Behavior Change At Work: Habits, Routines and Rituals

September 22, 2021

Woman writing out habits on a whiteboard

Change is really hard, as anyone that has tried to lose weight or do more exercise knows. Change at work might be even harder. If we struggle to lose weight - weight that we are desperate to lose - we might struggle even more when we are less directly motivated to make changes. Change at work requires finding a collective motivation to change. That means getting aligned around some new shared action or behavior. 

But understanding the science of behavior change can help us with any change we want to make. Whether it’s just for us or together with people at work. This blog sets out some of the best thinking on behavior change to help you on your way.


A model for behavior change

There are a number of models on behavior change but we think one of the most impactful models is that of BJ Fogg of the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford.  His model can be applied to any type of behavior change. The Fogg Behavior Model outlines three elements must converge at the same moment for a behavior to occur: 

  • Motivation. We must be motivated to do something. We can be more or less motivated.
  • Ability. We need to be able to do the behavior we seek. It can be easy or hard.
  • Prompt. We need a prompt to start the behavior. This might be internal or external. 

When a behavior does not occur, at least one of those three elements is missing. 


Fogg Behaviour Model-1


The beauty of this model is that it is simple, elegant and universal. It can be applied to changes we want to make at home or at work. It can be applied to small and large changes. 

At Saberr we have a particular interest regarding the changes that you can make as a team that lead to improvements - be those in wellbeing or in performance. In this respect we think it’s helpful to break down different types of behavior further.


Behaviors of high performing teams

We’ve been digging into the research regarding high performing teams that extends back over a hundred years. It’s complex but there are some consistent themes that emerge and there are behaviors that have a strong correlation with the development of a high performing team. 

We find it’s helpful to break down these behaviors into different types. When we talk about the habits of great teams, it’s shorthand for something a bit more complex. The headline is a cycle of repeating important actions regularly. But these might in fact be a combination of habits, routines and rituals.

Habits, routines and rituals are sometimes used interchangeably but we define them below to expose subtle but important differences in meaning. Understanding these differences can better help individuals and teams identify what new behaviors they'd like to develop and how to do it.  





A routine is a sequence of actions regularly followed. It takes effort to make it happen.  

A habit is a behavior that starts as a choice, and then becomes a nearly unconscious pattern

A ritual is a series of actions endowed with something unique, an extra level of awareness creating a more meaningful moment. 

Example: Going to exercise classes every wednesday

Example: Buying a coffee on the way to work 

Example: a unique family tradition; singing a certain song on a special day etc

Example at work: Setting goals each quarter

Example at work: Asking everyone to express their views in turns in a meeting

Example at work: regularly celebrating each new joiner arriving with unique personalized welcome


There are certain types of habits, routines and rituals that are common in high performing teams practice. Integrating these ways of working into your daily, weekly and monthly practice is a very practical way to start improving how your team operates.

All of these new behaviors require the three elements of the Fogg Behavioral Model to be in place. We need the motivation to do the activity, we need to be able to do it (hopefully it’s easy) and we need to be prompted. 

Let’s further explore the difference between two different types of behavior: routines and habits.



Routines: These are a sequence of activities regularly followed. There is evidence that certain routines are really helpful for working well together in a team:

Motivation: The key here is to get the team to commit to these practices. This means understanding both the individual and collective motivation to improve. Individuals may be motivated by different things. Some may want to achieve promotion, others may want better work-life balance, others may just find it satisfying to work in a team that is cohesive and gets results. Understanding and aligning to personal motivations is important. 

Ability: The ability of a team to do a routine is another crucial factor in the behavior model. Let’s take a classic routine that many high performing teams undertake: regular goal setting. This sounds simple but it’s actually really hard to set goals, especially collective goals. It’s a complex process that is hard to do and so many give up. It might get added to the “important but not urgent list” and stuck in the “parking lot”. We need to make it easier for teams to have conversations such as this. One way we can do that is through our “guided conversations”. These have been designed with expert team coaches to support important but quite complex conversations and provide a light weight structure to make sure everyone can contribute while preventing conversations from going off topic or round in circles. Having a guide like this can make important conversations a little easier to navigate. 

