How to Make a Habit of Evaluating

Word Nerd Alert! As I like to say, “The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.” According to Webster’s Online Dictionary, “Evaluate” means    1. To determine or fix the value of
2. To determine the significance, worth, or condition of, usually by careful appraisal or study.

I want to drill in a little bit more. One of the definitions of “Value” as a verb is “to rate or scale in usefulness, importance, or general worth.”

Putting these definitions together gives a pretty clear understanding of what most organizations mean by an annual evaluation. The boss, it is understood, has done an appraisal of the significance, importance, and general worth of the employee’s work and has rated it. S/he then shares that information with the employee. There are usually goals involved and often annual raises are tied to the evaluation.

If that’s all you do with your team you’ve missed a huge opportunity to engage them. That approach to evaluating turns the annual evaluation into something you have to sit through to find out if you’re getting a raise. There’s no engagement there.

Putting it to Work

Check out the Engager Dynamic called Evaluate where I talk about some specifics on how to conduct an evaluation. For this post I want to summarize a few key points.

  1. More Frequent than Annual – Remember when you were in High School and you received a Progress Report before the final Report Card came out? That Progress Report let you know how you were doing and gave you a chance to either continue your present habits or course correct before the grades that counted came out. Do the same for your employees. Give them at least quarterly progress reports.
  2. Connect to Purpose – the value of anyone’s work is measured in how it helps the team and/or organization achieve its purpose. Be sure you always connect the employee’s work to the value it brings to the organization.
  3. Focus on Improvement – In the Leadership Matrix, Evaluate is a Challenge Dynamic. This is a chance to tap the employee’s Drive to Mastery by giving them some coaching tips on how to improve their performance.

Making it a Habit

Try thinking of yourself as a coach. Coaches give players instructions and tips on how to improve their performance. Here are a couple ideas to help make Coaching (Evaluation) a habit.

  1. Daily – Put it in your calendar to walk around and observe people at work for the express purpose of catching them doing something right. When you do, let them know it. Stop them and privately tell them specifically what they did, how it helps the team/organization purpose and then thank them. After you’ve established the daily habit you can start to use this time to help people improve as well. If you notice something that doesn’t align with the purpose, privately remind them of the purpose and give them a tip on how to do that task in a way that is better aligned with it.
  2. Weekly – Let your team know that you will be observing them from time to time. Once a week put it on your calendar to observe a team member perform an entire process of their work. Afterward, ask them what went well. Then ask them what they would do differently next time. Affirm what you observed and add your own pointers. Remember, always tie coaching to purpose.
  3. Monthly – Once per month, invite a team member in for a brief coaching chat. Remind them of the purpose and expectations of the organization. Use this time to reinforce your best people in their behavior or to help realign those who are struggling.

Tip – If you take notes on all these conversations you will have created a great tool for doing your quarterly progress reports and the annual evaluation. Not only that, but you will have engaged your team by keeping them focused on the purpose and on continuously getting better at what they do.

How to Make a Habit of Recognition

“You showed up to work, you did your job, here’s your paycheck. That’s how we recognize people.” Maybe you’ve heard that. I have. Maybe you’ve said that. Many leaders take that approach to recognition. “What’s the big deal?” they wonder, “People get paid to do a job. Why do we need all this other stuff?” I get that. They believe that recognizing people sets the expectation that you have to pay people and then “bribe” them to do what you need them to do.

The challenge is that this approach can lead to getting only the job description done. Employees may adopt the attitude, “I’ll do what you pay me to do. Anything else is not my job.” What if, instead of that attitude, people put in their extra, discretionary energy and creativity to improving the organization? That’s what engaged employees do. They spontaneously help their co-workers and other departments in addition to doing their job. They think about how to improve things and offer suggestions. They bring added value to the organization. It’s the leader’s job to engage them.

