Employee Engagement
9 min read

The behavioral science behind adopting new behaviors


Lyssa Test

Writer, Culture Amp

Reading Time: 9 minutes

While some people find change exciting, others can find it be disorienting and intimidating. Convincing others to embrace change can therefore be challenging, especially if your attitude about the change is different from theirs. If the change will have different effects on you as a leader than them as an employee, or if it benefits the company more than the employee, that can cause unnecessary tension companywide. If, for example, your employees work overtime but you still go home at 5:00 pm, or salaried workers have to work overtime but still get the same pay, you may receive pushback on the organizational change you’re trying to implement.

Anytime you’re introducing a new policy, system, leader, or change in your workplace, employees will naturally be wary – even if the change is ultimately beneficial. People need proper support to wrap their head around new information and time to adapt their behavior. 

It’s important to note that many organizations run lean. Employees are using their full mental capacity to do their jobs as is, so understanding and implementing organizational change management comes with additional mental demands that employees might not be able to manage on their own. 

After all, change requires employees to put an end to old habits, remember what the new behavior should be, practice that new habit, and learn and improve their skills. That can be a lot to ask when employees already have so much on their plate, professionally and mentally. 

That’s not to say encouraging your employees to embrace change is impossible. On the contrary, while change can seem intimidating, oftentimes, it benefits employees and can help make their lives better. So, how can you encourage your teams to keep an open mind and give change a chance?

To help get employees over that mental hurdle, you need to look deeper into the science behind managing change in the workplace to better understand how people process that change. Here’s a brief look at the forces that make it easier to embrace change and those that make it harder, so you can reduce friction and speed up adoption.

Understanding behavior change

According to psychology and economics professor Dan Ariely, human behavior will follow the status quo unless one of two things happens: there is a change in “fuel” or a change in “friction.” “Fuel” increases motivation, as it is anything that gives people the why behind a change or encourages them to adopt the new change. For example, hearing that a new process makes a task easier or simpler or taking part in a company-wide competition that encourages employees to exercise more. 

“Friction,” on the other hand, is anything that makes it hard for people to adopt a change. This would be anything from long, time-consuming paperwork or confusion around a new way of doing things. It’s important to note that perceived friction is as important as actual friction. Even if a change or new system has low logistical friction, if your employees perceive it to take a lot of psychological or physical effort, they will be less likely to adopt the change.

To improve organizational change management, you need to increase fuel and reduce friction to make the transition easier for your employees. Just be mindful of positivity bias. Many organizations try to focus on providing more fuel, rather than addressing friction as the latter is often rife with conflict. However, if you don’t remove friction, you will have to monumentally increase your fuel to offset the imbalance, which can drive up costs for your organization. 

Fuel

There are many types of fuel you can use to inspire your people to care about a change. Five types that are especially relevant for people leaders are: 

  1. Meaning – People are motivated by doing meaningful work.
  2. Progress – People want to see the results or impact of their efforts and know that their efforts tie back to a greater purpose
  3. Relatedness – People crave social inclusion and connection. They want to feel a sense of belonging and appreciation, while also helping others. 
  4. Autonomy/agency – People want ownership and control over what they do. 
  5. Competence – People want to experience a sense of mastery and achievement, like overcoming a challenge or working towards a larger goal

It’s also important to note that each person needs a different combination of fuel to form new habits most efficiently, and you’ll need to customize your approach to every individual. As an example, which combination of these five would make up your unique mix? What about the person in your organization who is most likely to support change? Which of these five would they care most about? And of course, what about the person or people in your organization who would resist change the most? How might their interests, preferences, or needs shape what they care about?

Do you notice any differences in how these three audiences would want to be approached about a large change? We tend to emphasize the components that mean the most to us when pitching others and are often confused when it doesn’t seem to motivate them. Cater your pitch to your audience to make it personal for them and motivate them to care to learn more.

