There’s a big difference between habit and discipline

Learning to distinguish these differences in business can improve productivity and avoid serious problems

All of us have habits, some good, others not so great. Eating regularly is a habit but healthy eating is a discipline that requires thought and knowledge.

In business, the moment employees sit down at their desks or step onto the factory floor is when the distinction of habit vs. discipline must begin. If employees are simply going through the motions and aren’t thinking about what and why they’re doing something, it’s just a matter of time when, not if, troubles begin.

Reality is, too many employees simply cop-out by believing that questioning a process or procedure is “above their pay grade.” Everyone in the workplace has heard someone say, “I don’t ask,” or, “It’s not my job.” Usually, the comment is just shrugged off and left unchallenged. This docile acquiescence runs deep and is prevalent in too many organizations. And, it perpetuates a culture in which employees do the same-old, same-old as a matter of rote without regard to looming issues that are not in the manual. This negative sentiment jeopardizes a company’s viability.

Anyone in management should know the basic differences between habit and discipline; otherwise, they should be doing something else more befitting a robot. It essentially gets down to knowing the rules but being flexible and thoughtful enough to know when those rules should be challenged, changed or temporarily ignored.

At various levels of a business, depending on the culture, employees too frequently are not encouraged to think for themselves and react. In the worst business environments, people are even penalized or shunned for thinking or deviating from the prescribed protocols. This not only leads to myriad deep-seated problems but also creates a disincentivized workforce. The leadership that accepts or supports this insidious unspoken policy of, “Just do as I say or else,” breeds the worst form of mediocrity that usually accelerates over time.

It takes more than platitudes and leadership’s lip service to encourage everyone on the totem pole to speak up with impunity, even if some comments or suggestions may be superfluous or even hair-brained. Instead, management at every level must encourage and reward active involvement in the work process. When this mindset is promoted and communicated effectively it becomes everyone’s job to blow the whistle when something does not appear to be right or if a better method is discovered, even if the old way wasn’t all that bad.

Rules that foster habits ensuring quality uniformity are certainly necessary, but not at the expense of stifling thoughtful engagement that leads to innovation and improvement as well as stopping problems in the making. “Aha” moments are not solely in the province of management and leaders at the top. All associates from the lowest level up must feel empowered and, better yet, subtly if not overtly required to always look for a better way.

A company cannot just talk the talk. It must practice what it preaches and celebrate discoveries stemming from having people think about what they’re doing while maintaining good work habits.

Eating three meals a day is a habit for most, but companies must make the discipline of thoughtfulness the food that sustains and grows the organization.

Visit Michael Feuer’s website to learn more about his columns, watch videos and purchase his books, “The Benevolent Dictator” and “Tips From The Top.”