The Greek historian, Plutarch, once said, “Character is a long-standing habit.”
But too often we associate character with something else. We think that our character isn’t defined by our routines and habits but by our bold action.
I see organizations take this approach as well. They think that culture can be changed in an instant with a bold inspirational message. But changing organizational culture, just like changing character, relies on changing long-standing habits.
In Leading Change by John P. Kotter, he talks about this in a section of the book titled Cultural Change Comes Last, Not First.
He says, “One of the theories about change that has circulated widely over the past fifteen years might be summarized as follows: The biggest impediment to creating change in a group is culture. Therefore, the first step in a major transformation is to alter the norms and values. After the culture has been shifted, the rest of the change effort becomes more feasible and easier to put into effect. “
I also have seen the emphasis on trying to change norms and values first. But this doesn’t work. We have to first attack the actions and behaviors. We have to look at process and routine. Just as with our personal habits, organizations have to focus on the things they are doing.
Kotter goes on to say, “Culture is not something that you manipulate easily. Attempts to grab it and twist it into a new shape never work because you can’t grab it. Culture changes only after you have successfully altered people’s actions, after the new behavior produces some group benefit for a period of time, and after people see the connection between the new actions and the performance improvement. Thus cultural change happens in stage 8, not stage 1.”
Kotter’s take is very insightful. It perfectly aligns with several experiences I have had working in organizations that are changing. Too often leadership misses the actions that need to change and underestimates the behavior changes that will need to take place.
But we all do this. This is the same with change in our personal lives. The behaviors and routine are very powerful, much more powerful than our frame of mind. We think we can simply think differently to reach a goal but the truth is that we have to act differently.
If we act differently consistently and for a long enough period, we will start to shift our thinking. It could easily be mistaken as a mental shift first but that isn’t really the case. First we have to make behavior shifts that sustain and result in success, and then our mindset catches up. But trying to simply change our mind in order to have our behavior change is backwards.
So if there is change that you would like to make, attack it by making small shifts in your behavior. Doing this for long enough will result in a shift in other areas. To me, that’s what Plutarch was driving at when he said, “Character is a long-standing habit.”