Putting it to Work

Look back at the Leadership Matrix. The “Challenge” side of the matrix is where leaders push their employees to achieve more than they thought they could. The “Connection” side is where they give them the energy to do it. Recognition is one of those energizers. When people go the extra mile, letting them know you appreciate it encourages them and others to keep doing it.Recognition can backfire. It is not something you can do half-heartedly or add on as a flavor-of-the-month program. If you do, it will do more to de-motivate your team than motivate them. When done well, however, it can breathe life into your organization. Doing it well means recognition should be:

  1. Immediate – in-the-moment recognition is the most powerful because the link between the action and award is so strong. Employee of the Month should be based on an accumulation of in-the-moment recognitions
  2. Clear – Everyone should know what it takes to be recognized. Make the criteria as objective and measurable as possible. This keeps you away from the claim of favoritism.
  3. Guided – Recognize things that improve your team’s or organization’s performance measures and provide a return on investment. Recognition costs money. It should be money spent to make more money by improving revenue or reducing cost.
  4. Personal – People receive recognition in different ways. Make your recognition program as personal as possible. Many organizations award something (coupons, tickets, “Company Money”) that can be exchanged for a prize of the recipient’s choice.

You can kick it up a notch by adding a contest element. Create scoreboards to let individuals and teams know where they stand and where the organization stands on it’s goals.

Making it a Habit

Here are a couple tips for making Recognition a habit:

  1. Master the use of “Please” and “Thank You” – When you say “please” you are recognizing that someone has other things to do and acknowledging their discretionary effort. It’s that discretionary effort you want to tap to engage them. When you say “thank you” you are recognizing the effort that person made to do what you requested. Sometimes that’s all the recognition a person wants.
  2. Daily say, “I really appreciate it when you …” – make it part of your day to stop and tell someone what you appreciate about what they do. Be sure you let them know how it adds value to the team and organization. Connect it to the Mission or team goal.
  3. Discover your people’s interests – know what your people care about and how they like to be recognized. You can do this formally by using some of the available personality inventory tests or interest surveys. You can also do it informally by asking how someone’s weekend went. What they choose to tell you says a lot about their interests. Knowing these things will help you make recognition more personal (see #4 above).

These are informal things you can do to become a person who recognizes people. That’s where all of the Engager Dynamics start. They start with becoming the kind of person who does the things that engage people. It’s your habit. That’s what makes you a great leader.

How to Make a Habit of Qualitizing

Every organization is made up of a series of systems. Like the human body with its various systems, each distinct, each contributing to the health and function of the body/organization. Systems, in turn, are made up of components and processes. The components are the parts that make up the system like the heart, arteries. veins, and capillaries, or the raw materials, people, tools, and forms. Processes are what the system does with those components to achieve an outcome.

Qualitize is what we do to improve either the components or the processes (or both) of any system in our organization. To qualitize is to make something high quality. Quality goods or services are the result of quality components and quality processes. Good quality lifts people. Poor quality drifts people. When your team or organization produces excellent quality work the people know leaders pay attention and care about what they do. When the work is poor quality it signals the opposite and people’s attitudes and performance drift. Your best employees may eventually drift away from your organization.

Putting it to Work

There are really only two things you can do to improve the quality of your product or service. Improve the components or improve the process. Identify an output you want to improve. What one thing, if better than it is now, would bring the greatest return to your organization? This would be a great time to employ the habit called Solicit (see my last post).

Now map out the process in a flow chart. It’s best to do this with a team of stakeholders. List every step in sequence along with the owner of that step and any other components (people are components, too) such as parts, forms, equipment, etc.

Now that you have a visual map of the process with a list of components, decide where there are constraints or bottlenecks in the process or inferior components that are causing a poor quality outcome. Work on the most obvious one(s) first and measure the improvement. then, as they say on the shampoo bottles, “Rinse and Repeat.”

Making it a Habit

In my post on the Engager Dynamic called Qualitize, I mentioned the saying, “The standard you walk by is the standard you set.” In other words people will usually raise or lower their performance to meet your expectations. If you “walk by” poor quality work and say or do nothing about it, they assume you don’t care and that becomes the new standard.