Friction

If fuel is anything that increases motivation, friction is anything that makes it harder to accomplish the change. It can easily eclipse whatever fuel you have to motivate change, and stall your change strategy. Three common sources of friction in organizations are:

  • Inconsistent change: When one department or person changes their behavior and finds that it is now incompatible with the habits of others. This is usually someone who resisted the change or who was not consulted during organizational change management planning. If one team or department adapts to new policies but the other doesn’t, this might force everyone to revert back to old ways and curtail adoption.
  • Incomplete change: You’ve given people new behaviors to enact but have not provided the necessary resources to enable that new behavior. For example, many healthcare companies are trying to balance finding the time in a single day to see patients and the time to fill out the piles of necessary paperwork.
  • Unclear change situations: Employees might not know that the new habits should apply in all the circumstances it does. For example, is this a customer-facing policy or just internal? The more rules there are around a specific behavior change, the harder it is to make the shift.

The 6 tips for changing behavior

When it comes to changing behaviors, from a behavior science point of view, we look to address things like cognitive biases, ego, and our preference for maintaining the status quo and behavior we already know. In organizational change, that might be figuring out how to get our employees to move past sunk costs – that is, we are naturally resistant to change because we have already invested time in doing something one way.

That said, there are ways to overcome the hurdles of change adoption, and our team of people scientists has boiled the process down to six steps. To help you remember them all, we call the strategy “EA PIPS.” 

At Culture Amp, we use this process to design our products and make them easier for users to adopt and grow, but you can use the same methodology in your own organization to encourage employees to embrace change. Here’s a look at what it entails and how it could help your employees handle managing change in the workplace: 

  1. Easy

Any change that is time-consuming or difficult to understand will face some amount of resistance. In this situation, it’s best not to take an all-or-nothing approach. Rather, do your best to remove friction and ease people into the transition. Make the behavior easy to adopt by limiting choices, having an easy first step, or creating an iterative learning journey to help people get their feet wet and make the change seem less intimidating.

We all have limited cognitive resources and our first instinct is to go with what we know. Some easy ways to simplify adoption is to introduce software that can be integrated with single sign-on (SSO), incorporate the change in new manager training, or do phased roll-outs so users aren’t overwhelmed.

  1. Attention

When introducing a change you want to be mindful of your audience’s attention spans. Try your best to make information enjoyable, or at least easy to digest and recall. We all get distracted, so plan accordingly and have periodic reminders, handouts, recordings, or checkpoints, so your team can get a quick refresh on the change and how to implement it on their own time.

  1. Personalize

We all want to know how a change impacts us personally and why we should care. When introducing a change to your team, do your best to personalize your delivery to make it more relevant to your audience. and meaningful for me. For example, you might explain the benefits of a new system to new managers and existing managers in different ways and address how it can help their unique needs. 

  1. Intention

It’s easier to get people to adopt change when you get their buy-in and hold them accountable. A great way to do both is to get a commitment from your employees. For added accountability, making these intentions known publicly or giving employees the option to share them with their managers or peers can motivate people to meet their on-paper commitment. 

For example, having people leave a training after making a vow to “be a better manager” versus having them write down the same goal, how they plan to improve, what actions they’ll take to be a better manager, as well as when they want to reassess their progress or evaluate success can motivate them to follow up on their promise and hold themselves accountable.

  1. Progress

People want to see the impact of their efforts. Progress can be used to reinforce good behavior by showing change, growth, and movement, which can encourage your teams to keep up with the change moving forward.

  1. Social

Share what others are doing, and lean into our need for connection and belonging. One way to incorporate this step in your planning strategy is to ask internal staff to share their success stories or any best practices for using the new system, policy, technology, etc. 

Motivating change moving forward

Follow these steps and you’re on your way to using behavioral science to motivate and persuade people to adopt new behaviors. Just remember, implementing change and getting organizational buy-in needs to be done just right to get people on-board. 

After all, you won’t be successful if your employees just change their behavior in the short-term. You need to be consistent and intentional with your adoption plan to ensure your employees are committed to long-term adoption.


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