Behaviour Change, Experiments and Sustainability

Can behaviour be changed, and if it can, what are the better forms of behaviour change available to L&Ders, HR types, and ultimately to the organisation we work for/on behalf of.

Allow me to sidetrack for a moment, while I talk about Dan Pink – he of purpose, autonomy and mastery fame. He who, when delivering a keynote speech at CIPD ACE back in 2012, told all the HR types that selling is ultimately what our game is about. He of the famous RSA video on what really motivates people.

He’s recently done a series on National Geographic in the UK where he’s tried to show how possible it is to get people to change their behaviour. The series is called Crowd Control, and at 22 mins per episode, it’s very watchable.

What I love about Pink is that he’s not just saying we should do things better or differently, but he’s experimenting and using research based approaches to show what makes a difference.

In the series, he shows how possible it is to get people to:
– wash their hands after they’ve been to the toilet
– eat less in an all you can eat restaurant
– listen and watch in flight instructions for what to do in an emergency
– hand in a lost wallet
– stop using their mobile phones in a restaurant
– remember where they’ve parked at the airport
– throw their rubbish in a bin while out drinking
– stop peeing in a public swimming pool

All quite impressive stuff.

But what he actually shows, is that getting people to change their behaviour is really hard. In pretty much most of the examples above, he had to game people into changing their behaviour. That is, he created an element of fun/competition/winning to encourage people to change their automatic behaviour. In other instances, he drew on empathy as a way to motivate behaviour change.

At work, we know that behaviour change is hard. It’s why there’s a whole industry built specifically around it as a topic. The challenge with taking the Dan Pink approach in Crowd Control is that he designed a situation to create a better result. When you have that freedom available to you, of course you can create change. Often, though, what we’re faced with is that we can’t design a situation to specifically change a behaviour. We’re often tasked with changing a lot of behaviour in a very tight time frame.

If you take into account the RSA video, and the work he’s done in Crowd Control, what we’re seeing is that on one level he’s saying treat people with respect at work and they’ll be great. On another he’s saying design a situation where people only have the choice to act better.

So what’s the right answer?

A couple of weeks ago, Gem Reucroft wrote about an app that she came across which encourages her to try a new behaviour over a 30 day period. The theory being (according to the app developer) that if sustained over this period of time, it becomes a habit, and you will have a newly formed behaviour you’re comfortable continuing with.

Last year, Maria Popova, over on Brain Pickings, wrote about how long it takes to change behaviour too. In her article, she says it can be as little as 20 days, for others as long as 84 days, and there seems to be an average number of 66 days.

Are you getting the idea that this topic of behaviour change is suddenly quite and very complicated?

And I’ve not even tried to talk about what neuroscience tells us about new habit forming.

There is no easy answer here. Organisationally, we have to be cognisant of all of the above because it all informs us of how complex it is.

When a manager asks and expects that a one day workshop, or some e-learning content will resolve the learning need, we can quite confidently say that isn’t the case. What is harder to sell, is that for behaviour change to take place, it needs up to 66 days worth of effort and practise for behaviour to change.

Take that in the context of developing someone’s assertiveness skills. Or they need compliance training. Or they need management development. Or they need time management training. Or they need to become a project manager. Or they need to learn a new bit of code. Or they need to learn the new system. Or they need to understand customer service better. And you don’t have 66 days available.

I’m feeling a bit exhausted now.

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Published by

Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

5 thoughts on “Behaviour Change, Experiments and Sustainability”

  1. John Kotter wrote in My Iceberg is Melting that his previous experience had guided him to believe that to change the way people behave, they have to change they way they think. One of the insights he wrote about was that to change the way people think, be now thinks they have to first change the way they feel. I agree with this, and and think therefore changing behaviour is about so much more than what takes place in a learning intervention. I can learn influencing skills which may help me navigate around a competitive egotistical boss, but if she is still being rewarded by the system in which we work, I may still feel “not OK”. If I feel confident that there is congruency between how I am expected to be and leaders, I may feel OK, and I may think that some effort will make a difference, and I may behave differently.

    Organisationally, the mindset is still firmly in the thinking….; organisations are still seen as machines as opposed to social systems…..

  2. Well said Meg and nice blog Mr P.

    This is at the heart of SO much we need to get right in work. Yes, there’s some salvation for the banality and toxicity we often see at work: socialised, collaborative and more purposeful ways are en vogue and rightly so. We’ve had years of poorly behaved bosses; terribly destructive company cultures and stab-in-back selfish pursuits that the “machine” is now caustic and fails to turn as fast as it should.

    So we DO need to look at the feelings side. Or lack of. And Pink’s experiments – whilst great in proving what it takes to “move the dial” on better behaviour, I think Meg has it. We really TRULY improve our behaviour when we feel the need; then we compute the need then we act out on the need. Adam Grant’s “Give & Take” has a lot to offer here too.

    Public Enemy called it out “It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back” and it will take acts in their millions, small gestures and individual changes, to bring about better in the way we behave and treat each other at work. When bottom line £’s are all that matters to many.

    Understanding through the work / research of the likes of Pink and others is important and you’ve highlighted this nicely in here. It’s often easy to call out “thought leaders” when you think you know better. I believe you feel and know when you’re being sold claptrap over useful insight and great theory however “popularist” it might seem.

    Much appreciated thoughts here.

  3. Great blog, Sukh, and I think you’ve hit on some really pertinent questions.

    When Fleming discovered penicillin the world was suddenly gifted a miracle pill that cured a whole range of previously deadly or debilitating diseases.

    But ‘silver bullets’ like that are isolated incidents. Most of the time, improvements in health are won through long, hard incremental steps that require much more effort than simply taking a pill. All too often, we’re attracted to the idea of an easy fix (when I say ‘we’, I mean humans) which is why so many quack remedies exist for health problems and why most people love the idea that a single dose of training (through whatever means) will solve a problem. As you’ve established coherently and persuasively, the truth is that it’s usually much harder than that.

    Meg’s right to identify the change in how someone feels as part of the puzzle, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. There’s so many situations where we’re emotionally motivated to change but we don’t – examples abound in the behavioural economics and psychology literature (pension saving defaults, opt in vs opt out situations).

    I don’t think anyone’s got the answers right now and Julie’s blog on leadership models (https://fuchsiablueblog.wordpress.com/2015/01/20/i-like-a-good-leadership-model/) highlights, I think, that there’s too much of a desire for simple, quick fixes and not enough deep thought building on things like Kahneman & Tversky’s prospect theory.

    Thanks for sharing your thinking. It always gets me reflecting.

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