- Leandro Herrero - https://leandroherrero.com -

Habits have no meaning, they create it. Start with behaviours, get meaning

In my organizational consulting work, and in behavioural terms, I am very used to be told, and challenged, that there is no point to focus on behaviours (as we do with my team) if people ‘don’t mean it’. The conventional wisdom is that meaning is first (intellectually, from your heart) and then behaviours are the output, the consequence; that behaviours by people who ‘don’t really mean it’ are simple useless.

There is a logic behind. It is the Homo Sapiens logic. The well regarded view-of-our-selves that makes us feel superior, in full control of action.

This is however in contradiction with reality, where we all have every day plenty of things we do as habits which would be very difficult to associate to a ‘previous meaning’. We do things, we establish routines, and we don’t ask ourselves whether we mean them or not. We just do. This is important because behaviours are copied (Homo Imitans) and therefore good routines and habits, if collective, are likely to be copied and multiply. I have just described culture in a the above line.

With my behavioural hat, I prefer thousand times people establishing some habits, adopting some behaviours, whether they mean it or not ( and see afterwards the consequences of the circumstances that they themselves have created) than being stuck looking for the cognitive full understating first. Translation: for example, in large scale organizational change, start adopting some key behaviours, creating some critical mass and then ‘find the meaning’. I know that this is unconventional and a bit counter intuitive in traditional organizational development. I also know that Homo Sapiens readers don’t interpret this as a rejection or dismissal of cognition, reflection and critical thinking. Far from it. But in organizational terms we cannot simply wait for the sequence understanding-internalization-emotional integration-aha!-action, for everybody on the payroll.

My point is routines and habits create meaning, at least as much, if no more, than the other way around. People going to the gym every day become more aware of their health, more than people aware of their health decide to go to then gym. Religious rituals create belief, more than belief create religious rituals.

In large scale behavioural change, define key behaviours and make them live and multiply them; and don’t worry about whether people ‘mean them or not’. Meaning will come.

I know Homo Sapiens do not like this, but I am writing here on behalf of Homo Imitans [1].