Want to make communications more effective – use behavioral science
Over the past few years, we have seen a shift in how organizations value their internal communications. In the past, employee focused communications were often an afterthought. Companies would spend significant time, effort and money on developing out their incentive plans, making sure they were designed to drive the right behaviors and performance, only to communicate it to the field in an e-mail with a 30-page, single-spaced legal contract attached.
Thankfully, this is starting to change.
Today, organizations realize that they need to invest time and resources into their internal communications to optimize their value and impact. As companies make this investment we are seeing a significant improvement in the design and visual appeal of internal communications – from incentive compensation to benefits to operations; the production value of employee communications has risen.
However, merely making a communication look pretty and appealing isn’t sufficient in today’s hyper-competitive world. Organizations need their communications not just to inform, but also to spur new behavior and actions.
When companies communicate about programs that require employee action, they often only see a small change in employee behaviors (or no change at all) – even when these actions have clear benefits for the employee (i.e., increasing their contribution to their 401K plan, using a flexible health care spending account, or changing their selling behavior to align with the new incentive plan to maximize their own earnings).
This is where behavioral science comes in.
Behavioral sciences such as psychology, sociology, and behavioral economics help improve organizational communication and drive both action and behavior change. These cutting edge scientific concepts are currently being used heavily in consumer marketing with positive results – and now they are being implemented by many companies as part of their internal employee communications to achieve similar results inside the company.
In 1925, four climbers, led by Phil Smith, ventured north from Colorado to Jackson Hole, Wyoming to attempt to climb “The Grand Teton” mountain in the Teton Range.* The Grand had been summited before, but these four climbers were coming at it from a different route, one that had not yet been explored. From the valley floor of Jackson Hole it looked like they would have a relatively straight ascent to the peak.
The four climbers set out with high expectations of being the first to chart this new route. As they progressed up the mountain, it looked like they were getting closer and closer to the summit. One can imagine their feeling that this goal was within easy reach. That is until they came up to the top of what they thought was a ridge. To their dismay, instead of it being another ridge, it was the peak of an entirely different mountain. The Grand was almost a mile away with a sheer 450-foot drop to the saddle between the peaks. The four, not wanting to give up, attempted to rappel down the face of the cliff. They realized that it was too hard and too dangerous, so they gave up and headed back to Jackson Hole.
Before they left, they named this new summit point, Disappointment Peak.
It is not only climbers who run into disappointment peaks. We often fall victim to this same dismay when we realize that the goal that we had set out to achieve is harder, will take longer, requires more resources or effort than we first envisioned.
Often, we too give up.
The four mountaineers had fallen victim to an optical illusion of the Grand. When standing in the Jackson Hole valley if you look directly at the mountain, it seems as if Disappointment Peak is just part of the Grand. The two peaks appear to be one and the same (see image).
One of the elements of successful change is being able to anticipate how you are going to achieve that change. We like to plot out the steps that we need to make in order to reach our goal.
The problem comes in when we encounter our own mental illusions – when we think that the goal is much closer or easier than it really is.
One thing that both psychology and behavioral economics have shown us is that as humans, we are really good at self-deception. We have a number of innate biases that affect our belief formation and influence our thinking – from confirmation biases, base rate fallacies, availability heuristics, gambler’s fallacies, control illusion, and my favorite, the Dunning-Kruger effect (The tendency for unskilled individuals to overestimate their own ability).
Generally, we are overconfident in our abilities and underappreciate the difficulty that is required to achieve change.
These mental illusions set us up.
When our expectations of what this goal is going to cost us in terms of time, effort, energy, and resources does not match with reality and when we realize the summit is much further away than we thought – we become disappointed as well.
We are doing great on our diet and losing weight weekly until we hit that plateau and can’t seem to lose those last 15 pounds.
The first three chapters of the book flowed smoothly, but we now are encountering writers block and can’t even complete the first paragraph of the fourth chapter.
We stopped smoking for five weeks until that project at work stressed us out and we needed something to calm our nerves.
We had achieved our goal of making ten cold calls a day for the two weeks but felt dejected that we had not had one sale from those encounters.
Moreover, just like Phil Smith and his companions, we can see the peak in the distance, but can’t seem to rappel down that cliff that is between us and the summit.
