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Trying to Influence Employee Behavior? Don’t Forget the Brain + Environment!

Do you struggle with employees behaving and performing the way you want them to?  If so, do know you are not alone.  I’ve had three conversations recently which all essentially centered on employees not doing/behaving the way they were supposed to.  Just the other day I was talking to the Director of employee training and Operations VP of a manufacturing company.  They were telling me about the issues they were having regarding employees not performing as they had been trained, i.e. failing to follow the standard work procedures consistently which had resulted in increased cycle time for assembly and was leading to some quality issues as well.  A couple days later I was having a conversation with the safety director and the program manager of healthcare company who were struggling with getting staff to pay attention to safety.  They had two recent injuries that happened because the employees didn’t perform the job (moving and transferring of the person) using the lift equipment—despite having appropriate equipment readily available and being trained.  The last conversation was with the HR director and HR assistant of a different manufacturing company who implemented a free yoga class for employees to do prior to their work shift as a way to improve employee wellness.  They expressed frustration and disappointment at the lack of participation from the employees.


What do all three of these conversations have in common?  Company leaders being frustrated with employee behavior/performance.  In all three cases, the employees were made aware of the desire and/or demand for them do so something but yet compliance was lacking.  There are many factors that influence whether people (employees) perform/do what they should do—assuming they have the awareness, knowledge and abilities to do the wanted behavior/task.  The factor I want to focus on is what I call the “Brain + Environment Factor”


“Brain + Environment Factor”

A commonly held belief is that the best way to drive people’s actions and behaviors is to get them to understand the course of action that is best for them (and the company) and then to actually do it.  However, there is another far less known concept and application of using the brain, i.e. how people think, and the environment, i.e. our surroundings and options provided, on influencing behavior/actions.  The key principle you need to know if that our brains (and our bodies) are lazy.  Our brains will take as many short cuts as possible in order to save energy and ‘not think’.  With this in mind, small changes can be made to the environment that often will result in having a big effect on behavior.  A great example of this is at work is to change the default option from opting into a 401k plan to opting out of one.  This alone can have a significant effect on how much people save for retirement.  This isn’t because people don’t know they have the option it is because opting out takes time and action while opting in requires nothing to be done.  When faced with the choice of doing nothing to minimal effort versus effort, people tend to do nothing. 


Energy Conservation

As stated above, our brains and bodies are lazy or as I like to say “energy efficient”.  We always prefer to go from points A to B in a straight line.  Our brains prefer to go on autopilot instead of focusing on the road and other cars when driving.  You can think of energy as a currency—a currency our brains and bodies don’t like spend.  An interesting fact is that the human brain is roughly 3% of people’s body weight and yet it uses 20-25% of our daily energy supply.


A good way to then think about the environment around us is to not only understand but to recognize that people was to limit the amount of time and energy their brains and bodies spending thinking about and doing a choice.  In addition, our brains and bodies also want to limit the amount of time and energy to expend towards doing something after we make the choice.  The easiest way for us to do that is to take the actions that the environment is encouraging us to do.  In other words, people are performing the easiest actions with as little thought and effort as possible.  They are not treating the training and the environment around them as key information for them to deliberate over. 


What to Do

You need to persuade and influence.  You need to encourage, enhance, and support the behaviors/actions you desire by making them intuitive and easy.  You must make the wanted behaviors easy and the unwanted behaviors hard.  For example, think about the design of the big box stores where the endcaps and checkout aisles are full of impulse buying items.  You may think, after the fact that you bought them because you have more information about those unnecessary items because you read the package while standing in line waiting to be check out and therefore made an informative, rational purchase decision.  If we were honest with ourselves and when we understand the brain plus the environment, we will admit we purchased them because it was easy to do and our brains automatically retrieved past actions/habits in which we bought that product before.


In the workplace, there are many strategies and methods to design the environment to drive, nudge people toward the desirable behaviors/actions.  For example, if your aim is to have less time spent in meetings and more time spent doing then you set the office calendar software program so the default meeting length is 15 instead of 30 or 60 and make the person change the default setting when needed.  In addition, if wellness is an additional aim, then the company’s meeting rooms are held in rooms where standing is the only option, i.e. standing height table only.  So, a company may have 10 meeting rooms which are designated for 15 minute/standing, 6 rooms for 30 minutes and sit/stand, and 3 rooms for 60 minutes or greater meetings.


Anyone interested in influencing behaviors/actions should start by understanding and focusing on the brain and environment of the people they are trying to affect.  Assess the environment and find ways to make the desirable/expected actions easy and undesirable actions difficult.  Keep in mind the human body and brain are focused on achieving the outcome using the least possible energy.


Want to learn more about the Brain + Environment Factor?  Or need assistance with making small changes to your workplace environment to improve employee performance and safety?  Contact us—we promise to make it EASY!