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Behavioral interventions you can apply to your ABC compliance today

In my previous post, I looked at the behavioral interventions that some organizations currently use. We saw the important distinction between individual- and system-level interventions, why it is key to use them together, and how all of that translates into the ethics and compliance narrative. Today I would like to illustrate the point further using anti-corruption compliance, still one of the most pressing issues for many (if not all) ethics and compliance practitioners.

How can behavioral science help us make ABC compliance programs more effective? And what are the best interventions to use? 

But first, let’s spend a few minutes on criminology. With the OECD Convention and UNCAC being the important drivers for establishing corporate liability, bribery and corruption in the private sector are now criminalized in many more jurisdictions. That allows me to weave in some of the insights from criminological science as well. 

Essentially, criminology says that an act of crime is an outcome of a particular person in a specific setting. People’s propensity to commit a crime and the setting’s criminogenity vary. The worst-case scenario is when crime-prone people find themselves in criminogenic settings. Avoiding that is the best strategy to reduce crime.

So, you see, criminologists confirm the point made by behaviorists: for best results, we need to intervene on both individual and system levels. 

Now that the argument is bulletproof, let’s get back to the interventions. You can start applying these straight away to your ABC compliance program.

Identifiable victim effect. At ABC training sessions, we talk a lot about corruption risks and the potential negative consequences of unethical decisions. How about we focus on the real victims of corruption instead? People are more likely to listen in and sympathize with identifiable persons made of flesh and blood rather than abstract statements. Show a clear example of how concrete persons can benefit from your company not doing corruption.

Hot/cold emotional states. People commonly underestimate how much emotions, stress, anxiety, and other intense feelings can affect their future judgment. The solution? Plan and rehearse when you are in the cold state how you will act when you feel under pressure, i.e., in a future hot state. Write the scripts, and invite employees to practice at training sessions. In this way, they build moral muscle memory and “automate” ethical decisions, bringing emotions down.

Optimism bias. Humans are overly optimistic when it comes to making estimates about ourselves. People often believe that bad things (for example, being caught) are more likely to happen to somebody else rather than to them. Confronting this with objective stats can help keep the bias in check.

Targeting social norms is a relevant intervention if they are an important element fueling and incentivizing corruption. To put it in plain English – when employees have a propensity to do bribes because they believe that everyone else is doing them.

The goal is to make them think quite the opposite with specific messages. But first, you must carefully diagnose the norms at play and the different things influencing the behavior of the targeted employee. You may use various analytical frameworks to do that, and the result can look like an employee’s “mind map.” Once you have it, you are in a better position to craft messages (and select messengers) with the most impact.

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