Behaviour change: the Emperor’s new clothes

Behaviour Change is Hard. Once the preserve of psychologists and ‘Nudgers’, now it seems everyone wants a piece of the behavioural change action. From consultants charging outrageous sums with outlandish promises to change the behaviour of thousands in mere months to Starbucks promising a 25p reduction if you bring your own cup, we’re now seeing it increasingly in the mainstream.

But the question is, is it really worth all the credit it gets?  And how much lasting change does behavioural change actually create?

It’s nothing controversial to say behaviour change is one of the hardest things you can do in a business. In fact, it seems to be on of the hardest things you can do across all social groups.


Sometimes it works  – why?

We know it can and does work. Smoking is at an all-time low – thanks to an almost blanket ban on advertising, public spaces and even the packets themselves. And society has changed with it. In years gone past it was part of everyday life for some colleagues to pop outside for a smoke break. Now, the social shame attached to smoking is steadily rising. And though smoking is still legal, it has become a professional no no in most offices.

However, despite the many success stories, behaviour change isn’t the infallible method that people are led to believe. Take for instance the government’s efforts to tackle obesity – these have included a holistic approach, from healthy school meals to educate children through to prescribed exercise – yet in a recent report by the OECD,  the UK was listed as the country where obesity was rising the fastest – increasing by 92 percent, compared to 65 percent in the US. And consider the countless internal corporate initiatives that have tried to be rolled out – but failed to gain long-term momentum.

We know it can and does work, but why sometimes and not others?


Perception is Everything

Trying to force someone to change before they’re ready doesn’t set them up for long-term success, they must pass through various stages – including awareness and preparation – in order to make an effective change. You can’t just will the change, an individual has to be ready and invested.

But the power of an individual’s perception isn’t the whole story. Undoubtedly an individual’s perception is important, but so too is the perception of those around them. Consultants and government officials alike can become so focused on reaching the individual that they forget about the community they’re connected to.

And that’s where the real power lies.

If we perceive, real or imagined the behaviour of those changing around us – behaviour change becomes a much more likely outcome.


Challenge Perception – Change Reality

So the answer to all this? Traditional behaviour change initiatives alone are only part of the puzzle. The power of perception is incredibly important when it comes to changing behaviour. But crucially it isn’t just the perception of those undertaking the behaviour change but those around them too that also needs to shift in order for there to be long-lasting impactful change.

Because ultimately their perception is your reality.