Three things to do when you reach your disappointment peak
We cannot always find a way to keep trekking on and reach our goals, but here are a few things to try:
Step back and look for new routes.
Over the years we have conducted a team building event called the electronic maze (see 5 lessons from the maze). Envision a giant chess board comprised of 54 squares, where some squares beep and others do not, and teams are trying to get from one side to the other stepping only on non-beeping squares.
At one point in their journey through the maze, people tend to get stuck and keep running into beeping squares as they move forward to the other side. The path goes backward here – but EVERY TEAM we have ever worked with has repeatedly stepped on one or more of the “beeping” squares that are in front of them. Even after repeated failed attempts stepping on the same beeping squares over and over, they cannot fathom that if they just take a step backward, they will ultimately move forward.
Sometimes we just need to look around and see if there is a different path to our goal.
Find new tools/knowledge.
Do you have the right equipment to overcome your obstacles? Phil and his team attempted to rappel down the cliff and felt it too dangerous. Today, many climbers specifically go to climb and rappel down that very cliff. The equipment and knowledge that people have today are much better than what they had 90 years ago. Are there new or different tools that you could use to overcome your road block? Would additional knowledge help you in continuing your journey?
Push on through.
Sometimes we just have to grit our teeth and power on through. As Dory says, “Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming.” There are many times when we reach a point of dismay and our mental energy and enthusiasm collapse because it is going to be longer or harder than we thought.
If the goal is important, then sometimes the best solution is to continue to trudge on. We can think of this as applying Newton’s first law of motion, “An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.” (NASA.com) Our movement towards the goal has stopped, so we need to apply an unbalanced force upon it to get it moving again.
Plan ahead for obstacles.
Just because our mental illusions often trick us, does not mean that we will always be fooled by them. Before beginning our journey, we can carefully map out the process and try to visualize what potential roadblocks we could encounter. That process helps prepare us for when we do run into an issue. In other words, we have primed ourselves and our expectations so that dismay will not fully knock us off our course. Specifically, we should be asking ourselves:
What might happen that could derail the journey
What are external forces that could impact this process
What are internal forces that could affect this process
If we run into one of these obstacles, how will we approach it (“If ________ happens, then we will do __________.”)
We should also tap into our social networks and see if other people we know gone through this process or attempted this change. These people can be our mentors and help work through with us some of the unforeseen obstacles that we had not thought about. Their experience and knowledge can not only help identify potential barriers and how to overcome them but also might point us on a route that avoids those obstacles altogether.
Reexamine your goal.
Lastly, reexamine your goal. Is it worth the effort, time and trouble that it will now take you to achieve? If it is, keep going for it. But don’t just blindly go on just because you started. Climbers too often focus on reaching the summit at peril to their own lives. Ed Viesturs, renowned mountaineer and bestselling author who’s summited Everest seven times says, “I’ve always had this motto that climbing has to be a round trip. I’ve always understood that getting off the mountain was more important than getting to the top…It’s OK. It’s not a failure…If you’re rushing, if you’re thinking it has to happen today, then you’re going to make bad decisions.” (Time.com) Sometimes it is ok to stop and say, not today. I’ll try this some other time when conditions are better, or I’m in a better spot.
*A common mistake is for people to call the Teton Range “The Grand Tetons.” The Grand Teton is a single mountain while the mountain range’s proper name is “the Tetons” or “the Teton range.”
**Thanks to Michael Anschel for introducing me to the story of Disappointment Peak.
As part of our exhibit booth at the World at Work 2016 Total Rewards Conference, we designed a method for giving away our promotional t-shirts that simultaneously acted as an experiment to help us understand what motivates people.
What we found out was intriguing and reinforces some key behavioral insights about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, recognizing accomplishments and having specific goals.
Our process involved a stationary bike that was hooked up to a bank of LED lights1 – the faster and longer you peddled, the more lights lit up, sounds basic enough right?
The six LED light panels set up on a vertical pole that lit up from the bottom to the top – once all six lights were lit up, all the lights flashed and the process was over.
We set our process up a little differently
To earn a very cool“Behavior Matters” t-shirt, all people needed to do was get on the bike and light up one of the lights.
We did not require that people light all six lights, and we did not assign a time length for peddling to earn a t-shirt. All they had to do was light up one light – a relatively easy process.
