There are no organizations without institutional habits

Friday, April 30th, 2021

There are no organizations without institutional habits, Charles Duhigg reminds us (in The Power of Habit):

There are only places where they are deliberately designed, and places where they are created without forethought, so they often grow from rivalries or fear.


  1. Kirk says:

    This feels fragmentary, as though there is more surrounding context explaining the idea he’s trying to get across.

    That said, I’ve rarely found any organization where there are “institutional habits” that are deliberately designed into the internal organizational environment. More often, the whole of that environment “just happened” in a fit of group absent-mindedness, and the average participant is utterly oblivious to what is going on around them, in terms of “Why am I doing this, even though it is antiethical to the stated goal of the policy…?”, all the while complying with the unspoken, unwritten environmental cues that are set up to discourage that which is the putative goal.

    It is a rare organization or manager within any organization that looks at these things from a root-upward perspective. Local store has a policy that says employees have to park their cars in the distant parts of the parking lot, not near the store’s doors. They want the customers to have easy parking, yes? But… There’s a crime problem. The employees who are there late at night don’t feel safe walking out to the distant parts of the lot in the dark, and then there are issues with theft and vandalism of the parked cars. Every time corporate comes out, they find employee cars parked close to the store, and the managers get into trouble for it. One has been fired, specifically because of this, and her “…inability to control subordinates…”.

    So, here you have a perfect example of the hierarchy not grasping the environment. The employees don’t want to park out in the outer darkness, the environment cues them not to (theft, vandalized cars, and assaults on employees…), and yet… Nobody thinks to change the environment they all work in in order to discourage the crime problem and remove the motivation for parking close to the front of the store…

    Nobody is taught to look at things from this perspective of “internal environment”, and so we have the usual organizational dysfunctions taking place all around us, and all we can do is wonder why they’re happening.

    Most of us are idiots, I’m afraid.

  2. Gavin Longmuir says:

    Interesting example, Kirk. Most organizations seem to become rather internally-focused, and forget about the customers. And the mid-level managers learn the Universal Prime Directive: “Don’t Make Waves”.

    Obvious corollary of the employees concern about parking further from the building because of crime, etc, is that many potential customers presumably avoid the store at night for the same reasons. Lost business — because the store is ignoring the input from its own employees. But it is very tough for most businesses to quantify the business they are losing because of their short-sightedness.

    I think we are looking at the characteristics of human beings in organizations. It is a stretch to relate things like this to “habit”.

  3. Kirk says:


    The thing I find most “interesting” and common to all this is that the manager/leader tends to focus strictly on the first-order cause/effect relationship that they perceive. Few ever pause to examine the actual reasons that the employees have to park near the entrances, failing to work through things as though the employee in question is making a rational and carefully reasoned choice. They stop at “They aren’t doing as they are told to…” and “They are challenging my authority…”, when the reality is that the employee is making a rational choice to risk getting the local manager in trouble vs. having their car vandalized or getting mugged.

    What’s really troubling about these instances is that the average employee when promoted to manager suddenly forgets the reasons they had for doing what they were doing, and become the localized enforcers for the irrational whims of higher authority. “They’re telling me to tell the rest of the employees who now answer to me not to park near the doors, so Imma gonna do what managers do and write everyone up…”.

    Meanwhile, if they didn’t want people parking near the doors, all they had to do was spend a little money on better lighting and have the security folks spend time in the parking lot around closing hours–All of which would have been a lot less hassle, and probably done a lot to enhance employee morale and loyalty vice doing what they did.

    We don’t teach managers and leaders to get out and actually look at things, or to analyze those things in terms of “What is making my employees and customers do these things I don’t want them to…?”. Because of that, a lot of businesses experience massive employee turnover, employee disloyalty, and they lose customers and their business. All of which should be completely antiethical to what the goals of the organization really are, which is to stay in business and make a profit, no?

    You see the same thing in government and the military. Almost nobody grasps the essentials of how things work within the organization, or why things happen the way they do–But, if they were to pause and actually examine what the real incentives are, they’d be able to grasp the whys and wherefores. Which would, in turn, enable them to influence the course of events into the shapes they want.

    I think it’s a huge blind spot, to be honest. Nobody ever discusses this stuff, and everyone professes shock that people make rational choices and decisions based on environmental factors that are utterly ignored by the memorandum-makers and diktat-speakers.

    In the end, most managers and leaders are essentially powerless, simply because 99.9% of what they do and say is obviated by the things they’ve failed to examine and compensate for. You don’t want people walking on your grass quadrangle, Sergeant Major? Maybe, just maybe, you ought to examine what is making them decide to risk your wrath by doing so–And, if you’d make changes to that which motivates them, they’d stay the hell off your grass like you want them to.

Leave a Reply