Your job as the Engager is to set the tone of continuous improvement. A great place to start is with you. Set a consistent time in your day when you will work on you. Read a good business book, take a class, join a peer group. Do something that will help you grow as a leader. Casually let people know what you’re up to and that you’re doing it to continuously improve yourself.

I was talking with an Operations Manager recently who took self-improvement to the next level. He knew he was having challenges with some members of his team. He had attended a class on Organizational Communication and decided to put some of those ideas to work. He sat with his team and asked for honest feedback on how he comes across when he communicates. There was some hesitation at first but then the floodgates opened. It was not a comfortable session, kind of like self-performing exploratory surgery. But he came out of it grateful for the feedback and ready to improve. That sets a tone for his team that will benefit him, his team, and his organization.

You can also work on you by habitually asking yourself, “Is this my best work?” Don’t send an email or submit a report or send a text without double checking to see how you could improve it. Never have a conversation at work that you haven’t planned for. Think through how you could best engage in the interaction. You can do this even if you’re not planning for a specific conversation. You can scenario plan for types of conversations or conversations with certain people. If a conversation is spontaneous and you can’t plan for it, replay it in your mind and think about how to improve the next one. That’s especially true of phone calls.

Another step in setting the tone of continuous improvement is to make it one of your team’s cultural beliefs. Once you’ve begun to lead by example, start talking about continuous improvement as “the way we do things around here.” Start asking the question, “Is this your best work?” Reference continuous improvement as the reason you’re asking.

Many leaders believe people are generally lazy and don’t care about doing quality work. While there may be a certain lethargic comfort to mediocrity, if you make Qualitize your habit you’ll find the dullness will begin to fade, People’s eyes will brighten and there will be a buzz of excitement born out of the pride your people will take in the great quality of their work.

How to Make a Habit of Soliciting

Think of something. Anything. Chances are, whatever you thought of started with an idea. Someone, somewhere said, “I have an idea.” “Everything begins with an idea.” — Earl Nightingale

Your organization started as someone’s idea. The way you do a certain thing is a manifestation of an idea about how it should be done. In my post on the Engager Dynamic called “Solicit,” I talked about where the best ideas about improving work come from. They usually come from your front-line employees. The ones who have their hands on the work everyday most often have great ideas about how to make it better, easier, more efficient, higher quality, safer.

Putting it to Work

There are many ways to collect employee ideas. You could use the old standard “Suggestion Box” located in a prominent place. You could send out questionnaires or surveys on paper or using one of the online survey tools. SurveyMonkey is one I’ve used many times with success. There are also web based programs designed to make suggestion collection easy. Collecting suggestions is only part of the path. Once you have several ideas you need to take action. Failure to acknowledge and act on ideas will shut down the innovative participation of your team. Here are a few suggestions about action steps you can take:

  1. Form a team – if you don’t already have something like this in place, form a small team of 8 – 12 people. Front line employees should be represented on the team, preferably from a cross-section of your group. You should also include at least one supervisor and a manager. Call it something cool. I’ve heard of PIT Crew (Process Improvement Team) and UBT (Unit Based Team) for example. This team will perform the next steps.
  2. Pick 1 or 2 ideas – have your small team select the best 1 or, at the most, 2 ideas as projects. Define the criteria you’ll use to select the projects like “easiest to implement,” “most return on investment,” or “biggest impact on department morale.”
  3. Define your Measurements – you need to know how you measure what you’re trying to improve. These measurements are usually expressed as some ratio, injuries x 200,000 / Actual hours worked, for example, is the formula for a safety incident rate. It could be complaints per department or calls per hour depending on your work. Establish the baseline. “Right now we’re producing x parts per hour” or whatever it may be.
  4. Establish Goals – what does improvement look like? Set two goals. One is the minimum improvement required to decide the idea is worth implementing. The second is a stretch goal, a “What if we could get to this level?” kind of goal.
  5. Conduct a Small Test – use the PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Adopt or Adapt or Abandon) model. Plan a test of your project idea in a small area and/or for a short time. Make sure you are able to collect enough measurable data during your test. Do the test. Check the results along the way as they come in and at the end of the test. What do the results tell you?
  6. Act – the test results will determine what the “A” stands for, which action you will take. You will decide the ideas was great and you should adopt it across the organization or the results will suggest another course of action. You may find you want to adapt it and run another test to see if a small adjustment will improve the results. Or, you may decide the idea won’t work and you abandon it and move on to another project.
  7. Communicate – this should run all the way through the steps. Communicate with your whole organization about forming the team, about the project you’re working on, the goals, the test and then the results. Explain the “Why” for each of the steps especially your action. Finally, be sure to celebrate the team and the originator of the idea. If you adopted the idea give credit to the person or group who came up with it for improving work for everyone. If you abandoned it, celebrate the innovative thinking. All this will encourage your people to continue sharing great ideas.

