EHS Today/Josh Cable
Charles Duhigg, author of 'The Power of Habit,' was the keynote speaker for Safety 2014's opening general session on June 9.

Safety 2014: Make Your Workplace Safer by Tapping into the Power of Habit

June 10, 2014
Charles Duhigg, a staff writer for the New York Times and author of “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business,” talked about the “emerging science of the neurology of habit formation” and its implications for the EHS profession.

“What we do everyday establishes the values that we live by, ” Charles Duhigg told attendees of the American Society of Safety Engineers’ 2014 Professional Development Conference and Expo in Orlando, Fla. “And that’s how cultural change really happens.”

Duhigg, a staff writer for the New York Times and author of “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business,” talked about the “emerging science of the neurology of habit formation” and its implications for the EHS profession.

Pointing to a Duke University study, Duhigg asserted that 40 to 45 percent of our daily actions are habits. Neurological research has shown that the brain “powers down” when in the midst of habitual behavior – with two exceptions.

According to a concept known as the “habit loop,” the brain experiences a surge in neurological activity when cued to begin the automatic behavior and when it receives a reward for the behavior. (Duhigg explained that habitual behavior has a three-part structure consisting of the cue, the routine itself and the reward.)   

“If you can figure out the cues and rewards around your employees’ behavior, around your family members’ behavior, around your own behavior, you can change the habits that shape how they live everyday,” Duhigg asserted.

Procter & Gamble learned this concept the hard way. The company’s odor-eradicating Febreze spray flopped initially, in part because its potential customers were desensitized to the bad smells in their homes.

“The problem [P&G] realized was they were selling a product with a cue – bad smells – that people didn’t know that they even had in their life,” Duhigg explained. “And it promised a reward – getting rid of bad smells – that had no reward value for the people who needed it the most.”

So P&G went back to the drawing board, analyzing video footage of people cleaning their homes. The product development team decided to “piggyback on existing habits” and reposition Febreze as a way “to reward yourself for doing a good job cleaning,” Duhigg said. P&G added more perfume to the spray and produced news ads that portrayed Febreze as a happy ending to a freshly cleaned room.

Today, Febreze is one of a dozen or so P&G products that generate $1 billion a year in sales.

“And this is the first big lesson: You have to make sure that the reward you’re giving to people is actually rewarding,” Duhigg said.

Keystone Habits

Changing certain habits can deliver more bang for the buck than other habits, Duhigg noted. For example, one study found that people who exercised ate healthier foods, used their credits cards less frequently, washed their dishes earlier than usual and procrastinated less.

“There’s something about exercise that makes it a keystone habit for many people [because] it sets off this chain reaction that changes other habits,” Duhigg said. “This is important because if you can identify the keystone habits within your company, it gives you a powerful lever for changing behaviors.”

Former Alcoa CEO Paul O’Neill demonstrated the power of keystone habits, according to Duhigg. Shortly after O’Neill joined the company in 1987, he instituted a rule that unit vice presidents must send him a report on every workplace injury within 24 hours of their occurrence.

“Paul O’Neill said that he wanted to change worker safety habits. What he actually changed at Alcoa were communication habits,” Duhigg said. “And this happened again and again and again with different types of organizational patterns. This is how a keystone habit works. This is how you change a culture. You find one keystone habit that you can begin to bear in on, and through it you change how people behave in dozens of different ways.”

It’s no coincidence that Alcoa’s profits skyrocketed during O’Neill’s tenure, Duhigg asserted.

“Once people began to realize that they could change worker safety, that accident rates went down, it changed their idea of what they could do as a company,” Duhigg said. “It changed their idea of themselves.”

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