Whether your company wants to break into a new market, increase brand loyalty, or develop a healthy workplace culture, changing human behavior is a necessary aspect. And as any manager or marketer will tell you, this can sometimes feel like an impossible task - habit formation comes naturally to human beings, but this means the creation of new habits and behaviors is often a battle against deeply entrenched ways of doing things. 

As if this wasn't difficult enough, companies also have to figure out how to change behavior in a sustainable way. It doesn't matter if employees behave responsibly and respectfully whenever a manager is looking but revert to destructive habits when left alone - or if consumers decide to try a new product or service for a few months only to abandon it. Companies have to understand how to encourage long-term habits that aren't liable to shift at a moment's notice. 

With that in mind, let's take a look at what the experts have to say about facilitating sustainable behavioral change that will help companies become as productive and secure as possible. 

Behavioral change begins with leadership

How many new senior-level executives have sat through a long and dreary PowerPoint presentation that included the word "leadership" on every slide? How many articles are published every day outlining the "top 10 ways to be a great leader"? When you think of all the books, podcasts, and seminars about leadership, it's striking that companies still have such a hard time identifying, educating, and supporting effective leaders. 

According to Gallup's State of the American Manager Report, almost two-thirds of managers in the U.S. aren't engaged at work. Gallup points out that this has a direct impact on employee engagement (with 70 percent of the variance in employee engagement scores attributable to management), and a staggering 50 percent of U.S. workers report that they've left a job to get away from a bad manager. 

Torch is a leadership development platform designed to solve these problems. By providing founders, CEOs, and senior-level executives with a personalized solution that gives them access to rigorous, data-driven performance metrics, one-on-one coaching, anonymous colleague feedback, and other tools that increase accountability and transparency, Torch helps companies maintain a consistent focus on leadership. As Torch co-founder and COO Keegan Walden explains, the platform exists to "create sustained positive behavior change among employees." 

There's a reason Torch has raised $13.5 million and worked with high-profile clients like Reddit co-founder and CEO Steve Huffman. Garry Tan, the co-founder of Initialized Capital, learned that he needed to be less avoidant of conflict and has embraced radical candor (among other things) as a result of his coaching. Unlike typical training solutions, which treat leadership as a skill that can be taught in an afternoon or two, Torch recognizes that leadership has to be developed and maintained over time. As Walden observes, "If standard training seminars were all it took to make managers into great leaders, we would have solved this problem long ago." Considering the impact that effective managers and other leaders have on employee behavior, it's clear that a more holistic, evidence-based approach to leadership development is long overdue for many companies. 

How education can change employee behavior

Just as leadership training can be a tedious and exhausting slog for managers, other forms of employee training are often even worse. If you've ever suffered through a battery of "training modules" on sexual harassment, updated HR policies, or cybersecurity, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. 

According to a survey conducted by the Society of Human Resource Management, just a quarter of employees say they're "very satisfied" with the job-specific training offered by their companies. Meanwhile, Gartner reports that 64 percent of managers "don't think their employees are able to keep pace with future skill needs." Despite the fact that companies spend more than $70 billion on training annually, it's clear that there are serious problems with the way companies are attempting to educate their employees and change their behavior. 

Zack Schuler is the founder and CEO of a cybersecurity awareness training company NINJIO, and he's trying to change the dismal status quo when it comes to employee education. Like so many important subjects, cybersecurity is often addressed in a boring and perfunctory way - from mass emails to stuffy meetings with the IT team that are forgotten as soon as they end. Schuler describes these as "check-the-box" cybersecurity exercises that have nothing to do with creating lasting behavioral change - they're just a way for companies to feel like they've done something to make themselves more secure. 

NINJIO emphatically rejects this approach. By offering three to four-minute Hollywood-style training episodes (which are based on real-life hacks and breaches), NINJIO makes employee engagement its top priority. The first step toward changing employees' behavior is capturing and holding their attention - how else will they retain the information they learn and put it into practice? This is why NINJIO relies on narrative-driven content, which has repeatedly proven to be a more effective learning tool than more traditional forms of studying. NINJIO also uses gamification techniques such as quizzes and leaderboards, which are designed to consistently reinforce what employees learn. 

Behavior change begins with engagement and education, but this is a lesson many companies still haven't learned. While countless employees are still subjected to what Schuler describes as "death by PowerPoint" training initiatives, it's only a matter of time before companies realize that there's a better way to educate people. 

Our habits define who we are

While it's crucial for employees to retain and recall what they learn, the ultimate goal is to get them to a point where they don't have to. In other words, they have to develop the right habits. A study in Psychology, Health & Medicine explains that habit formation "is an important goal for behavior change interventions because habitual behaviors are elicited automatically and are therefore likely to be maintained." 

However, the most successful change agents don't stop there, which is why the theme of a recent NINJIO whitepaper is the intersection between habit formation and identity. For example, the whitepaper cites a 2019 study in Frontiers in Psychology, which reports that "individuals for whom habits are strongly related to feelings of identity show stronger cognitive self-integration, higher self-esteem, and a stronger striving toward an ideal self." 

This is why NINJIO points out that good cybersecurity habits reflect "positive aspects of identity, such as responsibility, accountability, prudence, awareness, and so on." The same applies to the characteristics of an effective leader. A 2018 Deloitte survey found that U.S. employees value leaders who are communicative, flexible, and patient - all characteristics that Torch helps managers develop by giving them the tools to evaluate themselves, create a plan to change negative behaviors, and put that plan in motion. 

The relationship between identity and behavior doesn't just apply to employees, either - consumers are also increasingly concerned about what their purchasing decisions say about who they are and what they value. This is why we've seen a dramatic rise in the number of belief-driven buyers - consumers who choose to do business with brands that reflect their attitudes on social and political issues. This is an extension of the surging demand for authenticity, which has a well-documented positive effect on brand trust. In other words, if brands genuinely believe in the principles they espouse and take steps to act on those principles, consumers will change their behavior accordingly. 

Nobody wants to be a reckless employee who puts the whole company at risk, an ineffective manager who employees dread working with, or a consumer who supports unethical companies. This is why the most powerful behavior change strategy is to help people become the best version of themselves, a strategy that won't just make employees better at their jobs, companies better places to work, and relationships with consumers stronger than ever. 

Published on: Dec 9, 2019
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