Additionally, people could get their name written on our leader board if they were one of the five fastest people to light up all the lights. This white board with hand written names on it was updated whenever someone earned one of the top five spots.
Our original concept was to have people read one of two sets of written rules – one positive and encouraging; the other bland and discouraging. The intent was to see if the different messages impacted how people performed or felt about the activity. We quickly realized that our original plans were not working – too many people wanted to ride the bike and the process ended up being us telling participants the rules instead of them reading them thus invalidating the initial study.
Luckily for us, this is where things got interesting!
While the original communication experiment didn’t pan out, we were still able to gather very interesting findings. Specifically we were intrigued by some of the insights we gained into extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, the power of leader boards, and the impact that specific goals have on performance. First, let’s look at the overall results:
A total of 103 people rode the bike over the two days the exhibit hall was open (some participants rode multiple times). Their performance is shown in table below.
Highest number of lights lit up
# of people achieving level
% of people achieving level
Average time to reach level
The average ride time was 31.7 seconds – with the fastest time being 4.8 seconds and the longest time being 80 seconds. There is some obvious differences based on physical fitness here as shown by the inverse time required to reach the different levels of lights (i.e., more time on average to reach 3 lights than 4 lights, etc.) which played out in how well people did.
Do you just want a shirt or are you looking for something more?
We needed to have an incentive to get most people on the bike. True, there were some who just wanted to get on the bike and see how many lights they could get, but the vast majority of the people got on the bike to earn the t-shirt. In other words, they needed an extrinsic reward to participate.
But that’s not the interesting part…
The interesting part was that only one person stopped at the first light (1 out of 103, that’s less than 1%)! Once they were on, the majority of participants moved past the threshold for earning a t-shirt and continued peddling to see what they could do. This was not easy – we had the settings on the bike be rather hard. This meant that peddling for more than 15 seconds was difficult for most non-athletes.
We believe once they started the activity, they intrinsic motivation of the bike kicked in. The lights tracked their progress immediately and they could directly see how they were doing against the goal. They wanted to see what they could accomplish. They no longer worried about the t-shirt – but instead, focused on the event.
In other words, they challenged themselves to see how many lights could they light up?
They had already committed to participate in order to acquire a t-shirt (the reward) – now they were pushing beyond what was required for the shirt because of the challenge that they were presented with. If we think about the 4-Drive Model of Employee Motivation (for more info see here, here, here) we see that the Acquire component was instrumental in the motivation to initiate the event, but the ongoing motivation was propelled by the intrinsic drive to Challenge oneself and see how they could do.
The idea of using an extrinsic motivator to entice people to participate in programs or activities that they are not excited about and then allowing their natural Challenge drive take-over should not be undervalued. Additionally, the more that a program uses a measure of goal progression, highlighting an individual’s progress, the more a participants Challenge drive is activated. In other words, the design of your extrinsic incentive program can impact the intrinsic motivation that is activated. Finding cohesion between these extrinsic and intrinsic motivators can certainly help drive the right behaviors.
What’s up with the leader board?
We had a leader board where riders got their name featured if they were one of the five fastest people to light up all six lights. They did not earn any additional extrinsic reward for being on the leader board – no fancy give-away, no grand prize, not even an extra t-shirt.
Driving home from a wedding on January 2nd 2016, my wife was looking at her Facebook feed on her iPhone and made a little exclamation, “Wow!”
Of course that made me curious, so I said, “what was that for?”
“An old colleague of mine just posted that she walked 10,000 steps every single day last year.” she stated.
Now I was really curious, “Can you get me an interview with her!”
Fast forward a month and half and I sat down with Janelle at a coffee shop on the campus of the University of Minnesota where she worked. For the next 60+ minutes I was enthralled listening to her story and asking a ton of questions.
“How did you do it?” “What was your motivation?” “How were you supported?” “What was the hardest part?” “Why?” “What insight can you give to people who want to achieve something like this?”
Some facts first:
Total steps in 2015: 6,456,950 (that is 6 million, 456 thousand, nine hundred and fifty) totalling 2,818 miles walked.
May 2015 was her most active month with an average of 21,388 steps per day and her most active single day of 80,606 steps.
Dang – that’s impressive!
February 2015 was her least active month with an average of 14,190 steps and her single lowest step count on any day was 10,016 (just 16 steps over her goal) on January 16th, 2015.
