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How to create sustainable behaviour change


Tom Quayle explores how organisations can make behavioural change stick.


When we talk about behaviour, what we really mean is our natural habits – the things that we do that are observable, consistent and frequent. Training - the transfer of knowledge and content - doesn't change behaviour. And it's for this reason that learning and development needs to move away from the fixation that the way to grow the capability of your staff and improve performance is through training. The reason is pure and simple: "What I know how to do, isn't what I will do."

So what can companies do to encourage long term behavioural change?


A core element of getting someone to do something differently is emotional. In our business, we call this a "personal intent". Chip and Dan Heath have done some great research on what motivates people to change in their book, Switch: How to change when change is hard.

"As lots of studies have found, there’s nothing more motivating than "knowing how I'm doing". It’s why apps like Nike Plus, Map My Run, Strava, to name a few, have catapulted millions of peoples’ personal behaviour change in the health and fitness industry."

Let's put this in the context of a completely separate industry. Let's consider running. The reason people start running isn't because they want to become a really good runner. This is a bi-product. It's sparked by the fact they're going on holiday to the Caribbean in three weeks or that they feel overweight and want to get back into shape. It's a personal motivation that inspires the change in behaviour.

So, much the same as when you set goals for yourself or others in business, you need to remember that the why that sits behind that goal is the most important element in driving the individual to attain it.

Tips for thinking about motivation

The management layer – this is critical to understanding and engaging the personal motivations of individuals in your business. What is the quality of their coaching/management conversations, and are they getting to the crux of why it’s important for that individual to be there in the first place?

The message you're sending out - "why" messages - are the most personally engaging messages, so how you talk about your business fundamentally impacts how people feel about it. If you're a telecoms business, for example, are you proud of the fact you have X number of connections across X number of countries? Or are you proud of connecting people, families and loved ones?


As lots of studies have found, there's nothing more motivating than "knowing how I'm doing". It's why apps like Nike Plus, Map My Run, Strava, to name a few, have catapulted millions of peoples’ personal behaviour change in the health and fitness industry.

Let's look at one of the most successful behaviour change organisations that exists – Weight Watchers – as an example of this. Interestingly, Weight Watchers doesn't give you a load of training materials, what it gives you is a mechanism. The points system at Weight Watchers isn't designed specifically to help you lose weight, what it does is it gets you in the habit of tracking what you're eating, and then as a bi-product helps you monitor your progress. Your awareness, gained through the tracking, is the first key shift that gets you thinking about what you eat and when.

This is critical to the shift that needs to happen in terms of how businesses think about how they change behaviour in their organisations. All too often, training materials are complicated, wordy, and impractical. What the likes of Weight Watchers and also fitness applications emphasise is trackability and useability.

Tips for thinking about measurement

  1. Run workshops with the specific population group and ask them what tools they found/find most useful. Try to condense these into two to three core tools that you can draw or describe on one side of A4.
  2. Think about how you can make these tools trackable. What you will need for the business is a way of showing progress, so this will help. What it also does is enables individuals to monitor their own progress – which is a key to motivating behaviour change.

Environmental triggers

In his most recent book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhagg provides a great summary of how all of our behaviours are triggered by cues. Any sustainable behaviour change programme needs to have thought through how this is incorporated.

When something isn't a natural behaviour (it doesn't happen frequently), you need triggers. People worked this out ages ago, and it's the reason why you see people with sticky notes stuck to their laptops with something like "remember to buy milk on the way home".

Exactly the same goes for business. Chemistry's strategy for this is a design session where we figure out how many "touchpoints" there are going to be in any given week. This might be an email, it might be a call, it might be phoning them up to ask them how it’s going, it might by sending out flyers or posters. The point is, it’s the trigger that reminds people of the piece of content they learnt in your original training session, and helps them to remember it and use it sustainably.

Tips for thinking about environmental triggers

  1. Development programmes need design sessions. Hold workshops with key stakeholders to look at not just what content you're going to introduce, but what interventions. Development shouldn't be a one-time training course, it should be followed up and sustained.
  2. Do your homework on your employees. If they're sales people and they're out on the road, how can you bring development directly to them? Is there an app or social networking forum you can communicate through? And what type of individuals are they? Are they likely to respond to emails or do they prefer face to face interactions? 


One thing that we've learnt at Chemistry about sustainable behaviour change is that it's social. It doesn't matter where you are on the introversion/extroversion scale, everyone craves social connections.

Looking at organisations such as Weight Watchers, one of the key features of these successful change environments is peer support, and it's a pretty simple idea. One of the key factors driving the behaviour change is people not wanting to let themselves - or others - down. Added to this, it's motivating to hear stories about other people's success, and similarly to help others who may find it more challenging.

Tips for thinking about communities

  1. Think about your business and the way it’s structured. How much cross-functional/regional learning happens today? One of the big things we've found about creating communities in the businesses we've worked with is that it breaks down barriers – you can have the sales director in London learning from the team leader in Leeds.
  2. Use technology. The world today is social and there are some great apps you can use to create learning communities. If you have Salesforce, this is ideal. If not, Yammer or Convofy are good starting points


Tom Quayle is a consultant at The Chemistry Group and leads their organisational mentoring programme, Pod Coaching. 


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