How to Deploy The Power of ‘Keystone Habits’ to Make Employees’ Lives Better

Employees are your business, every good owner and manager knows it. Keeping them happy is essential for your business’s success. It’s been found that happy employees are 13% more productive and, in sales call reporting, make more conversions than their unhappy counterparts. 

Consider, too, that the average person will spend 90,000 hours (a third of their life) at work and you begin to realize just how important it is that employees are happy while there.

One of the most meaningful ways to make employees’ lives better is through habit. Not just any kind of habit though. Keystone habits; a phrase coined originally by Charles Duhigg in his 2012 book, The Power of Habit

What are Keystone Habits? 

There are good and bad habits littered throughout our daily lives; the vast majority of which have an isolated impact. For example, leaving a light on in an empty room. It’s not a great habit, but it isn’t having an ongoing effect on the rest of your day or week.

This is where keystone habits are different. Keystone habits are habits that have significant knock-on effects. A good example of this would be incorporating exercise into your daily routine. Of course, there is the initial feeling of accomplishment after a workout, but you’ll feel more motivated afterwards. You’ll have more energy, for work, for family and friends, and other projects you might have. You’ll likely eat more healthily as a result, too.

Humans are Creatures of Habit

Now for the science-y bit. 

Habit-forming is a key part of our evolutionary development. It’s best understood in four stages.

  1. Cue – The trigger to make you want to do something.
    Example: A stressful event at work.
  2. Response – The reaction that you take to the cue.
    Example: Going for a coffee.
  3. Reward – The prize you get for how you reacted to the cue.
    Example: The dopamine release from being recognized to a call center incentive program.
  4. Routine – The positive feeling of the reward links back to the cue.
    Example: The next stressful event at work makes you want a coffee.

Forming Keystone Habits: 4 Steps

Duhigg outlined four key steps that need to be taken in order to successfully form keystone habits: 

Step 1: Identify an emotional need

Successfully forming keystone habits requires tapping into the shared emotional priorities of your team. Without a strong emotional investment, it’s likely that the change from coachings and training will be superficial and short-lived. 

Each business will have different emotional priorities, so knowing your team well is important in choosing which to tap into. Some areas worth starting with might be a better work-life balance, more social events for the team, or a more reward orientated environment (e.g giving away free email finder subscription).  

Make time to set a meeting with your team through platforms that make communication clearer, such as telepresence and video conferencing. Understanding your employee’s emotional priorities ties into good workforce management practices so it’s worth investing time into. Keep in mind that the priorities of your employees may differ from your own, and that’s totally okay! 

Step 2: Introduce a habit that is charged by that need

Now you have identified an emotional need that’s important to your team, it’s time to manage team tasks and introduce a habit that caters to that need. Remember the Cue, Response, Reward of habit formation.

Let’s assume, for example, that you want to form a keystone habit regarding workplace communications. 

The cue could be the first and/or last time you communicate with a colleague at work.

The response to the cue would be to give an honest compliment to that colleague professionally.

The reward is knowing you have made someone else’s day more enjoyable. 

Incorporating an emotional need into the new habit means it’s much more likely to succeed and have longer-lasting positive implications.

Step 3: Highlight its importance 

Make no mistake, there will be times when introducing this new habit will be hard. It’s hard enough to form new habits of our own sometimes, let alone for a whole group of other people. It’s important then that you remind your employees of how important this change is. 

Empathize with them. What are they getting from this habit? Why should they want this? How does it directly benefit them? 

Don’t forget to lead by example! Why should they do it if you don’t? 

Step 4: Give time 

If making meaningful changes was quick and easy, you wouldn’t be reading this article. It’s rarely without a few hurdles and it doesn’t happen overnight. Be persistent, and encourage and motivate your team. Always allow for a transition period before the habit becomes natural.

Keystone Habits for Your Employees

The positive effects of keystone habits will always permeate your employees’ out-of-work lives. Below are two great examples of these employee habits and the kind of effects they can have on your physical or remote workforce


A great keystone habit you can instill in your workforce relates to how they carry out their tasks. By encouraging your employees to break large tasks down into smaller goals as a team, they are less likely to be overwhelmed. 

Cue – Being presented with a big, new project.

Response – Taking time to break the project down into smaller goals as a team.

Reward – Feeling more confident in their ability to succeed.

Microproductivity is without a doubt one of the best team task management strategies. Not only will you as a manager notice a productivity boost, but employees can also implement this at home, too.

People often see their lives through the problems they are experiencing at the time, arming them with such a great problem-solving technique can only improve their quality of life.

Healthy remote working

It’s been reported that 60% of employees view their colleagues as the biggest source of workplace happiness. With so many of us working remotely, though, this is obviously a potential issue.

A great keystone habit to implement for your employees relates to how your digital employee experience management strategy should emulate the in-office atmosphere. For example, provide your employees with an allocated time each day that they can experience an almost ‘water-cooler’ atmosphere.

This time doesn’t have to be strictly a social event, make it a team huddle, where the topic is work but the vibe isn’t ‘work’. You know what we mean. 

Cue – A notification is sent to employees via your digital operations platform.

Response – Employees enter a conference call where the energy is relaxed.

Reward – The positive energy socializing brings, as well as a confidence boost.

Working from home can be isolating, especially for employees who live alone. Getting into a routine of daily socialization can give employees the confidence boost they need to get the most out of both work and their wider lives.

Pop-up notifications, a form of digital signage, are excellent cues for the beginning of a habit. Ensure they are bright-colored and accompanied by a positive soundbite to maximize that dopamine release. 

Promote Workplace Culture 

In the words of Charles Duhigg, Keystone habits ‘establish cultures where change becomes contagious.’

Something that can start so simple, such as paying compliments, socializing and cooperating with colleagues, or team problem solving, can quickly become a keystone habit. The effects of these habits can bring about serious positive life changes.

Watch as your conversion metrics increase alongside your employee’s happiness levels. Adopting keystone habits to improve the lives of your workforce will improve your business, too. Be patient and nurture that culture change. 

Leave a Comment