Making it a Habit

All the above is a formal way to make a habit out of Soliciting ideas from your employees as an organization. As a leader it’s important for you to be involved either directly on the team or showing your continuing support of the team as its sponsor. If you’re not on the team, check on their progress frequently.

There is something you can do to make “solicit” a habit on a more personal level, You know that greeting we often use, “How’s it going?” We usually just say that or something like it as a substitute for “Hello” and move on not expecting a meaningful answer. Why not make a slight adjustment to that? What if you made it a point to walk by your team members from time to time and say, “Hello.” Then ask, “What’s going well right now?” Take the time to listen. It wouldn’t hurt to write down a note, too. Then ask, “What one thing could we do to improve our work?” Definitely take notes on the answer to that question.

If you’ve done what I suggested in the previous section, you have a place to take the great idea(s) you’ve just received.People often have great ideas about how to improve work and the organization overall. Sharing those ideas and seeing them implemented is the very definition of Engagement. What will you do today to move yourself and your organization toward making “Solicit” a habit?

How to Make a Habit of Inspiring

Let me go full on “Word Nerd” for a minute. The word “Inspire” comes from two Latin words: In-, meaning “into” and spirare, meaning “to breathe.” the literal meaning is “to breathe into” (hence the picture of the balloon). It was originally used of a divine or supernatural being in the sense, “to impart a truth or idea to someone.” It’s pretty easy to see how it has come to mean so many things related to art, music, purpose, etc.

As an Engager Dynamic, Inspire means to generate enthusiasm (ooh, a word nerd alert for another time!) by connecting people’s work to a higher purpose. Hopefully, the mission or vision of your organization captures that sense of higher purpose.

Putting it to Work

Let’s start with your organization’s mission/vision. What is it? Here are some examples of inspiring vision statements:

  • Life is Good: To spread the power of optimism.
  • IKEA: To create a better everyday life for the many people.
  • Nordstrom: To give customers the most compelling shopping experience possible.
  • Cradles to Crayons: to provide children from birth through age 12, living in homeless or low-income situations, with the essential items they need to thrive – at home, at school and at play.
  • JetBlue: To inspire humanity – both in the air and on the ground.
  • Prezi: To reinvent how people share knowledge, tell stories, and inspire their audiences to act.
  • Southwest Air: To become the world’s most loved, most flown, and most profitable airline.

Hopefully, yours is as inspiring. That just makes it easier. If it’s not as inspiring, that’s OK. You think of an inspirational way to describe what you do. I saw a statement on the side of a truck that said, “We help the world keep its commitments.” I thought that was pretty good! What you do is not what you really do. That trucking company transports goods from one place to another. That may sound boring. But, they know their customers often tell their customers, “It will be there by Monday.” This trucking company is saying, “We’ll make sure it is.”

Your company’s product or service does something for your customers they can’t or choose not to do for themselves. What are you freeing them or allowing them or helping them to do? Make that into a short statement that people can connect to as inspirational.

