Good Zeal

Examining Our Habits

Advent Wreath in monastery chapelIn his New York Times bestseller, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg gives many riveting stories of how corporations, sports teams, communities, institutions, and individuals have let go of old habits and built new ones.

One compelling example Duhigg gives of how habits change is the industrial giant, Alcoa. In 1987, when Paul O’Neill took over as Chairman & CEO of Alcoa, he shifted the status quo and central priority of Alcoa from productivity and profits to worker safety. This initiated changes in corporate habits that transformed the company from top to bottom. All work procedures, protocols, regulations, lines of communication and authority, why and how things got done – everything and everyone at Alcoa changed habits that aimed at zero work injuries. This changed the entire culture of Alco which led to better quality products, increased employee happiness, retention, and productivity. By the time O’Neill left in 1999, Alco’s net income had increased from $200 million to $1,484 billion, and its market value from $3 billion to $27.53 billion.

Making worker safety the core value, fundamental to their identity is significant in a heavy industry with lots of dangerous equipment. Regular workplace accidents and even deaths were not uncommon prior to his arrival. Like Paul O’Neill arriving at Alcoa with fresh eyes to recognize what was needed to turn that corporation around, God’s eyes see necessary changes in our status quo for a better world. The scripture readings during Advent urge us awake from our status quo slumber, to examine our habitual thoughts and attitudes, interactions with others and with God. This is what Alcoholics Anonymous step four calls “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” This is the message of John the Baptist in the wilderness, preparing the way for Jesus, calling everyone to repentance, because “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matt. 3:2) Something new is ready to burst forth!

You may not be surprised to learn that Paul O’Neill experienced considerable push-back at first, especially from upper-level management. Most of us human beings do not like change! Sometimes we avoid it like the plague, even if certain changes would make us healthier and happier. Sometimes we build such a fortress around our assumptions that truth can’t find a pinhole entrance. For over a decade, my ministry has been predominantly with the elderly. So, I have ample evidence that as we age, we can become entrenched in comfortable habits whether helpful or not. And yet, the scripture readings during this holy season of Advent call us to yearn for, expect and cooperate with something new that God desires to do in our lives and in our world. May this give us all hope and anticipation – as we loosen our grip on the status quo and welcome God who comes to us in such surprising, healing ways.

By Sister Sara Aiden Burress, OSB

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