How to create and maintain positive habits for the workplace

This is the fourth and last of a series focused on how to transfer learning into on the job application and results from Practical Training Transfer.

Everyone knows that creating and maintaining positive habits is tough. Children need to be persuaded to brush their teeth, engineering companies have compliance regulations to make sure safety equipment is used, and restaurants put signs up to remind staff to ‘Wash your hands now’. In business though, creating habits doesn’t refer to single actions, instead it’s about connecting small habits to create useful skill-sets that can be used in daily work such as coaching and giving feedback to team members.

Why it’s important to take notice of this problem

Let’s think about that essential manager skill-set of coaching and giving feedback more closely. When a manager coaches a team member or gives feedback, she needs to listen actively, use specific language and avoid negative words, use ‘I’ statements instead of ‘you’ statements, include positives, and give constructive suggestions.

If all those habits and others aren’t combined in a single conversation, then coaching can fall flat, and feedback can appear to be aggressive or confrontational. This is one reason why most coaching and feedback falls into the ‘negative’ category. We should ask ourselves, why isn’t it easy to do simple tasks and what are the negative outcomes of not doing them?

Using our coaching and feedback example, people probably feel overconfident in their own abilities to use the skills or see the individual skills as easy to master. People might think ‘Using ‘I’ instead of ‘you’ statements, that’s easy’, or ‘I’m a pretty good active listener’, or ‘It can’t be that tricky to give constructive feedback to my team’.

Also, if people haven’t practiced new skills enough or don’t know how to adapt them to their specific situations, they might revert to their old ways of doing things, especially when the habits are difficult to maintain.

The effect of things like overconfidence or reverting to type are easy to see. As habits improve efficiency and working practices, not using them well causes friction and delays. We know that in the heat of the moment it’s hard to use new skills. So, how can we turn those skills into habits?

How we overcome this problem at work

Helping learners create positive habits and so expand their skill-sets is an area which can be highly influenced by us as learning designers. It’s possible to construct a whole program dedicated to creating skill-sets through a few simple ideas. There are four design tactics that we use to develop strong skill-sets through creating habits.

The first tactic is to set the whole program up for success. We make sure that the learner’s managers get a summary of the program so that they are aware of the need to practice skills and to allow time for practice. We also get learners to outline exactly how they will use their skills once the training is finished. In this way we have already set the groundwork for practice and application.

Secondly, we set the learning up in short cycles so that people learn a new skill in class and are allowed time to practice outside class in a sprint over a few days before the next cycle starts. In this way we introduce skills in bite-sized chunks and encourage speedy practice before adding a new skill to the set.

The third tactic is to have clear goals set for each cycle of learning. Learners write their goals out at the start of the cycle and review those goals at the end. The purpose of that is to make sure that targets are concrete and can be reviewed objectively.

Finally, we set up the specific practice activities and use technology to practice the skills. The technology can be a phone with built in apps or we can ask learners to download an app that records their practice activities so that it can be shared and reviewed by peers from the training program.

Hints and tips about what you can do to combat this problem

If you are planning to learn a new skill, the first thing you should ask yourself is, is what I am learning only used in specific situations, like making and giving a presentation, or can it be broken down into smaller habits that are used in general work?

If you decide that the answer is the latter, then you can set yourself up for success by doing a few simple things.

The first thing is to break the skill into smaller pieces as we did with the manager coaching and feedback example. Whether it’s time management, efficient working practices, or effective communication skills, start by separating the overall task into smaller pieces and call those pieces habits.

The second thing you should do is to make a plan. Now that you have identified the habits you need to adopt, create cycles where you can observe or learn the habit and practice it until you are confident that you can add a new habit to the previous one. When you do the practice be sure to record your efforts so that you can personally review what you have done.

Finally, try to involve other people. Asking other people to review your practice activities will allow for feedback which you can use to improve your habit. When you do that, ask for specific feedback to avoid any confusing comments. It’s pretty good practice to learn habits with other people so that you can move forward together. So, break the skill you want to learn into habits, set the practice cycles up, get some feedback, stick to your plan and good luck.

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