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Creating Lasting Change: What It Really Takes to Build New Habits in the Workplace

One of the greatest challenges of leadership is facilitating organizational change and development. While many initiatives begin with enthusiasm, lasting transformation proves far more difficult. What seems like a simple task of adopting a new routine or behavior often fails to stick. However, behavioral research illuminates the true process required for cultivating enduring modifications.

Today we will explore habit formation and offer practical, industry-specific examples for building new organizational practices.

Habit Formation Begins with Cue and Reward

According to behavioral scientists, habits rely on the association between a cue, routine, and reward (Lally & Gardner, 2013). The cue acts as a trigger prompting an automatic behavior. Upon executing the routine, the individual experiences a sense of reward - whether intrinsic satisfaction or external positive feedback. Over repeated pairings, this cue-routine-reward loop strengthens the habit (Wood & Neal, 2007). For new routines to stick, leaders must thoughtfully design the process to incorporate strong, consistent cues and meaningful rewards.

Develop Cues that are Clear and Consistent

At the outset, cues for a desired routine should be obvious to help associate the behavior. Consider an accounting firm aiming to encourage paperless billing. Leadership makes submitting digital invoices the only option, removes all physical printers, and prominently displays reminders about "Going Green." These tangible changes create a clear prompt for the electronic submission habit. Over time, as the routine establishes, cues can become more subtle. For lasting impact, ensure cues remain consistent rather than intermittent reinforcements which weaken associations (Lally et al., 2010).

Design Routines that are Simple Yet Impactful

For new behaviors to stick, the routine itself needs a low barrier to entry while providing value. Referring to the accounting example, digital billing submission involves only uploading files rather than printing, stuffing envelopes, etc. Its ease minimizes resistance. However, leaders also stress the routine's importance - how going paperless supports environmental and cost goals integral to the firm's mission and image. Finding the right balance of simplicity and meaning encourages lasting adoption (Lally & Gardner, 2013).

Ensure Rewards are Timely, Relevant and Reinforcing

To cement habits through positive feedback, rewards must follow the routine promptly while directly relating to it. In the example, the accounting software could provide an automatic message thanking staff for their paperless submission. Managers acknowledge such contributions during meetings. Celebrating environmental milestones keeps electronically filed invoices feeling rewarding and reinforcing over time (Wood et al., 2005). Properly executed, this cue-routine-reward association cultivates a sustainable new habit.

Overcoming Resistance through Communication

Change often faces pushback, so clear communication remains vital. Returning to the paperless initiative, leadership frames shifting norms as an opportunity rather than demands. Town halls allow answering concerns and celebrating early adopters. Testimonials from peers reinforce benefits like time savings. A Q&A forum maintains two-way dialogue. Consistent, positive messaging navigates resistance and builds buy-in critical for habit formation's longer term (Kotter, 2012).

While establishing new organizational routines requires careful planning and perseverance, behavioral science underscores that habits prove achievable through deliberate cue-routine-reward design. The following section offers further industry examples applying these evidence-backed principles.

Creating Sustainable Practices in Healthcare

In healthcare, championing better patient outcomes and staff well-being demands cultivating healthy habits. Consider a hospital encouraging nurses to take regular meal breaks amid hectic schedules. Cues include visually posted 30-minute timers and leaders verbally prompting breaks. The simple routine involves leaving the floor for the cafeteria. Rewards involve free, nutritious meals alongside colleague company, temporarily distancing from stressors. Over time, consistent breaks feel more automatic and support both individual wellness and engagement on the job.

For doctors, electronic health records prove integral yet daunting to adopt. The hospital establishes clear prompts through colored desktop backgrounds signaling to "Document Now" during appointments. Templates streamline the routine while colorful summaries highlight its impact - how records support care quality and reimbursements. Auto-populated fields minimize hassle. Monthly recognition of "E-Champions" keeps the electronic habit motivating long-term.

New Norms in Banking through Intentional Onboarding

Like other industries, cultivating desired behaviors from day one proves key for banks. For their Tellers, positive reinforcement proves especially impactful given direct customer interactions. Here, strong onboarding sets the stage, associating routines like making eye contact, smiling and using names as cues prompt friendly service essential to the brand. Roleplays allow practicing the routines until feeling automatic. Immediate feedback from Leaders using props like "Caught You Caring" cards reward those just starting to build the habit. Over time, positive customer responses themselves reinforce the sustainable new norms of exemplary service.

For Loan Officers too, building confidence benefits all stakeholders. Here the cue involves simple prompts on weekly one-on-ones with managers. The routine focuses on open-ended questions encouraging Officers to discuss even minor successes or setbacks. Rewards involve active listening plus specific, supportive feedback. This empathy-building association strengthens habits of vulnerability and help-seeking critical to officer wellness and performance - a true Win-Win for the individual and organization.


Transforming organizational culture demands more than announcements - it requires intentionally shaping new habits through evidence-backed principles. By thoughtfully designing cues, simple yet purposeful routines and immediate, reinforcing rewards, leaders guide lasting behavioral change. While obstacles invariably emerge, clear communication navigates resistance and builds momentum. With diligent, long-term commitment to this process, any industry can establish new norms facilitating optimal operations and outcomes. Habits prove the driver of deep transformation, and their formation, achievable.


  • Lally, P., & Gardner, B. (2013). Promoting habit formation. Health Psychology Review, 7(sup1), S137–S158.

  • Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C. H. M., Potts, H. W. W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998–1009.

  • Kotter, J. P. (2012). Leading change. Harvard Business Review Press.

  • Wood, W., & Neal, D. T. (2007). A new look at habits and the habit-goal interface. Psychological Review, 114(4), 843–863.

  • Wood, W., Tam, L., & Witt, M. G. (2005). Changing circumstances, disrupting habits. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88(6), 918–933.


Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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