Productivity is about changing habits

If we want a culture that lifts our productivity and motivation, then we need to look at the habits that shape that culture, many of which are counter to what we say the culture and values of our organisation are, Ali Tocker tells Jane McCarroll. 


I had the pleasure of catching up with Ali Tocker from Tocker Associates recently. Tocker is a new member of the Skills family too, and it specialises in leadership development and all aspects of strategic planning and have been supporting workplace teams, leaders and managers in New Zealand since 1997.

When organisations are at their best there’s a high degree of alignment of where they’re going and people feel comfortable in their skills to deliver that. 

And as we close out on another dynamic year, I asked Ali her views on building productivity and her top tips that we can take into our roles to hit the ground running in 2019.

Ali told me that we hear organisations talk a lot about how to be productive, to increase efficiency we need to get people to work together.

“We talk an enormous amount about getting the culture right. We know that culture plays a significant role in productivity, but I think it is a problematic word. 

“Culture is something deeply personal, that is created over time, in context and as a response to the things that happen to us and around us. It is a developed and developing thing, and when organisations say they want to ‘work on the culture’, they are really saying that the way people are behaving isn’t working. 

“This is when things get tricky. Who sets the rules on what works in a culture? Who gets to decide on culture? Often the people we involve in these conversations don’t share all they might because this is a process of judgement – we have looked at the culture and found something lacking. 

“These conversations often put us in a position of us and them – the people who display the ‘right’ culture, and those who don’t. And what does that say about each of us?

“People hold tightly to their own culture, even when it doesn’t have a specific name or description. We like to do things in a way that fits with who we think we are, and often our culture is invisible to us. 

“When we talk about changing or adapting a culture, we are asking people to reconsider who they are at their core, which can put the best of us on edge and into a reactive mindset. ‘Why should I change when it’s you who doesn’t respond to me on time?’ Instead, I think we need to talk about habits – a far easier thing to reconsider and something we know we can change. This might sound like semantics, but there is a key difference.

“Studies show that about 40 percent of what we do every day is a habit. We don’t think about it, we just do it. I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t have a habit they are interested in changing in some way. 

“Ask people if they want to change a couple of their habits around how they work and they’re pretty open to the idea. Ask them if they want to change their personal contribution to the culture and you’ll get a very different response. Poor culture is almost always about what the others’ are, and aren’t, doing – not about us, so it’s not our problem to solve, right?

“So, when I think about productivity and effectiveness, instead of culture, I think about the habits I have that move me towards and away from these things. 

“For example, when we want to become more productive, thinking about today’s to-do list rather than the years’ goals becomes an easier choice – productivity can be gained by creating or adjusting my daily habits that help me focus on the real priorities at hand. I can use these habits to propel me forward. 

“When we want leadership that gets actual, lasting results, we can choose to create habits that connect us to the impact of our work (this connection to the outcome is one of the biggest predictors of motivation for people – the further we are from seeing how what we do makes a difference to people, the lower motivation is likely to be).

“I could create a habit of checking in with my team once a week around the question ‘who did we support or make a difference to this week?’ It might sound like a soft topic, but actually, it’s a conversation likely to increase motivation and productivity.

“If we want a culture that lifts our productivity and motivation, then we need to look at the habits that shape that culture, many of which are counter to what we say the culture and values of our organisation are. 

“How many times have you seen the posters on the wall about creating a culture based on innovation or being trusted advisors, and then thought to yourself ‘but that’s not what actually happens around here’?

“We might say that we have a culture of looking out for people, but have a clear habit of recognising and rewarding individuals who work 12-hour days to get the work done. If we were serious about looking out for people in our culture, wouldn’t we create a habit of recognising those people who manage time and energy well and have great balance? 

“Do we have a habit of complaining about other teams when we don’t get what we need from them, or do we have a habit of sitting down with them and talking through what else could work? 

“These habits are opportunities to shape organisations and for everyone to take a lead in that. 

“We can build habits that challenge us to be open minded and try new things; we can build habits that sharpen our focus on what actually matters, and we can build habits that help us to take a wider, more connected perspective of getting great work done. 

“Or we can complain about having poor culture and wonder why we have reduced productivity.

“Leadership requires constant acts of courage. The courage to challenge and change habits in ourselves, our team and our organisations that are hindering our collective success. These conversations take time, but changing habits is really a matter of concentrating our efforts towards what we think matters. 

“Our habits create our culture, which impacts our productivity. We can spend a bunch of time creating posters about our culture, or we can get to work on the habits that support it. We can start creating these habits anytime we like.”

It was great to spend some time with Ali and her team at Tocker Associates.   


Jane McCarroll is the strategic partnership lead for the Skills Group including IMNZ, The Institute of Management New Zealand, helping leaders stand up and lead since 1946.

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