Making It a Habit

Now, how does your team contribute to that inspiring vision? Are you the Accounts Payable department? Maybe it’s, “We keep the lights on so we can …” The point is to make sure your team members know how important their work is to the overall mission/vision of the organization.

Back to the word inspire, think of blowing up a balloon. You breathe into it, take a breath, breathe into it again and repeat until it is full and vibrant. This is what you do with your team, too. You talk to them regularly about the team mission/vision, about how they’re making it happen for the organization and the customers you serve. When you recognize them for great work, tie that recognition to how it contributes to the team’s mission. When you give re-aligning feedback, do the same thing. Post your team mission on a banner or posters around the work area.

If this isn’t something your used to, you may want to check out my posts on developing habits and Strengthening the Do and Don’t Muscle. If you make inspiring your people as natural as breathing you will have an engaged, productive, enthusiastic team.

How to Make a Habit of Equipping

Many companies have Policy and Procedure manuals. If you look at a Procedure from the manual, it will usually outline the Summary, Purpose, Scope or Responsible Parties, and Definitions associated with that particular procedure. Then, just before describing the steps in the procedure, it will list the required Tools and Equipment.

Now, imagine you are an employee preparing to do that procedure. You understand everything about the procedure including how critical it is to the business outcomes of your organization. But, you do not have nor can you find the “Required Tools and Equipment” to perform the procedure.

When I was in high school I had a screw put into my shoulder because of a sports injury. On the day my surgeon took the screw out, I was brought into the operating room. I was to be awake during the procedure. My surgeon, I guess he wanted to keep me relaxed with his sense of humor, got onto an intercom and asked, “Could you have maintenance bring me up a Philips-head screw driver, please?” Imagine!

What would it say to your employee about the organization if they didn’t have the proper tools and equipment to perform their work? The Leader who is an Engager makes certain that never happens.

Make It a Habit

In my post on the Engager Dynamic called Equip, I talked about two kinds of equipping, physical and mental. Unless you’re writing a brand new procedure the physical equipment is usually pretty straight forward. You list the required equipment and have processes in place to ensure it is available and in good working order.

Mental equipping means to prepare someone mentally for a particular purpose or task. This may not be as obvious. It would help if you could learn to look at your organization like an outsider.

In acute care hospitals, for example, where “Care Experience” is a critical measure of success, leaders will often sit down in an empty patient room and try looking at it like a patient or a patient’s family member. “What do they see when they sit here?” they ask trying to push through the familiarity bias of seeing the space everyday as a work environment. This helps them understand what they might do to improve the experience of their patients.

No matter what your organization does, looking at it from the perspective of a new employee will be extremely helpful in equipping your people mentally. Beyond the knowledge required to perform their job, what do they need to know about your organization to be successful? For example, they will need to know

  • Where things are (restrooms, cafeteria, break rooms, nearby restaurants for lunch, etc.)
  • Whom to contact (for finance, for Human Resources, for Benefits, for Operations, for IT support, for other technical support)
  • How to get their contact information
  • Cultural do’s and don’ts (what are they in your organization?)

Try to remember your first week. Which of these and which other questions or difficulties did you have? Write them down in order of priority or frequency of use. Now give that “cheat sheet” to each new employee. I suggest handing it to them in person and going over it with them rather than putting it into a “Welcome Packet.” That signals, with a personal touch, that you’re doing everything you possibly can to be sure they are successful as soon as possible. That, in turn, creates within them a subtle challenge to do everything they can to be successful as soon as possible. It’s a Win, Win!

How to Make a Habit of Training

“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” Aristotle

In my post on the Engager Dynamic – Train, I said that one of the mistakes leaders often make, when it comes to training, is to delegate it entirely to someone else. I believe it’s a mistake because there is no better time to make a strong connection with someone than when they’re learning something they care about from you. Employees care about learning what they need to be successful in their new job.

