changing employee behaviors

Our work with clients often revolves around changing employee behaviors in order to more effectively deliver a brand promise. What our clients often find surprising is that the work of shifting behavior is less about the behavior itself and more about the beliefs that are behind it. The behavior is the “easy” part. Beliefs are where the long-term impact is made, and where rigor and discipline come into play.

Behaviors are usually pretty easy to teach through explanation, demonstration and practice. You explain a behavior, you show how to do it, and then you offer coaching and support while the new behavior is practiced. Seems simple enough.

The Biggest Opportunity is Explaining the “Why”

But it’s the process of explaining why you do something that is so critical and important in long term sustainment – particularly as it relates to delivering a brand promise. The “why” is where the opportunity lies, and it’s not just “why” in the superficial sense. It’s the bigger picture – it’s the connection to the values that are the core of a brand.

Think about your own life. How long do you sustain a behavior if you don’t have an underlying belief that supports it? For example, partaking in regular exercise requires a fundamental belief about the benefits you will receive. For most of us, we’ll be quick to give up exercise if we don’t have a belief that tells us why we should do it.

Maintaining those beliefs requires reinforcement. We might read blog posts from health experts or listen to podcasts from trainers and fitness gurus. Or we follow like-minded people on social media or participate in virtual group discussions about the benefits of exercise. We talk to friends and family who share our beliefs and those conversations reinforce our own position. It’s that structure for sustainment that provides the greatest opportunity for long-term success in shifting or supporting a behavior.

Sustaining a Behavior Shift Can Be Challenging Without Ongoing Reinforcement

The challenge for businesses when it comes to shifting behaviors is usually the sustainment. It’s tempting for organizations to deliver training and assume that the work is complete – even if that training incorporates a solid foundation that focuses on shifting beliefs.

Recently, Starbucks has been in the news for efforts to shift belief and build awareness around bias and discrimination. In late May, the company closed 8,000 of its retail locations across the US to conduct diversity training after an incident in April at a Philadelphia store resulted in the arrest of two black men. In response, Starbucks delivered four hours of training that focused on anti-bias and building awareness of unconscious discrimination.

Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson said the training is just the beginning. “We won’t get it right every single time, but if we stay at this, we will get it right more and more.” That’s the key – staying at it. He’s right. They won’t get it right every single time, but the rigor and discipline will contribute to a long term shift that absolutely can impact behavior. The key for Starbucks will be in keeping the conversations alive and integrated into the ongoing employee experience.

Ideas for Sustainment

That could include regular team huddles focused on specific topics that encourage conversation, collaboration and exploration of related topics. It could look like incorporating the beliefs into the hiring and onboarding process so that they’re obvious to candidates and new employees, making it easier to hire people who naturally align with the beliefs. It could be integration of the belief structures into performance management and recognition programs so that employees are acknowledged and rewarded for their alignment with the values of the organization. It could be mentorship programs where new employees are paired with senior team members who can offer guidance and coaching on a variety of topics related to beliefs and brand values.

Behaviors can stick long term if the rigor and discipline are in place that will keep them alive on a daily basis. And when new behaviors need to be introduced in the future, they can more easily be integrated into the employee experience by connecting them to existing beliefs. Even though employees won’t get it right every time, the more the beliefs are reinforced and included in daily conversation, the better chance they have of getting it right most of the time.

For other thoughts on behaviors, beliefs and company culture, be sure to read this article:

Want to change company culture? Start by changing beliefs.

About Alice Wright

As Director of Content Strategy, Alice directs projects while also designing program strategy and instructional content. She has more than 22 years of experience managing integrated strategic marketing, communication and training programs for globally recognized brands. Some of her current and past clients include Nike, Sunglass Hut, Safeway, Banfield Pet Hospital, Office Depot, Unilever, LensCrafters, EMC, Intel, Microsoft, Dell, adidas, Joann Stores and others. Alice earned her bachelor’s degree from the School of Journalism and Communication at University of Oregon. She lives with her husband and teenage son in Portland, Oregon where she loves exploring the outdoors and being a soccer/band mom.