Walking 10,000 steps everyday is not easy nor is it a task that you can do by just forming a new walking habit.
It takes concentrated effort and dedication. It requires that you have an emotional commitment to achieving your goal. It takes support from friends and family and sometimes even strangers. It takes coming up with hacks to motivation to keep that fire going all year long.
In my interview, I wanted to find out if Janelle employed any of the six actions that I’ve identified as being key to successful change (see here) and (here). When I asked her about how she did it, she used all six to some extent: Engaging her emotions, Plotting her progress, socializing her support, harnessing her habits, enabling her environment, and preparing her plan to overcome obstacles.
Janelle engaged her emotions.
One of the key concepts from the change work that we’ve done, is that purposeful change is more likely to succeed if you actively engage your emotions.
Rational change, we found, is not sustainable. However, emotions are hard to consciously activate.
We’ve found that one way to hack into those emotions, is to align your change with your self-identity. If you can align your change behaviors with who you perceive yourself to be, then your behaviors become easier, and when you behave in ways not aligned with that self-perception, you feel angst to come back into alignment.
Within the first five minutes of the interview, without prompting, Janelle stated, she identified herself as a “walker”. She talked about how she always liked to walk, how she walked with her mother when she was younger, that when she walked, she felt better. In her mind, she identified who she was as a “walker” and that implied that she behaved in certain ways (walk instead of drive when possible, take the stairs – not the elevator, etc…).
By identifying herself as a walker, she was emotionally invested in those behaviors. It made it easier to do them and harder to not do them. Here is a picture from her Facebook page (Minnesotan’s will recognize the famous Walker Art Museum):
Janelle plotted her progress.
Plotting ones progress towards a goal is important. Research has shown that progress, no matter how small or insignificant, provides humans with great satisfaction. We know from behavioral economics that the closer you get to a goal, the more motivated you are to achieve it (see here).
Of course Janelle had her fitbit to track her steps…but that wasn’t all – she had her calendar. Janelle had gone online and bought a special full year calendar (from Europe), had it shipped over and framed. This was hung in her home office where she saw it every day.
Each day that she walked 10,000 steps, she added a sticker to that calendar. Different colors represented different step counts. Yellow was 10K, blue was 15K, and red was 20K.
One interesting side note, was the amount of stickers she had actually added to her motivation. Here is how she describes it:
“In November and December I gained some motivation by the fact that I was running out of yellows and eventually blues. So, I had to walk more to get to the 20K level (red).”
She also set up motivational milestones. She created a “walk wish-list” of different places or walks that she wanted to do. She posted these to her Facebook page (adding a social element that we will talk about later). When she achieved these walks, she was able to check them off her wish list.
Additionally, Janelle joined a fitbit group (again, we will talk more about the social aspect of this in a bit) that had different walking challenges. Fitbit calls these challenges, “a fun way to help you stay motivated by competing with friends and family.” These mini-challenges helped provide ongoing ways to measure her progress.
Her fitbit group also had a leaderboard that showed her daily steps compared to those in the group. This was a way to track her progress not only against her goal, but as part of a fun competition against others.
Janelle socialized her support.
When she decided to commit to her 10,000 steps a day for a year challenge, she purposely posted her decision on her Facebook page. She told me that she did this to create accountability. By publicly stating her intentions, she enlisted her Facebook friends to become part of her social support team and keep her on task.
For the past 20 years, I have been exploring how people change their behavior. This exploration has led me down many different paths and lines of inquiry. One of the most fascinating areas of research that I’ve investigated surrounds the now hot topic of behavioral economics.
I often describe behavioral economics as the “fusion of psychology and economics in order to gain a better understanding of human behavior and decision making.”
So what do we find out when we fuse psychology and economics together?
“Humans often act in very irrational ways.”
Now that is not ground breaking news for most of us. Even when I graduated with an economics degree, I knew that people didn’t always act in rational ways – or at least I didn’t (otherwise why would I stay up watching bad T.V. until 2:30 AM when I knew I had to get up by 7:00 AM for a meeting or why would I spend a hundred dollars on a dinner out but fret over buying a steak that was over $10 at the grocery store?).
