Motivating for behavioural change

Steve Dannan and I attended a KnowledgeBrief Innovation Day where the key speaker was Professor Ido Erev, a behavioural economist from Warwick Business School and Technion. In the session Professor Erev outlined the latest findings from his research on how people take learning from experience and incorporate that into their behaviours – or not as so often happens.

Behavioural change is a perennial problem for the support services industry. We need to find approaches that help us ‘learn’ the right behaviours by providing appropriate feedback. Professor Erev’s research provides some clues as to how people learn from experience and how we can engage with this to drive behavioural change.

Key findings

Here are some of the key considerations:

  • People are rather poor at estimating average outcomes from a number of repetitive events
  • We are good at spotting patterns and reacting to them, but on the other hand we are so disposed to find patterns that we can draw conclusions too rapidly and from too small sample sizes

This can explain, for example, why people give up trying too early even if they are ‘ahead’, or over-react to clusters of events.

Changing behaviour

The lesson for changing behaviour is that we need to find ways of rewarding the right behaviours, consistently and immediately, irrespective of the actual outcomes, and provide negative incentives for incorrect behaviours. This will allow people to rapidly perceive the pattern and learn the desired behaviour. However the incentives and disincentives should be small and not monetary, because perceived value has other distorting effects on behaviour.

Using this knowledge

The simplest and most straightforward way of using this insight is to provide regular and immediate feedback; a simple “well done” or even “thank you” consistently and immediately provided will help reinforce good behaviour. Conversely, pointing out incorrect behaviour with a suggestion as to how to change or improve is often sufficient disincentive if your feedback is consistent, regular and fast. We can build these ideas into the design of systems and processes where we need to influence behaviours outside of the direct line management relationship.

The learning process can be also used to facilitate innovation and develop ideas that help individuals do better for themselves and others. By rewarding right behaviours we can motivate creativity and innovation.