As business consultants, you observe, analyze and propose solutions for your clients’ problems. But none of that work is useful unless the client can implement the solution. And that means your clients and their employees will have to make some changes in how they work, think, and behave. So you need a toolbox of strategies that promote change in individuals and across organizations.
Myths of behavior change
We’ve all grown up with the idea that change is mostly a matter of education and willpower. But cognitive and behavioral science has proven otherwise. While motivation is important, persistent change doesn’t come from “wanting it bad enough.”
And extra education doesn’t help either. In these days of overwhelming information, we’re bombarded with irrefutable data showing why we should stop smoking, eat better and exercise. But few of us do. And change expert David Maxfield has observed that additional information has little power to encourage change in the workplace.
Of course, you still need to provide your clients with motivation and information about why your solution will benefit them. But if you want to help them make real change, you can’t stop there.
Ask people to find their own motivations.
Maxfield suggests using questions and reflection to help people arrive at their own conclusions about how and why they might want to adopt a new behavior. He offers these examples:
- “What is it that makes you even consider changing?”
- “If things worked out exactly the way you want, what would be different?
- “What are the pluses and minuses of changing or not changing?”
- “If this change were easy, would you want to make it? What makes it hard?”
A recent study by researcher Timonthy Apodaca and others in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment also found that personal reflection and open questions helped people accept new behaviors more readily.
Give people autonomy.
In his book, Your Brain at Work, David Rock identifies autonomy as one of the basic human needs. When we feel out of control, our brains raise alarms and we go into threat mode. That’s why simply demanding new behavior almost never works in the long term.
However, when we do feel in control of our choices, we get a shot of well-being. In your change strategy, you can keep people feeling good and open to ideas by providing options and letting them chose their preferred plans for adopting new behaviors.
Leverage the social network.
No, I’m not talking about getting on Instagram. But I am talking about the human phenomenon that makes Instagram so powerful. Humans love to identify with others and be part of a group. If you want people to change, help them see that others around them are doing the same thing.
A few years ago, Noah Goldstein and his colleagues ran an experiment to determine how social norms can impact individual choices. We’ve all seen those signs in hotels asking us to reuse our towels and save water. In the researchers’ experiment, some guests saw this sign:
“Please consider the environment and reuse your towel.”
But this sign worked 26% better:
“Please consider the environment. Most guests in this hotel reuse their towels.”
Letting people know that most people in their immediate social environment were reusing their towels encouraged them to follow suit.
You can harness this social power by incorporating peer-to-peer coaching and support in your implementation plans.
[Click here to see how you can easily implement peer-to-peer coaching.]
Measure, measure, measure.
Measuring progress is another way to use social pressure to encourage change. As people see their peers adopting new behaviors, they’ll more likely do the same.
Measurement helps encourage change in other ways as well. If people are working toward a goal, they need to know where they are. Without that regular compass bearing, they don’t know if their efforts have any effect.
A 2014 case study by the Bridgespan Group describes how Liberty Resources Health Clinic created a results-driven culture. Among other strategies, they provided employees with data on how well they were meeting performance goals and gave managers dashboards of overall performance.
Measurement also helps leaders understand whether current tactics are working. As the key strategy guru for your client, you need this information to know whether to surge forward or pivot in a new direction.
In his book, Applied Psychology, E. Scott Geller writes “without appropriate consequences to support the right behavior and correct the wrong behavior, goal-directed behavior will simply stop.” If you want employees to change their actions, they need to feel a personal positive impact as a result.
Consequences can be as simple as acknowledgement of their progress. Even an electronic message from a computer app will reinforce the new habits. Video games have made an art form of providing positive feedback to keep people playing.
Consequences and feedback work best when they’re immediate. Julie Dirksen, author of Design for How People Learn, recounts an apt story in a recent article. Toothpaste maker Pepsodent was able to encourage its customers to brush more by adding citric acid and mint oil to the toothpaste. Users got a pleasant tingly sensation when they brushed and that immediate, positive reinforcement made a difference in behavior.
Also, consider how many people are walking more, taking more stairs, and biking to work in the hopes of getting electronic approval from their Fitbit®.
In your change strategy, find ways, either electronic or personal, for people to get immediate positive reinforcement.
When we adopt new actions, we’re not on “autopilot.” Our brains work harder than usual to manage new thought patterns, movements, and information. So if you’re asking people to adopt new habits, give them every possible support to make it easy. This was another strategy that Liberty Resources used. They made sure that employees had clean, operating equipment and supplies so they didn’t have fight with a computer or search for a missing procedure manual in the middle of learning new habits.
For you clients, you can pave the way by having how-to resources in easy reach, reminder cards on work stations, updated computer systems, and a comfortable work environment. The less people have to struggle to get their jobs done, the more energy they have for working on those habits.
Use environmental triggers.
Much of our unconscious behavior is driven by our environment. When you walk in the front door of your house, maybe you toss your keys on the table nearby. What if that table weren’t there? You’d do something different.
A recent article in the Harvard Business Review describes how Google encouraged healthier eating habits simply by putting the salad bar at the front of the cafeteria line. Since most people grab the first thing they see, more people started getting salads.
For your clients, look for ways the environment can encourage new habits. You want the new behavior to be the easiest thing to do, just like tossing your keys on the table. You can rearrange the physical environment, but don’t forget the digital world as well. For example you can set certain applications to open as soon as people start their computers or send automatic reminders to employees’ phones.
Help people progress by reflecting on their work.
Reflection encourages behavior change for two reasons. It lets people focus on their actions and draw some useful lessons. And it gets us into the habit of examining our work critically. Both of these benefits encourage positive change.
In his book, Rock describes a writing teacher who got students to successfully improve their work by grading them on how well they critiqued themselves and not on how well they wrote. The grade helped them strengthen their critical thinking and develop the habit of continual improvement, which in turn improved their writing.
In another study reported by Drake Baer in Business Insider, researchers found that new employees who spent 15 minutes reflecting on what went well at the end of each day had 22.8% higher performance than a control group.
It’s not that humans aren’t good at change. We’re extremely adaptive, inventive, and creative. It’s just that change takes energy and introduces risks that we’ve spent millennia learning how to avoid. But if you go about it the right way, you can help your clients create the new habits and behaviors that will solve their problems and keep their progress going. And that, after all, is what you do.
Learn more about how Pract.us can help you and your clients build a learning culture.