Complexity is the defining business and leadership challenge of our time. But it has never felt more urgent than this moment, with the coronavirus upending life and business as we know it. Since March, we’ve been talking to leaders about what it takes to lead through the most complex and confounding problems, including the pandemic. Today we speak with BJ Fogg, author of Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything. Fogg is the founder of the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University.
David Benjamin and David Komlos: Please tell us a bit about yourself and your area of expertise.
BJ Fogg: My focus is human behavior and improving people’s lives by helping them be happier and healthier - and so I call myself a behavior scientist. I split my time between running a research lab and teaching at Stanford, and teaching and training people in industry. That allows me to keep one foot in both worlds, which is unusual and tricky to maintain. All the work I do on practical problems in industry helps me take on important research questions at Stanford. And then the rigor at Stanford helps me do a better job in industry.
Benjamin and Komlos: Can you briefly describe what business leaders can learn by reading your book?
Fogg: Pick any aspirational outcome - whatever you’re trying to achieve - and that's the starting point for a system that I explain in the book called ‘behavior design’. It boils everything down to behaviors, and once you've figured out the desired behaviors, you can systematically design how to make any business outcome happen.
Benjamin and Komlos: How does behavior design work? Can you explain the Fogg Behavior Model behind it and how it unlocks behavior change?
Fogg: I summarize the Behavior Model as B = MAP: Behavior happens when motivation and ability and prompt converge at the same moment. Motivation is your desire to do the behavior; ability is your capacity to do the behavior; and prompt is your cue to do the behavior.
Human behavior isn’t complex - it always comes down to motivation, ability and prompt - but within each component there can be a lot of complexity. What motivates a 12-year-old boy in Merced, California is different than what motivates a 79-year-old woman in Las Vegas, Nevada. There are nuances and factors in what makes things hard or easy for people. Prompts have various facets to them. The formula itself, B = MAP, is straightforward, elegant, and describes all behaviors, but within those three components you get individual differences and cultural differences and differences that shift moment by moment. The complexity isn't in the behavior itself, it's in all the variables in our environment and perceptions of the environment.
Benjamin and Komlos: What is “Shine” and what is its relevance in behavior change?
Fogg: Based on the research I’ve done, it turns out it’s not repetition that creates habits; it’s our emotions that reinforce behaviors and turn them into habits. As I coached thousands of people, I tuned into the specific emotion that most helps people with this reinforcement, and that’s the good feeling they have when they succeed at something. That emotion didn’t have a name, so I called it shine.
Benjamin and Komlos: Is a forced change prompted by a major crisis like the pandemic a different mechanism? Or can it still be explained using your behavioral model?
Fogg: It’s absolutely the same. For example, consider millions of people’s changed habits in terms of how and where they work. A strong motivator, fear (of getting sick, of getting your parents or grandparents sick, of looking like you're not a good citizen), coupled with an increase in ability (my boss says it’s okay, and I have the technology available) has created this massive shift. In fact, many people will continue on with new work habits even after the motivating fear is removed because so much has changed in terms of the ability to work somewhere outside of the office and in new ways.
Benjamin and Komlos: Do the current circumstances (i.e., high levels of stress, trapped at home, etc.) make it harder for people to intentionally establish a new habit they want or break a habit they don’t want?
Fogg: Yes, because their attention is diffused and their motivation is bouncing around from worry to worry. As an example in the book, I talk about the formal research we did with nurses and emergency department workers, teaching them to do Tiny Habits. At the time, even though there wasn't a pandemic, these people were burning the candle at both ends. There was simply no way you were going to get them to meditate for 30 minutes or go walking for an hour, or take a Zumba or Crossfit class, or train for a marathon.
Yet Tiny Habits worked very, very well for them because it was systematic, the changes they took on were small and incremental, and they didn’t require a lot of motivation. That’s the only way for stressed-out, anxious, tapped-out people to reliably change. Despite all the stress and anxiety and fatigue, they still could use the method - to drink more water, to do brief meditations, to look a patient in the eye, to compliment a co-worker, or to take three calming breaths.
Benjamin and Komlos: Many business leaders have told us that during the pandemic their teams have fallen into the habit of focusing on the day-to-day to the exclusion of spending time planning for the future. Would you consider this a ‘downhill’ habit (easy to maintain / difficult to stop), and if so, can you offer any advice on how to overcome it?
Fogg: Getting tasks done each day isn’t a bad thing, of course. What’s dropped out is planning for the longer term. By using the steps in Behavior Design company leaders can help their teammates rebalance.
The first step is to specify an aspiration for the company (what most people would call a “goal”). Once the aspiration is clear, you use a method I call “magic wanding.” This allows your team to explore many behaviors that can help them reach the aspiration. When magic wanding, a leader can specify the timeframe and guide the team to focus on the longer term objectives.
Benjamin and Komlos: Do you have any other specific advice leaders should heed today? Any parting thoughts?
Fogg: If I had a magic wand and could influence the behavior of all business leaders in the world, it would be to make them really effective - with superpower abilities - at helping people feel successful. That's the game-changer for habits and for people’s personal perception of themselves.
People need to feel successful and leaders need to help them feel that way now more than ever. The next time an employee is giving a talk for the first time on Zoom, you can offer blunt criticism that's going to hurt like crazy, or you can offer feedback that’s true and positive that's really going to help them feel good. My advice is to get good at giving people shine.
Original article posted on Forbes on Feb 1, 2021
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