Effectively Change Culture and Behaviors

Here's a scary fact: scary facts don't change people's behavior! So why do we continue to see health promotion posters like "Sleeping 8 hours per night can reduce your risk of heart disease by 40%." Truth is, that's far too abstract. If I can't conceptualize my personal risk of heart disease in terms of a statistical probability, then decreasing that risk by 40% means nothing to me.

There are many theories and pieces to the puzzle of behavior change. For most populations, there's no real silver bullet, but rather the answer lies in finding the right combination of the most effective aspects of each theory and communication process to fit your target culture.

While I don't want to downplay the complexity of behavior, I do think many within our industry tend to over-complicate it. If you believe some, the only way to achieve behavior change is by following the Kernel Sanders' recipe of twelve secret herbs and spices with a pinch of technology, a dash of communication, and just the right dose of incentives.

In reality, it's more about the framing and positioning of value you communicate to your workforce. You need to understand your employee's interests and values. You also need to understand their social culture and influences. By knowing these two critical details, you can create communication methods and content that will both reach the audience, and provide them with motivation.

The elements you're striving for, which, according to Colorado State University sociologist, Jeni Cross, can increase the effectiveness of behavior change messaging by as much as 3 times, are tangibility, personalization, and social interaction.

Tangible: Aim to communicate value which has relevance to your target population. As described above, statistics don't always achieve this. Instead, try to quantify the damage or poor behaviors, or quantify the benefits of good behaviors. For example in our blue collar programs, we utilize software to quantify the physical impact of poor manual handling behaviors, and then communicate this to employees personally by helping them understand the actual amount of extra strain their specific works tasks place on their body in a given day, week, or month. Rather than simply saying "Poor manual handling increases the strain on your back," we are able to quantify the impact in tangible terms, and offer them personal value if they choose to improve or change those poor behaviors. Does it work? You bet. Those blue collar programs achieve significant cultural and behavioral shifts in terms of work task habits, and many clients see injury rates as much as halved within the first couple of years of a program.

Personal: What's in it for me? We know that personal gain motivates people, but don't assume this is just monetary gain. People are motivated by all kinds of personal values. Allowing some autonomy within programs where people can choose their goals, or identify their own value for changing can help increase their motivation. Within our programs we focus a lot on face to face coaching, which we believe has a huge impact on our positive outcomes. But you don't have to use coaching to increase the feeling of personalization. In some work we've done for a major insurance carrier, we've had positive impact by supplementing workplace posters and messages with personal postcards mailed to individuals to help increase the sense of personalization and relevance. Very low cost, but it boosts the sense of personalization and we've seen employees respond accordingly.

Social Interaction: People are social creatures. We want to feel connected and understood. The value of empathy a personal coach can provide an employee cannot be understated. However, again, you don't have to use coaching if you want to harness the behavioral powers of social influence. Many wellness program activities occur in the periphery of a workplace. The walking group leaves the office to go for walks, lunch and learns happen in an isolated conference room, or whatever. To increase participation, bring wellness touch points out of the shadows. When less engaged employees see others participating (particularly colleagues with strong social standing) it increases social pressures to also participate. People inherently want to fit in, and mirroring behaviors is incredibly common. At HBD, we work closely with clients to build program communications and touch points into the normal flow of the workplace; engaging employees during their normal work. It eliminates the need for employees to proactively sign up before they can participate while also boosting the visibility and social awareness of the program. With our programs averaging  80%-90% of populations voluntarily engaging in the program every month; we think it's an excellent way to improve the effectiveness of a program's ability to influence cultural change.   

The most important thing to remember when creating wellness programs and communications is that you need to understand your audience. You, as a healthy, self-motivated individual are a minority, and the things that motivate you to be healthy don't really matter. What matters are the interests, personal values, and social culture of your target population. If you can create options and messages that resonate within those values, then you will reach a tipping point in achieving significant population engagement and behavior change.   

For information on how you can take your program to the next level, please contact us at info@hbdinternational.com to discuss your challenges and learn about the success we've achieved with others like you.

Published on by Andrew Stephenson.