups, groups typically formed around function or departments, we cripple the opportunity for diverse opinions and ideas – those things that truly advance organizations.

Given the dismal state of employee satisfaction/ engagement today, should the goal of social tech be only to help get work done or do we want to have it help us challenge how and what work gets done?

If you want to make things better the next time you have something to share or something to add, remember that although the elevator is available, you can and should take the stairs.

But It Won’t Scale

Chat platforms like Slack are still the darling social tool of startups. A former colleague of mine working in a small, geographically dispersed startup noted “I can’t imagine work with out it.” The criticism of chat platforms however is that they won’t scale if a company of 20 becomes one of 200. Functionally speaking, this is probably correct. It’s a team tool and typically as an organization grows teams divide and functional groups and departments form. If Slack remains, it’s a get work done tool, not a cross company communication, learning, large-scale collaborating, innovation tool; a tool to help the company remain agile.

However to start by identifying its shortcomings and labeling Chat platforms as the wrong solution long term is missing a huge point. What can scale, because of its use, is attitudes about social tech and it’s value to an organization. A small group is the nucleus of a growing organization and chat platforms help make social activity a part of the company’s day-to-day, not apart from it. This is something that’s very difficult to grasp in large enterprises that try desperately to plug in an ESN after living on email for decades – here, social is perceived as a separate activity from work and it’s typically a long slog to get the tech adopted let alone help adapt or even alter their work.

In today’s chat tool leveraging startups and small enterprises I suspect cultural DNA is being rewired for greater social, so even if chat platform like Slack don’t scale, the attitudes, the belief and the value of social will.

Technology will fade, ideas rarely do.

Social Atrophy: Know the Signs

When small, an organization is typically vibrant and innovative. Employees are engaged, connected and feel a part of something special – I know, I was part of that once. However, as the organization grows, these attitudes and behaviors can change; the environment becomes more closed, leadership moves out of the day-to-day, work is less visible, connections grow but each becomes a weaker relationship. This is social atrophy.

What’s the risk? Well, if you define social as community, collaboration and sharing then as these diminish, so too does the seeds of innovation which is a necessity in a rapidly changing marketplace.

I attempt to reveal the process in the image above (a revisit of my previous look at Social Atrophy). Notice when the organization is small that being human (sharing, collaboration, camaraderie, error tolerance) is a big part of the day-to-day and hierarchy is really in name only. As the organization grows however so too can the rigidity of hierarchy leading to a decline in humanity. The space between people grows as passion’s void is filled by many unnecessary policies and procedures.

Is this the case and course for every organization? I don’t think so, as each organization is very unique. However we can be more conscious of the decline of social at any level in an organization and head it off so as to not to reach the need of large scale, painful organizational culture change efforts.

Here are a few warning signs to consider:

  • Increasing rate of turn-over
  • Impersonal announcements of employee departures
  • Departments becoming insular
  • New layers of management appearing
  • Communication moves increasingly top down
  • Titles and roles become more important and desirable
  • “That’s not my job” over takes “I’ll do it”
  • Process becomes inflexible
  • Learning is seen as something to complete
  • Knowledge hoarding becomes the norm

Are all of these unavoidable? Are all equal in weight? I think not. For example process can be very important but when it is unquestioned over time it becomes a sacred cow and possibly a drag on business. The same can be said for new level’s of management. If the management philosophy and practice is open and transparent, then simply having more is not inherently a negative. So this list is not exhaustive or without it’s caveats of course but I am curious of what other signs of social atrophy have you seen? Has your organization addressed them or tried headed them off?