You don’t have to be the one who teaches them everything they need to know to be successful. Pick one thing you’re an expert at and spend some time with employees training them on that.

I know of one company, the largest of its kind in the country, where the CEO takes over an hour to engage with every New Employee Orientation class. His purpose is to share the history of the company which is over 50 years old and to connect with the group on what the company’s mission means to him. It’s genius! It doesn’t hurt that he’s a charismatic salesman, but the head of the company making himself available to it’s newest employees is training of the highest order. This is a leader who is an engager. He makes a connection with every new employee by inspiring them with the company mission.

Make it a Habit

What are the skills that got you to your current role? What are you best at? Chances are they’re things you care about so this should be fun. Pick one of those skills. Now ask yourself these questions:

  1. Why is this skill important?
  2. How did I learn this skill? (Not just who taught you but what steps did    you go through in the learning process?)
  3. What does excellent look like for this skill?

Now you have an outline to a training. Take some notes. Write down why the skill is important, how it connects to the mission/vision of the organization and what it does personally for the people who develop it.

Question number 3 above gives you what educators call a learning objective. Write this down next. When you’re training someone it’s good to let them know ahead of time what they’ll be able to do once they’ve completed the training.

Now, break down the skill into steps. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Have you ever been in a meeting where they did an icebreaker about giving or following directions? I’ve seen ones where you had to guide a blindfolded person through a maze with only verbal directions, or where you’ve had to write directions to building a Lego toy, or describe to someone how to draw a picture you’re looking at. It can be pretty funny because of how difficult it is to give clear directions.

You might want to try a “wax-on-wax-off” drill to improve this step. Write down the steps involved in brushing your teeth or getting dressed. Try it with several everyday things you do. Now, ask someone else to follow your written directions. Have some fun with it until you’re pretty good at writing clear, step-by-step instructions. Now, go back and re-write the steps to the skill you’re training on.

Put it to Work

You now have the most of a training prepared. You can put it into a Power Point presentation or simply organize your notes. Decide how long it will take to go through what you’ve put together. Figure out what hands-on practice you should provide as part of the training. Is this skill best learned one-on-one or can you train a group?

Now you need (a) trainee(s). Which of the people on your team could use the opportunity to develop this skill? Schedule time with them and go through your training. Receive their feedback and observe them using the skill later. What might you do to improve the training?

Finally, like the leader at the company I mentioned above, you may want to get yourself scheduled into New Employee Orientation as a regular presentation. To build on what Aristotle said, becoming excellent and helping people become excellent will make you a powerful engager.

How to Make a Habit of Setting Expectations

It’s been said, “Two things can destroy any relationship: Unrealistic Expectations and Poor Communication.” That’s especially true if communication is poor about expectations. In my post on expectation setting, I said that one of the most toxic killers of any relationship is unspoken expectations. Why would expectations go unspoken, especially at work? Two possible reasons are

  1.  Assumption – you assume people know the expectations either because “they should be obvious,” or, you believe someone else has already expressed them.
  2. Awareness – you may not be aware that you have a certain expectation.

What Do You Expect?

One of the first steps in making a habit of setting expectations is to identify your expectations. “Expectation” is defined as “A feeling or belief about how successful or good someone or something will (should) be.” So ask yourself, “What are my beliefs about how . . . should be done?” Here’s how you can identify those expectations you may not know you have. Ask yourself, “What do I find myself being irritated about at work? Let’s say it’s meetings. OK. Make a list of what irritates you about meetings. Maybe your list looks like this:

  1. People arriving late
  2. Side conversations distracting people and causing loss of focus
  3. People interrupting each other to make their point
  4. Disrespectful non-verbal communication
  5. People going on tangents
  6. Meetings take too long

You’re irritated about these things because you have an underlying expectation (feeling or belief) about how they should be. Now, turn each of those irritations into a statement of expectation.

