Wouldn’t it be great if you could focus on one or two simple behaviors that would lead to increased productivity, morale, and team spirit? You can, if you find the right behaviors to work on—keystone habits.

What are keystone habits?

Keystone habits are small behaviors that lead to large results. They have a cascading effect on a series of other behaviors. For example, Charles Duhigg notes that people who start exercising regularly also start eating healthy foods, smoke less, are more productive and patient, and feel less stressed. Exercise is a positive keystone habit.

You can never change just one behavior. Our behaviors are interconnected, so when you change one behavior, other behaviors also shift. —BJ Fogg
Not all keystone habits are positive. Consider the behavior of leaving a broken window in a city building unrepaired. By itself, no big deal. However, as Malcolm Gladwell describes in The Tipping Point, the broken window sends a signal that no one cares. Soon there are more broken windows. Doors are knocked in and the building is ransacked by vandals. Neglect is a negative keystone habit.

The broken windows in our relationships

Small grievances and petty irritations, if left unaddressed, are the equivalent of broken windows in our relationships. They send the signal that we don’t care about the relationship. Ignoring these broken windows invites more neglect, inattention, and eventually abuse.

To keep the relationships in our teams and our organizations positive, we need to fix broken windows as soon as they appear. For example, by having a feedback conversation immediately after noticing a drop in performance—rather than waiting until there’s no catching up. Or by proactively discussing a team member’s development goals—rather than waiting until they start looking for a new job.

Caring is a good place to start

Caring can repair broken windows in our relationships. When we care about someone, we show that we are interested in their well-being, their development and their performance. Most people rise to the occasion to fulfil the expectations of someone who cares—they don’t want to let us down.

Elton Mayo and colleagues demonstrated this fact at Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works in Illinois in the 1920s. Mayo’s team was looking for ways to increase productivity. First, they increased the amount of light in the factory. Then they decreased the light. They changed working hours. They relocated workstations.

The strange thing was, it didn’t matter what they changed, productivity always went up. The researchers concluded it wasn’t the changes themselves that that spurred people to better performance, but rather the fact that someone cared about the workers’ well-being.

What’s to do?

Identify the broken windows in your team and in your organization. For example, is there a longstanding rivalry between two team members? A failed project that people are afraid to talk about? A manager who may bring in the numbers but whose personality is toxic?

Change small behaviors. Try changing one keystone habit at a time to fix a broken window. For example, you could start asking “what went well today?” at the end of each team meeting to build a bridge between rivals. Try things out and note what works. Over time, you will develop your own set of keystone habits for success.

Show that you care. The simple fact that you care and show that you do by paying attention probably counts more than any other intervention you make as a leader. Look for and expect excellence from everyone. Some ways to show you care: give clear directions, provide adequate resources, address conflicts promptly, monitor progress (without micromanaging), and protect the team from outside diversions.


Fogg, B. J. (2015). tinyhabits.com

Duhigg, C. (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York. Random House.

Gladwell, M. (2000). The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. London: Abacus.

Hindle, T. (2008). The Economist Guide to Management Ideas and Gurus. London: Profile Books.

Image courtesy of jarmoluk, pixabay / CCO