However, for many economists, that statement was hearsay. Many economic models are based on the fact that people act in rational ways to maximize their own utility (i.e., happiness). These theories stated that we might make irrational choices in the short-term, or when we don’t have enough information, or that at least your irrational behavior would be vastly different than mine so that on average, we would be rational.
The truth discovered by behavioral economics is that is not often the case. We don’t act rationally – in fact, we sometimes act exactly opposite of how an economist would think we should act.
For example, research has shown that we will judge the value of an unknown item using totally irrelevant data to help us in that decision. Dan Ariely ran a wonderful study where he asked people to bid on a wireless keyboard (something that they were not very familiar with at the time), but before they answered, they had to write down the last two digits of their social security number (a totally irrelevant piece of data). The results of the bid were fascinating (top 20% being SSN that ended in 80 or above, the bottom 20% being SSN that ended in 20 or below):
This is a significant difference in how much they bid – entirely based on the last two digits of the SSN.
Here’s another one.
Would you work harder for a set amount (say $10) or for an uncertain amount (say 50% chance of $10 or 50% chance of $5)? Most rational people would say that they would work harder for the guaranteed payout of $10…that isn’t the case.
In a study that looked at drinking a large amount of water in two minutes – some people were offered a $2 fixed amount for finishing it – the other group was told they would earn either $1 or $2 (random chance of either). So what was the result?
43% completion rate for the certain award versus 70% completion rate for the variable? Not what you would think right?
Note – that this doesn’t apply to people choosing to participate – existing research suggests that we prefer certainty over uncertainty when deciding if we should opt-in for a goal. However, uncertainty is more powerful in boosting motivation en-route to a goal.
So what does any of this have to do with change?
We so often want to drive change in ourselves or our organizations and think through the process of this – in a rational and systematic manner. I’ve worked with companies who are baffled that they don’t see a long-term increase in employee productivity and satisfaction after they increase their wage (Hedonic Treadmill Effect). I know people who have mapped out their exercise routine for the next day, only to hit the snooze button instead of getting up and going for their morning run (Hyperbolic Discounting).
Too often we try to implement a change program based on a belief that we are rational beings.
Behavioral economics highlights that this just isn’t the case.
I’ve been reading a lot of books and articles lately on willpower. It is incredible the new research on willpower and how we can build our willpower reserves up and how they get worn down. I am fascinated by the larger impact of this research and the implications that it has on our ability to change. It is fairly evident that the more willpower one has and that one applies to their change process, the more likely that change will occur.
So how do we build up our willpower muscle and use it most effectively? This is probably old hat to many of my readers, but here are some of the key take-aways that I’ve learned from this research:
Willpower is like a muscle – in that it can be built up with repetitive training, but also in that it wears out the more you use it during the day. Every time we resist some temptation – whether that be not eating the donuts that your coworker brought to the meeting, holding off on looking at that latest text ding, or not blowing up at your boss when he is making some really stupid demand for the 10th time in the day – we use up some of our willpower. Research shows we more easily give into temptations or lose our cool at the end of the day than we do at the beginning. That is because our willpower muscle is fresh in the morning but gets depleted throughout the day.
Set up some rules or change the environment to decrease temptations in your life – this will provide you with greater willpower over the course of the day. If you can make it so that you are not having to actively resist a temptation – either because you have a set of rules (i.e., I don’t answer texts at work) or alter the environment (i.e., turn off your text alert on your phone when at work) you will preserve your willpower longer. Of these two options – changing the environment may be the harder one to initially do, but is the more effective of the two methods.
Willpower requires energy – specifically, glucose. We tend to have less willpower when our bodies are hungry or glucose deprived. Counter-intuitively, quick hit of chocolate can help you stay on your diet! The brain takes up about 3% of our bodies mass, but uses about 20% of its energy. Willpower is one of things that uses up a lot of that brain energy.
Willpower is revitalized after rest / meditation – we can increase our willpower throughout the day by relaxing our brain and letting it rest. Meditation has been shown to be one of the best ways to revitalize our willpower. Meditation also is a great training method to help increase our willpower. Practicing purposeful breathing and not letting outside thoughts enter into our mind is a great training method for our ability to concentrate and keep out outside distractions (i.e., willpower).
There are many more wonderful insights that can be gleamed by this new research. I encourage you to read two books:
Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Roy Baumeister & John Tierney
The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why it Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. Kelly McGonigal