The Truth About What Motivates Us to Change Our Behaviour


The Truth About What Motivates Us to Change Our Behaviour

It’s easy to think that informing people will make them do things differently, if only it were that simple. We are far more complex and less rational than we think. If you want your staff to start using a new productivity tool or if you want your existing customers to buy your latest product, understanding the fundamentals of behaviour change will help you succeed.

While workplace behaviour and buying behaviour have similarities, here, we will focus on the behaviour of our staff and teams.

Back in the day, as an activist, I was pretty sure that if I gave people enough information, they would understand the impact of their behaviour, they’d stop doing things that destroyed the planet. I was wrong and probably pretty annoying to be around.

Later in my work at an HIV/AIDS centre we saw a preventable disease was spreading in two marginalised communities. Gay men and people who use drugs by injection. Both groups had stigmas attached and weren’t embraced by society in general. I learned that how people feel about themselves plays a big role in actions they take or don’t take to protect their health and the health of those around them. I learned that behaviour change is complex and multifaceted.

Fast forward a couple decades, in a recent coaching session, a client told me about an article he read that he thought would be valuable to his team. He hoped it would inspire them to think differently about their work, and ultimately, behave as though they had a greater sense of ownership of the team’s work.

Since my activist days, I have seen this time and time again, an expectation that information will change behaviour and be sustained change. There are so many other factors at play, some we understand and can influence, some, not so much.

Getting Real about Information and People

There are plenty of theories on sustainable behaviour change, but what we’re looking at here is a common expectation that information is enough to inspire sustained change. To be clear, I don’t think my client really thought that this article would make all the difference in the team’s sense of ownership in their work. However, it is common to have unrealistic expectations of information and people. It’s usually the people who get blamed for not changing rather than the insufficiency of an information focused approach to change.

In a world where we still believe we are rational beings and that we make our decisions based on information, it makes sense to want to bring information to the table. Information does play a role AND there is a myriad of other factors at play.

The fact that a very small percentage of what we do each moment as human beings is the domain of the conscious mind is paramount. The vast majority of what we do is controlled by the subconscious mind. This is everything from breathing to food choices. The advertising industry has long been wise to the fact that humans make choices from subconscious feelings that we’re barely aware of. This reality isn’t widely known, nor well understood outside the scientific arena.

What Really Makes us Do What We Do

There are three main sources recognised as the fundamental determinants of behaviour:

  1. Personality traits – A person’s behavioural characteristics such as confidence in one’s ability.
  2. Perspective – The way a person looks at a given situation and their worldview.
  3. The environment – The social context of others behaviour and the interactions that foster actions, this can also include policies and the extent to which they are adhered to.

In a business setting, the environment, or workplace culture of an organisation plays a critical role in work-related behaviour. We can select our team for personality and perspective while the culture is a function of direction and leadership. As a leader in a Small Business, being intentional about the workplace culture is both stated and inferred. When there is alignment between the two the workplace culture is strong and is more likely to influence behaviour, however if the behaviour is different from the stated cultural values, workplace culture sets a tone of “do what you will” or “do what I say, not what I do”.

For example, say you are implementing a program to reduce waste in an office where rubbish bins under desks are replaced with recycling boxes. If the manager tells staff about the program and says that the new practice will be to have rubbish bins in the kitchen and pulls a sneaky, and keeps their own rubbish bin under their desk, how do you think the rest of the staff will feel about the new practice. Will they do as the manager says or as they do?

Your Role in Modeling Behaviour Change

In any behaviour change program the influence of both official and unofficial leadership plays a significant role and creates an environment for success or failure. This is also where the right amount of information is critical. The actions of others, such as change champions, sets the tone, and the information helps your staff understand the rationale and context as well as the ‘how’ of a new practice.

When you want your team to do something differently, there are a few key things to consider:

  1. Make sure information flow is two way – get their feedback and involve them at every stage, before, during and after.
  2. Tailor the information to your team, incorporate what you know about what’s important to them.
  3. Include the ‘Why’ and the ‘WIIFM’. Provide a clear rationale and be candid about things like cost savings but also incorporate the direct benefits for staff so they have an answer to the question “What’s in it for me?
  4. Be iterative. Get feedback about what works, what doesn’t. Invite honest and constructive criticism. Make adjustments based on feedback.
  5. Try different things until something sticks.

Information is important, but expecting it to influence behaviour on its own has its limits. Some changes seem simple and there may be more to it than you anticipate. If you provide information and it doesn’t impact behaviour, resist blaming your team, revisit your approach.

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  • Linda Wilson

    Great article Tathra and a common frustration for many!

  • Sharon Chisholm

    Great Tathra and whilst I don’t have a team, I do have children and can see how this would work with them too.

  • Rosemary

    When colleagues were trying to get
    Zimbabwean police to charge men who beat their wives, they found that many in the force didn’t believe it was a crime.
    Instead of my colleagues giving them information, they simply made it mandatory to charge men who beat their wives. Reporting went up, police action increased and (interestingly) police started to believe wife bashing was a crime.

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