The ABCD’s of Behavior Change

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by Karen Barnes, Founder + Shift Leader

When trying to convey something complex, it’s usually effective to reduce an idea down to its bare essentials so people can get their arms around it. To make it a bite-sized chunk, if you will. There’s the popular For Dummies series, for example, that seeks to explain everything from finances to raising children. But there’s nothing simple about behavior change – whether it’s increasing wellbeing among employees or encouraging sustainable habits among consumers. It’s a topic that draws from multiple disciplines and offers no easy silver bullets.

As I’ve studied behavioral economics, social psychology, motivation theory, values modes and more over the years, I’ve been looking for a cohesive way of thinking about behavior change. After years of tinkering, I’d like to introduce this idea to you today.

I call it The ABCD’s of Behavior Change.

Let’s start with A: Alignment. Let’s say you’re an organization that wants to increase employee wellbeing. First, there may be a business case to be made – what’s the upside/downside? What’s the strategic imperative we’re trying to solve for? Once there’s agreement that wellbeing is indeed a worthy investment, you need to define what this nebulous term “wellbeing” means to your organization, stakeholders and employees. Is it physical wellness? Is it more? How will you know that your organizational level of wellbeing is better? What is it now? The initiative must then be assigned a level of strategic importance, visibility, funding and internal champions. This definition must be socialized throughout the organization and management on all levels aligned on its priority.

This first stage may require both internal and external resources to build the business case, uncover successful frameworks and research best practices. The exercise will benefit from talking with those who have already experimented and succeeded and by reviewing existing research or conducting new research. It will demand a truly engaged cross-functional team and C-suite endorsement. That’s a lot to align.

So what happens when an organization isn’t aligned? The entire initiative is designed to fail from the beginning. Here’s a sad but true story: a global manufacturer’s CEO issued a call for the company “to create a culture of innovation.” How many times have we heard that lately? Sounds great, but what does that really mean? This company decided they had to start with building trust and collaboration since many of their employees work in different countries and have never met fellow team members. But before any work could be done, the legal department required the culture team to sign internal NDAs, sending a powerful signal of distrust. The CEO signed off, a global innovation consultancy was brought on, a study was conducted. And then, the CEO retired. The new CEO, an internal hire who naturally wanted to make his mark, changed the definition and underpinnings of what an innovative culture looks like, sending the team back to the drawing board, losing months of work and momentum.

The next blog post will, naturally, progress to B, which stands for Behavior. Here’s a quick sneak peak at the rest of the model: B stands for Behavior, C is all about Communication and D represents Designing Decisions. Although this may sound intuitive, no one else is talking about behavior change this way and no one else is practicing it this way.

As we navigate the Critical Shifts before us, having a model like this can provide valuable guidance and direction to all kinds of change initiatives, helping to ensure long term vision and positive results. In this climate when we’re all under intense pressure to create change, whether it’s a culture of innovation or healthier employees, it’s always reassuring to have a roadmap. And this is our roadmap.

If you know your ABCD’s, we can get started. Let’s go make something happen.





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