A book that’s sent ripples across the development landscape and strongly influences me is Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit. As Duhigg explains, we all use habits to automate areas of our lives. They free us to focus our conscious thought on important or unusual tasks in the day. They also drive us in ways we often don’t notice.

Once we create habits, we take them for granted, which means that our habits are both very powerful and rarely scrutinised. This has valuable implications for marketers, as the book explores: Duhigg points to research, for example, that finds that American shoppers habitually turn right as soon as they walk into supermarkets. Understanding this has helped stores to reorganise their stock to maximise profits.

Meanwhile, shoppers may find that they’re habitually leaving the shops with more than they’d intended to buy. If they’re trying to stick to a budget, or a diet, this may be a habit they’d wish to break.

We can all think of habits we don’t have but would like to develop and others we feel trapped by that we wish we could shake off. We notice that some leaders demonstrate behaviours naturally, such as really listening to their people, whereas others have to actively remind themselves whereas their tendency is to interrupt.

In other words, we want much or even most of our daily decision-making to be automated – but we want to manage our immediate responses to make sure they’re helping us.

Interestingly, Duhigg’s finding in the book is that you can’t actually break a habit. Habits develop to provide a specific reward, which means that when you try to stop performing the habit, you’re also denying yourself the reward. It’s far more effective to isolate exactly what the reward is and create a new way to reach it, with a new habit.

Duhigg uses a personal example of his own habitual snacking and shows how, instead of berating himself for his ‘weakness’, he iterated around his habit instead. Testing out new routines for combatting his mid-afternoon slump, he discovered that what he really enjoyed from going to the canteen was not the cookie he ate but the social aspects involved in going to get one. This insight led him to substitute a new habit of chatting with colleagues for ten minutes that didn’t involve snacking. And he’s been able to stick to it.

It’s striking that an activity that proved impossible to tackle with willpower alone could be submitted to a fairly straightforward process and completely revised. Driving behavioural change through organisations is necessarily more complicated but is fundamentally based on the same principles.

The Power of Habit describes Starbucks’ method of developing behaviours in their staff for dealing with high-stress situations. When we panic, we are more likely to slip into automatic responses, so Starbucks delivered training through role plays in which staff tested out their reactions to complaining customers in a controlled environment.

The aim was not to create a new set of automated responses to the customer. Indeed, it’s crucial that leaders release their people to take risks with customers. Instead, when Starbucks staff were able to examine their habitual responses, they could understand what triggered them to flip into a habitual response – such as anger – and develop new habits that would help them stay calm and present in the moment while resolving the customer issue.

Earlier this year, Starbucks made news around the world when staff at a café in Philadelphia called the police to arrest two black men, accusing them of trespassing although they were simply waiting for another person to arrive before they ordered. In response to widespread criticism, the company closed all of their US stores for a four-hour session of racial bias training.

Responding to this, a great episode of Business Daily on the BBC World Service investigated the nature of bias and whether biases can be changed. Speaking to the programme, Joan Williams, professor of law at the University of California, argued that the most effective strategy for overcoming implicit bias would be for Starbucks to integrate it into their regular training. We can change our behaviours when we get used to bringing them up to our conscious minds, she argued, and the regularity of Starbucks’ staff training can be used to develop this habit.

At Potential Squared, we’ve been using business role playing in our courses since we started. It’s the element of our programmes that people are most likely to be wary of before they begin, but they quickly embrace it when they see how effective it is.

We use business role playing to explore the really challenging situations, from staff recruitment to conflict management. It’s also a key feature of our academy programmes that combine technical and behavioural development in specific business areas.

Role playing forms the bridge between theory and practice. More than that, it helps participants connect learnings with their own behaviours. Testing their responses empowers them to iterate around them and gain the truly valuable insights that help turn intentions into habits.

Our habits influence us so strongly that altering them is not necessarily easy. But they are not inflexible, as The Power of Habit shows. And when we understand how habits drive ourselves and others, we can gain profound insights that can transform perceptions and drive lasting change.