Meeting Expectations

  1. Everyone will arrive to meetings on time
  2. Everyone will remain attentive to the discussion on the table
  3. Everyone will demonstrate courtesy during meetings by allowing a speaker to finish their point before speaking
  4. Everyone will demonstrate a respectful attitude
  5. Everyone will remain on topic. Side topics will go onto the parking lot for later discussion
  6. Everyone will adhere to the agenda so meetings will end on time

You may even want to include some accountability signals. For example, if someone does not meet expectation #1 Arrive on time, they have to sing a solo in front of the rest of the group. I’ve seen this work wonders at getting people to meetings on time! For the rest you may simply establish a further expectation that anyone can respectfully remind attendees of the expectation they are violating at any point during the meeting. If it’s your meeting, you certainly can do that.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

That was pretty easy. Now you have to let people know what the expectations are. You need to communicate. You may want to do the following:

  1. Email team members (or anyone who may attend meetings in your organization) a notice letting them know what the new Meeting Expectations are along with the accountability signals. It would be helpful to include a statement of why you are implementing these expectations. In the interest of respect for people’s time and points of view and for the efficiency of meetings, for example.
  2. Send out agendas for meetings ahead of time. Include the list of Meeting Expectations on every agenda.
  3. Make a poster of the Meeting Expectations and hang one in every meeting room for all to see.

Now you’ve communicated your expectations three different ways. If you model these expectations and consistently use the accountability signals you’ve developed, you will find yourself a lot less irritated at meetings. Even better, you’ll find your teams more engaged and productive when they meet.

Making It a Habit

If your habit has been to be vague and imprecise about expectations, how do you change that habit? First, take a look at my posts on exercising the Do and Don’t muscles and on general Habit Formation. Then, set up your habit change routine. Identify your “whistle” (see Habit Formation). Practice the skill – for example, identify the underlying belief of a frustration and turn it into a statement of expectation. Reward yourself. Repeat on a daily basis.

Not every one of the expectations you discover will be about work and some, you may find, are unrealistic. That’s actually a good thing. Learning to clearly articulate your expectations will help you engage the people who need to know what you expect. It will also help you abandon those expectations that are unrealistic which is definitely good for engagement.

Habit Formation and the Do and Don’t Muscles

We’ve all heard of the character trait called Self-Control. Self-Control has two sides. The most familiar side of Self-Control is (Like our dog friend in the picture) keeping yourself from doing things you would normally do. The other side of this trait is less often thought of as self-control, but it is. It’s making yourself do things you wouldn’t normally do. I think of it as two muscles. I like to call them the “Do Muscle” and the “Don’t Muscle.” Like any other muscle, these can be exercised.

When you’re learning a new sport, you often stretch and flex muscles you haven’t normally used. Many times in ways seemingly unrelated to your sport. For example, lifting weights has nothing to do with the game of football other strengthening muscles you need to play the game. In the same way, you can strengthen your “Do Muscle” and your “Don’t Muscle” in ways seemingly unrelated to the specific habit you’re trying to change. Do you remember “Wax on, Wax off” from the original movie “The Karate Kid?” It’s very much like that.

This quote has been attributed to different people. I don’t think anyone really knows where it came from but it is powerful nonetheless.

Watch your thoughts, for they become . . . habits.
Watch your habits, for they become character.
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”

Exercises For Your Habit Muscles

If you’re thinking about developing, or even changing some habits (and shouldn’t we all?!), Here are two “Wax-on-wax-off” exercises that will help with many habits:

Memorize: This exercise will strengthen your “Do Muscle” and help with many habits because it focuses on their source: thoughts. Find a particularly meaningful passage of literature; it could be Sacred Text, Poetry, a Motivational Writing, anything positive. Simply work at memorizing it word-for-word. Ideally, choose something several paragraphs in length and break it down into smaller sections so that you work on it in bits until you have the whole thing memorized. This will help restructure and re-focus your thinking. It may sound unusual but try it and see.

