Changing behaviour change

28th April 2016

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  • Management/saving ,
  • Business & Industry


Walter J Marks

When it comes to improving the sustainability of an organisation, everybody loves the idea of behaviour change.

Have an event. Put up some posters. Send around sustainability tips. Then your workforce will happily change their bad habits to save around 10% on your energy bills. By becoming a leaner, kinder, more sustainable organisation you will improve morale, attract high quality graduates and retain staff for longer. You might also improve health and wellbeing, reducing absenteeism, at the same time as delivering sustainable services that come at a lower cost to both clients and the planet.

There is robust research and a variety of case studies that show that all of the above is possible in principle. But in practice this is rarely the reality. Although behaviour change sounds easy and cheap, managing cultural change can be a huge challenge. However, if it is done well it can also deliver significant rewards.

Below are five of the key lessons we have learned about creating an effective behaviour change programme. This advice is based on our experience at the Carbon Trust of working with organisations of differing sizes across a range of sectors.

Aim high

Too often behaviour change projects can focus on behaviours that are highly visible but may not have a high impact, such as switching off mobile phone chargers. At the same time we shy away from projects we perceive may be difficult. A good example is comparing the overall environmental benefits from increasing recycling rates against the making a slight reduction in office temperature. Changing the office temperature could result in carbon emissions savings an order of magnitude greater than a recycling initiative, but this is often avoided as it can be too contentious an issue.

Reach the right audience

Think hard about who you actually need to target with behaviour change. This may require research, but if you know your organisation well it is often easy to pinpoint the right people. It is almost always easier to change the behaviour of a few people than thousands. To continue with the example of changing of office temperature then you will likely need to focus efforts on the relationship between the energy manager, building manager and the human resources department. Changing the office policy is a lot easier than changing general staff expectations.

Be ready for reactions

Understanding how your staff perceive any new behaviour is a vital step towards success. Once you know what you want people to do and who you want to do it, you need to know how your staff honestly weigh up the barriers and benefits of that action (both consciously and subconsciously). Often your staff don’t put a priority on cutting carbon emissions, or even saving money for the organisation. However, they might care about saving time for themselves, or any number of other things. Understand what they do care about and emphasise benefits from new behaviours that fit with core beliefs. In the case of the Nottingham Police it was the importance of data security and the risk of hacking that got them to turn off their computers overnight, rather than concern for climate change.

Approach change from multiple angles

Running a good behaviour change campaign requires having more than one approach to engaging your audience. Competitions can be fun and engaging, but also tend to have short term effects. Information and knowledge in posters and email are often key, but will not drive change unless staff are incentivised to change. Incentives can be costly, although they don’t have to be. Carbon Trust research shows that a simple 'thank you' from your boss can be as powerful as a financial incentive in driving change. Often the best interventions are those that nobody sees – the subtle and silent motivators. If you move a printer further away from desks people are likely to print things less often. Simultaneously influencing change in several small ways is likely to have a far more powerful effect than taking running single tactic at scale.

Create a positive feedback loop

Finally, it is vital that all of your behaviour change programmes are measured and monitored. Even if a project isn’t working well, good data can help you to understand why and make changes. It is also important that successful (or unsuccessful) outcomes are fed back to staff. Simply listening reactions and asking for opinions is a powerful behaviour change technique in itself, making the workforce feel cared for and more engaged. Most people want to know that they are having a meaningful impact in their daily lives. Feeding back information to staff is vital to the ongoing success of a campaign. This could be reductions in carbon emissions, financial savings on energy bills, tonnes of waste prevented from going to landfill, or miles of travel avoided.

Good behaviour change takes time. It takes effort, it costs money and it comes with mixed results if it is not well-delivered. To help overcome these challenges the Carbon Trust has been developing a new model to reduce the time, money and effort involved.

We are shortly going to be piloting a crowdsourced behaviour change programme which will work with multiple organisations on common behavioural challenges at the same time. This will allow organisations to pay a small amount each and share equally in the practical insights and benefits.

Through this approach we hope be able to build up a huge amount of knowledge on why staff behave the way they do and how best to change this. We will then use this commonwealth of knowledge to encourage an applied focus on the high impact projects that will guarantee meaningful savings.

If you are interested in finding out more about the Carbon Trust’s collaborative behaviour change approach or taking part in the behaviour change programme then please get in touch with me directly at [email protected].


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