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Harry Cassin
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Changing behavioral drivers for better compliance outcomes

In the previous posts, we talked about behavioral risk assessments – specifically, the benefits of the mixed-method approach, how to get granular with subculture audits, and why every organization needs to start doing them. We’ve seen practical tools and instruments companies can apply to that end. Before diving into how we can change the unwanted behaviors we’ve identified (spoiler – with behavioral interventions),  here is a small but important portion of theory.

Human behavior is a way of achieving a goal. Those behaviors, which, as we feel, are more effective in achieving our goals, become behavioral patterns, i.e., actions performed automatically. When asked about the drivers of such behaviors, people are likely to say something like, “this is how things are done here.” But wait, isn’t it a popular definition of organizational culture? Exactly.  

A simple sequence illustrates the point: drivers lead to behaviors, and these, in turn, lead to outcomes.  

In this framework, the behavioral risk is a risk of unwanted behavior leading to poor decisions or outcomes for the organization or the stakeholders. 

Although the behavior is the part that we see, to change it, we need to focus on the drivers that shape it rather than on the behavior itself. And as long as we are not fully aware of these drivers, immersive research methods like ethnographies (real-time observation, in simple terms) are a perfect fit for the task.

Next, behaviors do not exist in a vacuum – they arise from the interaction between many drivers. They are strongly influenced by the surrounding social context and, more specifically, by the groups a person belongs to or identifies herself with.  

Psychologists Joanne Smith and Winnifred Louis explain: “When individuals see themselves as belonging to a group and feel that being a group member is important to them, they will bring their behavior in line with the norms and standards of the group.”

Kurt Lewin, also a psychologist, introduced a formula B = f (P, E) that illustrates how an individual’s behavior is a function of the person and her environment. This environment, and the corresponding drivers, can exist on three levels: the team (leadership style, performance targets), the organization (company policies, strategies), and the wider context outside the organization (local culture, rule of law).

To change behavior means to change the environment in which one operates.

Following that thinking, managing behavioral risk is not about assessing individuals and their characteristics but rather about looking into group habits and norms that might need changing. It’s about looking into “how things are done here,” in other words. 

Behavioral change interventions based on social norms proved to be a low-cost yet effective way of transforming behavior. However, to tap into their power and reduce unwanted behaviors, it is critical to understand the drivers at play, the groups involved, and the social meaning of the norms. Having clarity on all that allows to set up the interventions that work.

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