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The 10 Biggest Mistakes Behavior Change Programs Make

behavior change: 10 common mistakes to avoid

The 10 Biggest Mistakes Behavior Change Programs Make

by Mike Walker • August 5, 2015

At some point in our careers, we all find ourselves face-to-face with a behavior change challenge. For example, we might be tasked with convincing employees to use a new software application, or customers to try a re-designed product, or neighbors to embrace a new community initiative. Regardless, here are ten traps to avoid, based on our nearly 14 years of experience and a body of research by economists and scientists such as Richard Thaler and BJ Fogg.

1. Focusing on changing people’s minds instead of facilitating the desired behaviors.

One of the many counter-intuitive findings of social science research is that attitudes don’t necessarily drive people’s behavior. In fact, it’s usually the other way around: people’s values and attitudes tend to flow from their behaviors. Forget about changing minds. What matters is action, so focus your efforts on facilitating the desired action!

2. Assuming people will change behavior when presented with compelling facts.

If only! The field of behavioral economics has demonstrated that we humans are not always logical, rational, or driven by coherent internal motivations. (Example: I know the importance of getting roughly 30 minutes of vigorous exercise every day – yet here I sit!) A host of factors conspire to influence people’s actions, and facts are just one of them.

3. Believing that good communication is the most important factor in any behavior change program.

Communication always gets the blame when behavior fails to change – most of the time, unfairly. Why? Because communication is the principle focus of most change campaigns – after all, it’s what marketers and advertisers are best at doing. But good communication is just a prerequisite for behavior change. It’s necessary, but typically insufficient. (Although every challenge is unique, we’ve identified 3 factors that characterize successful behavior change solutions.)

4. Going first for big change instead of starting with small, easy successes.

James Collins and Jerry Porras famously encouraged companies to come up with “big, hairy, audacious goals” in their 1994 book, Built to Last. All well and good, but leaders need to break down big changes into bite-sized chunks for people. Start with baby steps: specific actions that people can sustain over time. Early successes lay a foundation for long-term successes.

5. Underestimating the power of environment to shape behavior.

Small changes to the context in which decisions are made can greatly influence human behavior. Redesign the environment so it’s conducive to the new behavior. Remember: when you present choices to people, there is no such thing as a neutral presentation!

6. Trying to avoid old behaviors instead of creating new ones.

It’s really hard to simply stop a negative habit, so replace it with a positive one instead. It’s far more effective than trying to go “cold turkey.”

7. Blaming failure on lack of motivation.

Willpower is a finite resource: sooner or later it will be depleted. Everyone’s motivation ebbs and flows; what people need more than willpower is easier behaviors. Make the desired behavior the “path of least resistance.”

8. Ignoring the importance of triggers.

No behavior happens without a trigger. We’re hungry? We eat. The light turns green? We step on the gas. Our smartphone chirps? We glance at the display. Established triggers cue automatic behaviors, so we must identify triggers and pair them with new behaviors. In some cases you can eliminate a trigger (e.g., turn off smartphone notifications), or find a preceding trigger and pair it with a new behavior that preempts the old.

9. Talking to people about abstract goals instead of concrete behaviors.

The problem with an abstract goal is that there is no specific call to action. For restaurant workers, “conserve water” is abstract. “Wait to run the dishwasher until it is completely full of dirty dishes” is concrete. It’s important to translate goals into simple, actionable steps.

10. Seeking to change forever, instead of for a defined period of time.

Imagine asking co-workers to recycle all of their waste paper from henceforth and in perpetuity. Now imagine asking them to recycle all of their waste paper just for this week. A fixed period works better than “forever” when it comes to building new habits. Because if it sounds doable, people might just give it a try.

Have you encountered other mistakes when it comes to behavior change initiatives? Let me know!