What can COVID-19 teach us about behavioural change in the enterprise?

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez January 19, 2021 Audio mode
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a mass exercise in convincing the public to change their behaviour. What can this teach us about change management in the enterprise?


It goes without saying that the COVID-19 has forced behavioural change on a scale that hasn't been seen in decades. From limiting social contacts to remote working, the novel Coronavirus has likely permanently shifted the way we operate as a society for years to come. However, despite the introduction of effective vaccines, the threat of the virus is still very much present and governments are beginning to reflect on how they can continue to convince people to abide by rules to keep it at bay. 

With this in mind, it was interesting to hear two behavioural scientists give evidence to a Parliamentary Committee this week on what has worked and what hasn't, as it relates to the sharing of data and the use of data for campaigns in order to nudge the public's behaviour in the ‘right' direction. 

Upon listening to the evidence, which was strictly in relation to the UK government's response to COVID-19, it struck me that many of the lessons that are being learned could be valuable for enterprises considering effective change management programmes. 

As we know, technology projects often fall short not because of the technology itself, but because enterprises fail to convince their people that working in a different way will produce better outcomes for the organisation. It's not enough to implement new digital tools and hope employees and customers will simply believe that they're better - you've got to use information and behavioural techniques to *convince* those people that they will produce better results. 

This might sound like a stretch - comparing COVID-19 to the implementation of a new CRM tool, or a new collaboration platform - but stick with me. The most common reason we hear that a ‘transformation' project has failed to take off or hasn't achieved the anticipated results is because of an organisation's inability to convince users its a good idea, or that it didn't take this into consideration early enough. 

So, according to the behavioural scientists giving evidence this week, what can be learned from the UK's response to COVID-19? 

Clear messaging

Both Dr David Halpern and Professor Steve Reicher were clear that despite what might be portrayed in media headlines, or insinuated by the government itself, the public has been extremely compliant in adjusting to stay at home orders, social distancing and washing their hands. However, both admit that this is in spite of some of what the government has done to achieve this. 

One point, which may seem obvious, is that Halpern and Reicher don't feel that the government has adhered to clear messaging. The role of clear communications and simple orders to follow - with an understanding of why the agenda is important - are critical to successful change. Reicher said: 

The government has acted in ways that contradict some of the principles we put forward very clearly. Let me just give you a couple of examples. One is the importance of the clarity of messaging. When we had the message ‘stay home', 96% of people understood it. When it changed to ‘stay alert', 31% of people understood it. It wasn't clear what it meant. It wasn't clear what people were supposed to do with it. It violated core principles of messaging. 

This should certainly be considered in enterprise communications when seeking users to adopt new tools or change the way they work. Too often we see sporadic, ill thought through internal campaigns, without any clear understanding of how users may be impacted. Simple messages that highlight the importance of the change, coupled with direct engagement, are vastly more effective than sending out a 20 page PDF via email and hoping that will do the job. 

Blame and trust

As noted above, the British public has actually been largely compliant with the ever changing measures introduced by the government - in spite of what has been inconsistent messaging and blame thrown the public's way for increasing infections. However, according to Reicher, one of the failings of the media and authorities is using blame as a mechanism to drive change. He said: 

If you say to people ‘everyone's doing this, stop it', what people hear is that everybody is doing it. That begins to suggest there is a norm of behaviour and people begin to think, well if everybody else is doing it, why shouldn't I do it? So it's unhelpful. 

Again, very useful for change managers. If a project isn't going to plan and users are persisting with the status quo, rather than broadcasting ‘bad behaviour' to the organisation - which will only reinforce users' views that other people agree that change is bad, rather build an understanding of why people are reluctant to new approaches. Which brings me on to Reciher's second point: trust. He notes: 

Secondly, and this is fundamental for compliance with government, and with authority in general - the social relationship between the public and government. If you begin to treat the public as the problem, and as ‘other', you break that relationship. You break that relationship of trust, you undermine common cause and you undermine compliance. 

Trust between users and the authority of an organisation - the leaders that are driving the change - is essential. Which is why it's critical to have stakeholders at the most senior level showcasing how they have adopted the changes being asked of users and campaigning the benefits. Reicher added: 

The way in which people absorb information is not simply a matter of the information itself. A lot of the time we're telling people about things in which they're not an expert. It's fundamentally a matter of your relationship to the source of that information. Do we trust those people or not?

So how do we build that trust, which leads people to accept the information? A lot of it is about treating people as if they're one of us, treating people with respect, listening to people being transparent with people. Therefore, providing information is not only the basis of science, it's the basis of building up that relationship of trust, which is going to be critical to people accepting the information they give to you. 

Again, companies being transparent with information isn't enough. Making information available as to why change is important, or how the adoption of new tech will be better, isn't going to be sufficient. The leaders, or the people driving the change, need to be on the ground building trust with the users, *showing* them why change is better. 

Running an effective campaign

Closely related to the two points above, Dr Halpern notes that making data or information available for citizens/users/employees isn't the same as running an effective campaign that delivers actual change. In other words, whilst transparency is good, to drive real change you have to take the information available and drill down into what matters for people. 

So while a company may see revenue opportunities or cost cutting possibilities from implementing a new solution - how is this going to make the life of an employee or a customer better on a day to day basis? That's the detail you need to run an effective campaign. Halpern said: 

You want to explain your message in a very succinct and effective way. You want to make sure there are mechanisms to make sure that data is being used correctly, but in the end you want to boil it down in as simple way as possible. You can put as much data out there as possible, but that isn't the same as running a campaign. 

For example, you know, having a confident doctor or a nurse saying it's really important if you feel ill to come in. Will that be more effective than having a picture of someone in pain? And most people think it would be the doctor that is more effective, but it turns out seeing the face of someone in pain was more effective. 

There isn't going to be a one size fits all approach to this in the enterprise, but companies need to think clearly about what their campaigns for change will look like and test different approaches to gauge effectiveness. Fundamentally though, Reicher said that the change will come if people really understand why the change is being asked of them. He added: 

People aren't stupid. We've seen that people can take the pain, with huge suffering and difficulties, during the pandemic - but they won't do it for nothing. We won't take the pain with no gain. So you need to show people that the measures that you're implementing are effective 

And if you look at many of the debates that have been around lockdown, for instance, they haven't been debates about whether we should have measures. They have been debates about whether they're effective or not. So we need to understand the key drivers of behaviour. And we need figures which speak to those specifically. But you also need to present the data in a way that it makes it concrete that people can relate to it.

More carrot and less stick

One of the final points made by both scientists, as it relates to the pandemic, was that inducing fear in the public isn't a particularly effective way of getting them to comply with the rules. Whilst the stakes aren't life and death in an enterprise context, we do see examples of companies using more ‘stick' than ‘carrot'. In other words, instead of bringing an organisation along with you by incentivising them to change through the points highlighted above, leaders sometimes adopt an approach of ‘do this or else'. Reicher said: 

There is quite a wide range of literature, which shows simply inducing fear turns people away and turns them off. What is effective, and it's a subtle distinction, is to get people to understand risk - but also understand what they can do to mitigate that risk. So just saying, ‘we're all doomed', there's nothing we can do about it. It's not very effective. What is powerful, however, is to say, there's a very real risk out there and these are the steps that we can take to deal with it.

Again, the context of risk in business is vastly different to that of a deadly pandemic. But the same theory applies. Instead of saying to people ‘if we don't do this our company is doomed', which will turn people off to adopting change to make a difference to avoid this outcome, rather say to people ‘these are the risks if we don't do this, but here are the individual measures we can take to reduce that risk'. It's a subtle difference, as Reicher notes, but it's an important one. 

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