In full disclosure, I've got quite a few behaviors I'd like to change--I like to down French fries when I'm stressed out, for example. And since you're human like me, I'm guessing you've got some areas you'd like to tackle, too. You also might need to initiate change within your team to keep your company competitive in a rapidly shifting market.
But what, exactly, is the best way to get yourself or others to change behavior for the better?
In a June 2019 Ted Talk, Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, asserted that the answer isn't just providing lots of information, even in the age of Big Data. And it's not to try to get the people themselves to change, either.
The right approach, says Ariely, is to focus on changing the environment. That means doing only two things.
1. Reduce friction.
On one hand, this can mean simply reducing as many obstacles to the new behavior as possible, making the new behavior easier to adopt. For example, if you want you and your team to organize folders a particular way, you could ensure that all of the supplies necessary to do so are together in a single location, rather than scattered in different cabinets or closets.
But sometimes, reducing obstacles is not always possible to do. So more broadly, reducing friction means that you have to make the new behavior seem equal to the old behavior in terms of perceived risk, benefits and effort. For instance, you could have your tech support team ensure that a log-in process for a new application you want to implement is as similar as possible to the log-in process for the application your team is already familiar with. Once you've leveled the playing field like this, switching what you do isn't as scary and seems just as reasonable as what you used to do.
But having two equal options isn't necessarily going to move you to select one or the other, or even to take action at all. So what really tips the scale to behavioral change is the second point.
2. Add a motivator.
Now, Ariely aptly points out that figuring out the best motivator can be quite challenging. Lots of options can work, depending on the unique circumstances that your workers are in. So as a leader, you have to be willing to do the footwork and learn and constantly reevaluate what those circumstances are. And if what you did previously stops getting the result you want, you must be willing to pivot.
But in a case study Ariely describes, what got people to save money the most was simply tracking their saving by scratching on a coin. Why did this work? It was effective because it took the goal--setting funds aside--and made it highly visible and hard to forget.
In the same way, workers need ways to track progress on a new behavior and see the effect their effort is having. And this ties closely to what multiple research studies and surveys have shown--the biggest desire for most people is to have a sense of purpose. They stay motivated when they see their influence.
So identify a solid "why" for whatever behavior you want to do. Make sure the evidence of the hard work is not, as the proverb goes, hidden under a bushel basket, so that you have accountability as well as a reminder of the path you want to take and the success you've already achieved. Once you've gained some confidence from reaching your goal, your only job is to repeat the process for behaviors that will take you even higher.