Prompt: Any behavior change needs a prompt. What’s the right prompt for a routine? For many routines the best prompt is simply to book the time in your diary. Schedule the time and commit to showing up. Many of these routines require three or four sessions to become proficient. So committing to several sessions at an appropriate interval is essential.  



Habits are behaviors that start as a conscious choice but become a more unconscious pattern over time. Eventually these habits may happen with little or no conscious thought, whereas routines require a higher degree of intention and effort every time. Some examples of habits we might want to develop include the following: 

  • Habit of journaling every day after our morning coffee
  • Habit of starting meetings with a quick check-in
  • Habit of responding to criticism with openness and curiosity 

Motivation: Again the motivation to develop new habits is key. It’s most effective to start with the things you want to do most. We need to explore the motivation to do something for our own benefit and the motivation to do something for the benefit of the team. 

Ability: Developing a new habit is hard and again this is where BJ Fogg has a great approach. He says “start tiny”. Start with the smallest possible thing that you can do. So if you are committing to journaling, commit to just writing one line, not a page. If you write a page, that’s a bonus. If you want to change the way you start a meeting, make it a small change, not an over-engineered process. 

Prompt: According to Fogg and many other behavioral scientists a great way to prompt for a habit is to anchor it into your existing daily practices. This approach, sometimes called habit stacking, involves attaching a new habit to an existing one. For example: 

  • After brushing my teeth, I will do 20 press ups. 
  • When we start our weekly meeting, I’ll ask my check-in question: “whats on your mind” 
  • When I turn on my computer, I’ll take deep breaths before starting my day with a smile. 

Routines & Rituals

The difference between a routine and a ritual is the level of meaning behind the action. Routines can feel more, well, routine. Rituals are invested with more meaningful practice that elevates sentiment and can create a sense of purpose and increase motivation.

A great book on rituals at work is Ozenc & Hagans “Rituals for Work”. They highlight 50 rituals for work that might give inspiration. They also provide a short guide to designing rituals in a more conscious way. 

A ritual has a connotation with being spiritual. But rituals can be developed at home and at work too. You might have a ritual that whenever a new person joins the team you perform some meaningful and symbolic act of welcome - balloons on their desk for example. With rituals, you are fully engaged with a focus on the experience of the task, rather than its mere completion.


The Three Types of Behavior Change

Teams can use these three types of behavior change; routines, habits and rituals to improve how they work together.

The start point for many of these regular team activities is often to start a routine. This typically requires conscious effort and determination. Just as it takes effort to get to the gym every week. It takes effort initially to get together as a team and reflect on what’s happened that week in a retrospective. It takes effort to set and review team goals.

These are not yet instinctive behaviours, or habits. They may not be invested with the same level of meaning as a ritual. But this can happen later.

Select the key routines to do as a team and schedule them into your diary. Use aids, like Saberr’s conversation guides, to make them as easy as possible to do. Prompt everyone by diarising the activity.  

Develop one really meaningful ritual that you design together as a team. This might be to build community in your team, to manage conflict, to deal with change, to support deep work or to encourage creativity. 

Experiment with new habits that you integrate into your work week. These can be tiny changes. Start with the things we want to do. Make the changes as small as possible. Celebrate whenever you perform your new habit. This focus on celebration is very important as habits are developed through positive emotions, not through repetition.   

As you start to consider the habits, routines and rituals that you’d like to develop, the subtle differences between routines, habits and rituals will become clearer. We really liked this representation by the team at Ness Labs that visualises some of the main differences.


Behavior change is hard. Getting a team to agree to change is harder still. Getting an organization aligned around change is harder still. And yet if it happens it often benefits everyone. It’s exciting to be part of a dynamic team and organization. 

As any sports teams or group of musicians will testify, regular practices are the foundation for improved performance. Every new behavior requires us to find enough motivation to change, to have the ability to change and to have a prompt to do something new. If you invest the time and effort to develop them you’ll never look back.

If you need help deciding what the important processes are for your team, then check out Saberr's guide to the top 7 habits of highly effective teams, along with good templates and exercises to help kickstart the routine.

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