Behavioural Change: Why a letter in the post won’t work

Covid-19 News | Economy & Politics | Reports

Written by Roger Philby, CEO of The Chemistry Group 

Over the past couple of weeks, households across the UK received a letter from the Government outlining important COVID-19 health advice, including rules on leaving the house and social distancing. Yet I can say with confidence that such a letter will fail to elicit any form of meaningful change in the public’s behaviour towards minimising the spread of the virus.

A letter in the post will not change behaviour because knowledge is not behaviour. If it were, we wouldn’t speed, smoke or fail to keep a 2m social distance from each other when we know that these things are bad for us and everyone around us.

In my time at The Chemistry Group, we have helped many companies create effective organisational change, and in the process have identified some key principles that will be useful for people undergoing the fairly major, enforced changes that are our current reality. These principles will not only help now but will also be vital for those determined to emerge from the current crisis stronger and more successful than before.

Firstly, let me rewind to why and how we developed these principles.

Chemistry has just finished a big piece of insight work for an FTSE 100 multinational organisation. The client was worried that with a huge change of context (post-financial crash) salespeople were struggling with new ways of working

Anticipating this the client had put their 150 managers through rigorous and extensive management training. Chemistry’s data clearly showed that most of the managers had the Intellect, Personality, Motivation and Experience to succeed, they just weren’t. The problem was that the organisation had conflated knowledge with behaviour.

This organisation needed to focus on three behaviours to turn around its revenue gap, only three:

  • developing others through active coaching and mentoring
  • setting realistic targets and monitoring them to give feedback
  • robust idea exploration to enable effective decision making

When the client challenged us to help them implement these behaviours, we started gathering information, looking for data-driven insights. What was out there in the world of training/learning & development could help initiate scale behavioural change?

It turns out weight loss is a perfect analogy for what is wrong with training in organisations. Like all of us that have struggled to lose weight, these sales managers knew what to do, they just didn’t do it. I know I need to exercise and run a calorie deficit, I even know what to eat and what exercises to do…I just don’t do it?  Why not?  Because I don’t have time, because I have other pressing things to do, because, because, because.  How many times have you run those kinds of thoughts through your head at home and at work?  If you are anything like me, too many to count.

Within three weeks we had studied Weight Watchers and Alcoholics Anonymous and within six weeks we had a behavioural change methodology that scaled across an organisation of 1,000+ people.  We have illustrated three of them below:

One step at a time

Do one thing at a time, get great at it, be consistent, then do the next thing. In the above example, we worked on one behaviour for 3 months and only when we hit a level of consistency did we introduce the next behaviour.

Finally, focus on managers of people. For our client, just 150 managers caused a wave of behavioural change that turned around an organisation’s fortunes. 7% behind their target in February, the organisation ended up beating it by 14%, achieving the market-leading position for the first time in 8 years and receiving industry-wide accolades.

Create a support network

Make the behavioural change in groups, at Chemistry we call them Pods. There is a reason all WW classes and AA meetings are groups of people. Behavioural change is hard, you need support from people who are all going through the same change.

Not only does instituting the change in a group encourage support – it also adds motivation. Whether people lack rigorous self-discipline or have a competitive streak that means they perform best against others, a group dynamic can motivate people to adopt the behaviours they know they should more quickly, and more effectively.

Choose the right leader

Behavioural change has to be led by one of the cohort going through the change, not an expert. The person leading the WW class was often not the kind of fitness influencer we see plastered all over social media, that’s the point. Managers are far more likely to listen to one of their peers who has achieved the change they are trying to make and accept candid feedback from this person.

Having a peer in the behavioural change process is also likely to result in more effective and accurate feedback, as they will have a more in-depth and immediate experience of the context and process, rather than just a finished idea of what the end result should look like.

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