How Can I Help Employees Overcome Bad Habits Impacting Performance?

How Can I Help Employees Overcome Bad Habits Impacting Performance?

Let’s face it, a lot of problems you routinely deal with as a supervisor are the result of habits. More appropriately, bad habits. Everyone has them, and we’re constantly struggling to overcome them. As John Dryden so aptly put it, “We first make our habits, and then our habits make us.

The Nature of Habits

Habits are automatic responses to recurring circumstances. A classic example for many involves putting on a seat belt when entering a car. Most people don’t consciously process the need to do so or decide whether to wear a seat belt based on the specifics of the trip ahead. The practice is routine and occurs automatically and instinctively. That’s how habits work.

The formation of habits can be both good and bad. It’s the mind’s way of rapidly processing an enormous amount of incoming information. Through experience, we develop the ability to take mental shortcuts in dealing with the world around us, which leads to decisions made while operating on autopilot. Sometimes those decisions are spot on, and sometimes they’re not.

In this article, we focus on a tried and proven strategy for helping employees overcome less than desirable behaviors associated with recurring habits.

Step 1: Acknowledge the Habit

The first step in dealing with a bad habit is to acknowledge that it exists. As a supervisor, this requires you to provide specific examples of behaviors impacting a direct report’s job performance. Whether it involves routinely coming in late, not wearing required personal protective equipment, or completing training assignments on time – you need to be very clear, objective, and transparent about what you see.

Step 2: Connect the Habit to an Adverse Outcome

The next step is to connect the habit to an outcome or potential outcome that has detrimental consequences. It could be an injury, loss of production, or an adverse impact on valued clients. Whatever it is, the cause for concern needs to be connected to something concrete, of obvious importance and involving clear business objectives.

Step 3: Gain Commitment on Needed Changes

The third step requires dialogue with the employee to gain alignment, agreement, and commitment to needed changes. This is a collaborative process and input from the employee is not only important, it’s essential. The terms of agreement need to clearly defined, documented, and cast into motion with an old-fashioned handshake.

Step 4: Support the Formation of New Habits

Next, a support system must be put in place for a period of 8 to 12 weeks. This is the length of time it takes for most habits to form and for behaviors to become self-sustaining and automatic. This is also the point where most targeted development plans fail. They don’t consider that 85 to 95 percent of decisions made and actions taken each day occur automatically – on autopilot. These mindless behaviors are nothing more than a bundle of habits. To successfully deal with the bad ones, you must replace them with good ones. That’s the key. Routine oversight and frequent touchpoints during this phase are critical to the outcome involving desired changes.

Step 5: Celebrate Improvement, Both Big and Small

Finally, celebrate any and all gains – no matter how small. While management is about maintaining the status quo, leadership is about growth, transition, and improvement. Helping others overcome bad habits is an attainable skill that will serve you well as a front-line leader.

This article originally appeared in the AEU LEAD blog on February 18, 2019.


As Director of AEU LEAD, Joe White focuses on helping members transform operational goals into actionable plans through a structured change management process. Prior to joining AEU, Joe was a senior consultant for E.I. DuPont’s consulting division, DuPont Sustainable Solutions (DSS). He joined DSS in 2011 to develop the next generation of safety practices using extensive research in behavioral sciences he’s compiled over a period of nearly two decades. His efforts resulted in the development of The Risk Factor, which is now the flagship instructor-led offering for the consulting division. Combined, Joe has 26 years of operational safety experience, the majority of which was with DuPont. Joe has been published in Occupational Health & Safety Magazine for his prominent work in safety relative to behavioral and neurosciences and is an event speaker at many leading industry conferences including National Safety Council (NSC) Congress and Expos, American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), and National Maritime Safety Association (NMSA). Joe is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University and has a B.S., in Safety and Risk Administration.

Need Longshore Coverage? Click Here