Wait: What?! Yes . . . Wait. This exercise will strengthen your “Don’t Muscle” and help with many habits because it focuses on a huge source of stress: hurry. When you are in traffic or at the store, get into the longest line on purpose and wait. As human beings we have a unique ability to think about our thinking. Educators call it meta-cognition. While you’re waiting in line or in traffic observe your physical and emotional responses. Observe your thoughts. What are they? Why are they what they are? As you evaluate your responses you will develop the ability to hush the hurry that may be the source of habits you want to change.

You could even work both muscles at the same time by reciting the passage you’re memorizing while you wait (I recommend doing this silently rather than out loud unless you’re alone in your car!). As you practice this over time you’ll notice changes in your responses and maybe even in the way you schedule your day.

Again, these are “Wax on, Wax Off” exercises. These are weight-lifting for your Habit Muscles. They don’t directly develop a specific skill you want to make automatic. But they do develop the self-control that will. Try it and see. I’d love to hear about your results.

Make It A Habit

Have you ever driven home from somewhere, maybe you were deep in thought about a significant event, and when you arrived, you couldn’t remember actually driving home? It’s kind of scary, but it happens. How can that happen? Habit.

If you’ve been driving for over a year, think through how you drive away from your home. What steps do you follow to get into the car and drive away? Chances are, you had to think about it for a minute to even break it down into steps. Then you probably realized that you follow the same steps in sequence each time you drive away. That’s because much of the mechanics of driving (knowing how to make the car go forward or in reverse, how to speed up and slow down and how to stop and steer) have become habit for you.

What is A Habit?

Habits are those things we do without having to think about it. Some habits form simply because of repetition. We do the same thing in the same way enough times and we eventually don’t have to think about it. We just do it.

There are other habits, though, that we form on purpose. In my last post, for example, I mentioned learning to dance, play an instrument and sports. But there is also the military and police. Have you ever heard someone from the military or police or any first responder being interviewed as a hero who said that in the face of danger, “The training kicked in and I just did what I had been trained to do?” That’s all habits.

Anatomy of a Habit

We want to talk about how to form new habits. To do that it’s helpful to understand how habits work. There is a lot of material out there from blogs to scientific research papers. To summarize it, there are three parts to a habit. They are:

Reminder (also called cue or trigger) – The traffic light turns green, for example
Response – You initiate the sequence to start driving again
Reward – You resume progress toward your destination (and the person behind you doesn’t honk)

You know its a habit because, when the light turns green, you don’t have to think, “Check the distance from the car in front of me, have they started moving, release pressure on the break, move my foot to the accelerator, apply just enough pressure to increase speed to match the acceleration of the car ahead …” You just do all that–probably while singing along with that song on the radio or talking on the phone.

When you’re learning skills for sports, for example, often the Reminder is the coaches whistle, the Response is performing whatever skill you’re learning and the Reward is the coach saying, “Good Job!” or correcting you and you getting better.

How Does It Work?

When you are trying to form new personal or work habits, you have to take on the role of coach for yourself. Once you’ve identified the skill you want to make into a habit, you need to find your whistle and reward.

Say you wanted to develop a habit of writing every day. The best advice is to start small. As one writer put it, “Make it so easy you can’t say no.” For example, decide you want to write one sentence every day. That’s the skill you want to develop.

Now, coach, you need a whistle. What will trigger you to work on that skill? How about your morning coffee or tea? OK? So, when you take that first sip, let that be your signal to write one sentence. Great!

Now, what’s in it for you? What’s your reward? Try Jerry Seinfeld’s strategy. Get a large calendar and put it up where you will see it every day. Every time you have your coffee and write a sentence, put a big red “X” through that day. Your reward will be seeing the unbroken chain of “Xs” grow (not to mention all the cool sentences you’ve written). Once you get the habit going you can easily add another sentence, then another and so on until you’re writing a paragraph a day or for a certain period of time every day.

Well done! In coming posts we’ll talk more specifically about developing habits that will make you more of an Engager at work.