Designing empathy into compliance training

I’ve been thinking about how smart people are recently. I’ve also been thinking about how easily people get swayed by arguments and are influenced in their thinking. And, as I wrote last week, I’ve been thinking about how learning is complicated. Owen Ferguson wrote a good piece thinking about this in a different way where he advocated for complexity in our thinking.

As I’ve been thinking about all these things, it occurred to me that in the olde world of training delivery on compliance training, one of the reasons it fails so often is that people just don’t care about it. The only reason they’re made to care is because of some esoteric reason to do with consequences – so people comply, but not because they care about the topic.

The problem with compliance training has always been that it just has no bearing on people’s day to day activity. I’m not proposing I’ve got the solution in this blog, just some thoughts on how we can do things better.

Things like the following:

We know that people are influenced by what other people do more than creating a business case for doing something. That’s why you read signs in hotel rooms like “most people who stay here reuse their bath towels”. They used to read “save the environment and re-use your towel”. Except, most people can’t relate to that message. Not in the same way most people will think “Oh I better do what other people are doing so I’m not the odd one out”. We’ve got strong aversions to standing out from the crowd and from breaking communal norms, and in the main we don’t.

Lesson to be learned? Instead of writing how compliance training is compulsory, use insights from social psychology and behavioural economics to get people to comply. For example:

  • “Most people who completed the e-learning on data protection, completed it in 20 mins.” You help people see that completing the e-learning doesn’t take long, and most people are doing it (apparently)
  • Try some sort of open completion records – let others see how teams are doing with completion. People’s competitive nature is likely to be more motivating to do better than other teams. Some companies out there have even gone to the lengths of gamifying their compliance training.

We know that if you repeat a message over and again, people will remember it – regardless if they understand it. This is how modern politics works, and why advertisements are constantly being shown. In a world of too much information, people’s attention is limited, so you need to repeat something at least 7 times before people hear the message in the first instance.

Lesson to be learned? This is where the idea of developing campaigns is more effective than single communications. People need to be reminded that their appraisals are due? They need to be told that in multiple ways, through different media and with different approaches.

We know that giving a cause for a person to focus on, improves the chance they’re going to respond positively. That’s why charities often present the case of one person or the photo of one person in their adverts and marketing. The case of “Izzy living without a book to read” is more compelling than “help provide books to children”.

Lesson to be learned? Make the compliance relevant by highlighting how it helped a person. Don’t write “completing your health and safety training means we will successfully comply with audit”. People can’t relate to the audit – it doesn’t mean anything to them. Instead, write something like “Bernie, in Sales, spotted a loose tile in the hallway and reported it to be fixed. It was resolved in 2 days. Complete your training today.”

I want to build on this further, though. What’s missing from nearly all forms of compliance training is that it’s not designed to build empathy with people. Instead it’s often talked about in terms of business benefit. Not enough thought or smart thinking is applied to help people know how it matters to an individual, when it clearly can. We’ve banged on the drum so much that we need to let people know why it’s important to the business that we do things, that we forget that it should also be important to the individual.

When we make things important to people and individuals, is when we help empathy be built. With respect to topics like Equality and Diversity, it has to be better than saying “it can help people be more respectful of one another”. Yes, that’s important but it’s not enough to help people truly relate to it. And it also has to be better than “it can help people learn how to not be offensive to others.” Again, that’s a good thing, but it’s just not enough of a human motivator.

This also challenges us to go beyond thinking about ‘resources and not courses’. What I mean is, if you read a guide on anti-slavery, and it’s clear that it breaks the law, how does that build empathy? If you watch a video about the impact of being vigilant against slavery is that enough of a solution that you don’t need a training course? If you go through a slide deck which outlines the company process about anti-slavery practice, how does that help you connect with it on a practical level?

Our challenge with compliance training is always that you want people to comply! We want them to forego their freewill and just abide by the rules. And of course, people just aren’t compliant. So, in the civil domain, we penalise and we place heavy consequence on non-conformance. Where, in the corporate domain, what we need to build more is about how actions impact on others.

And yes, part of this is about the culture of an organisation. Is it the culture where designing empathy for compliance will help people make better choices?

So, that’s my thinking at the moment. I want to be more concerned about how we build in empathy to compliance training so that people are better people for doing the thing. The thing might be training, but I’m guessing that if we design with empathy in mind, we’ll help people know how that makes a difference to someone directly – and that training may not have been needed as a solution at all. As always, I’m not bashing training, I’m just mindful that if what we need to do is help people achieve an outcome, and if learning is complicated, then that also means identifying the right solution for achieving an outcome – and that solution can be multi-faceted.

Very interested to know about your thoughts on the above. Do comment below.

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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.

2 thoughts on “Designing empathy into compliance training”

  1. Great post, Sukh. Compliance is one of those areas laced with difficulty for an organisation, not least because complying with the letter of the regulations doesn’t necessarily mean that anything beneficial has actually been achieved. There’s space here for organisations and regulators to work better together in order to actually achieve the intent of the regulations rather than just the tick box, mechanical compliance that many regulators expect or demand.

    There’s three questions I think organisational leaders should ask when considering any compliance issue (or four, the first one is a doubler):

    a) Do we have to comply with the regulations? What is the risk if we don’t?

    b) Will complying with the regulations actually benefit the organisation, employees or customers? i.e. are lives, money, reputation or life quality saved or enhanced?

    c) Even if compliance with the regulations don’t result in benefits, will changing behaviour in this area result in lives, money, reputation or life quality being saved or enhanced?

    It would be great if more latitude was given to organisations in tackling compliance issues. There’s plenty of opportunity for organisations to make better use of behavioural science to male it easier for people to do the “right” think, rather than simply making sure everyone is aware of their legal obligations but regulators have to accept that this means sheep-dip approaches don’t actually benefit anyone other than covering their behinds.

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