B Is For Building Behaviors

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By Karen Barnes, Founder + Shift Leader

For years, I’ve been studying human behavior looking for a cohesive way to think about it and to use its power to successfully navigate organizational culture change. After years of tinkering, I’ve developed a roadmap – The ABCD’s of Behavior Change – that incorporates best practices across disciplines like social psychology, change management, and behavioral economics. In the last post, we discussed A for Alignment and today I’d like to continue our conversation with the second step, B for Building Behaviors.

But first a reminder about A. A stands for alignment on several key questions:

  • What’s the business case for change?
  • What’s the strategic imperative we’re trying to solve for? For example, are we trying to build wellbeing or innovation into our culture?
  • How do we define our strategic imperative? What does wellbeing or innovation mean to us?
  • What are the beliefs, knowledge and action gaps and what are we willing to do about them?

The B phase starts to take us into the How of culture change. If organizational culture is defined as the same behaviors repeated over time, than changing those behaviors is how cultures evolve. We want to build desired behaviors into the culture so they simply become “the way we do it around here.”

In the Building Behaviors phase, we’re investigating questions like:

  • What behaviors would make big differences if everyone did them?
  • How can we help those behaviors spread?
  • Who will champion the new behaviors?
  • What’s holding us back?
  • What else do we need to succeed?
  • What should we start, stop and keep doing?
  • What’s the biggest behavioral lever for change?

There are many strategies we can use to identify, strengthen, reward and socialize desired behaviors throughout an organization. Sometimes, building behaviors starts with stopping others – by making the desired behavior the default. For instance, new employees are automatically enrolled in the 401(k) plan instead of opting in. Or individual trashcans are replaced with recycling bins, and trashcans are placed in central areas near compost bins. When you make the desired behavior the norm, you make it harder for the brain to say no, it’s default answer.

You can also build people’s abilities, giving them fewer reasons to resist change. According to Stanford professor B.J. Fogg, there are six abilities we can leverage: time, money, physical effort, mental effort, normal behavior, and familiarity. If we ask someone to change their behavior, are we giving them the time they need to perform that new behavior? Do they have to make more of a physical effort? Does the new behavior make them think more or in ways they’re not used to? Does it seem like other people are also doing it? Is it something they’ve done or seen before? By building people’s abilities, they feel more confident and less anxious about adopting new behaviors, increasing the chances the new behaviors will stick and momentum will build.

We can also scale up successes. Often, there are existing pockets of success inside organizations, but they’re not shared or replicated. By turning attention to what behavioral scientists call positive deviance, we find out what individuals or teams are doing differently that creates better impact. Identifying those vital behaviors is the first step, followed by a larger scale prototype to understand how those can scale, as well as how they can be reinforced and rewarded, in a different environment. Once the prototypes show success that can be replicated, it’s time for a larger roll out.

These are just a handful of the strategies we can use to help your shift your culture to where you want it to be. In a time when organizational culture is under increasing pressure to influence talent acquisition and retention, employee engagement, wellbeing, innovation, performance and collaboration, it’s time to take a serious look at the current state of your culture. And it just might be time to make a critical shift. Let us know how we can help.

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