How to get people to change behaviour more quickly

By Heather Campbell

On January 31st this year, a UK law celebrated its 40th birthday. It’s a law that has saved many thousands of lives. Fourty years ago, on 31st January 1983, it became mandatory for drivers and front-seat passengers to wear seatbelts on every car journey.

If, like me, you’re of a vintage that means you remember that law coming into force, you may also recall the 1970s advertising campaign preceded it. Its slogan was ‘Clunk Click Every Trip’ and it was fronted by the now disgraced Jimmy Saville.

The advertising campaign wasn’t successful because it didn’t lead people to wear seatbelts. In contrast, 90% of drivers and front-seat passengers began wearing seatbelts soon after the new law came into effect. And nowadays it’s such an ingrained habit that most of us pop on our seatbelts without even thinking.

The question is – why did the change in legislation have a dramatic impact so quickly? Leaders can learn a lot by answering this question because it will help you to understand how to engage others in changing their behaviour.

Now, of course, you might think the answer’s simple. It had an immediate effect because it became law! Obvious, isn’t it? Well, I’d accept that as the cause of this significant change in behaviour if I also believed that everyone obeys other laws too. But – sorry folks – I don’t. I don’t believe that everyone reading this message obeys the speed limit. I don’t believe that everybody reading this email avoids parking on a double yellow line. I don’t believe that everybody reading this email avoids gesturing or swearing at other road users. But these are all illegal too!

So, it’s not simply the fact that seatbelt wearing became law.

There was something else going on.

A bit more context to understand this. At the time the law came into force, it was also made clear that the police were actively observing whether or not people were wearing seatbelts – and would take action if they weren’t. Drivers would face an on-the-spot fine if either they or their front seat passenger was not wearing a seatbelt. I clearly remember drivers asking me to put on my seatbelt before they pulled away because they didn’t want to face that fine. (I may remember the law coming into force, but I was too young to be driving at the time 😉)

This brought into play the three important factors that differentiated between the low success of the Clunk, Click every trip campaign, and the high success of the legislation. And these same three factors are crucial when it comes to changing people’s behaviour in the workplace.

They all relate to the perceived outcome of changing – or not changing – behaviour. The three factors are:

Belief that the outcome is likely to occur
Belief that the outcome will occur in the short-term
Desire to avoid the outcome

Back to seatbelts again…

Belief that the outcome is likely to occur

The Clunk Click every trip advert warned people of the risk of serious injury or death if they weren’t wearing a seatbelt and they were in an accident. People believed this could happen but they didn’t believe the likelihood of it happening was high. We don’t tend to get into a car and believe there is a high likelihood that we will be in an accident and that the accident will be serious enough to cause extensive injury or death. If we did, we wouldn’t take that journey.

So, back in 1983, although people of course wanted to avoid injury or death, they didn’t think it was likely to happen to them.

In contrast, because people knew that police were particularly observing compliance with the new law, they believed there was a high likelihood of being caught and fined if they weren’t wearing a seatbelt.

Belief that the outcome is likely to occur in the short-term

Drivers also believed that they risked being caught and fined on this trip because they knew that there were police around, and they knew that they were particularly looking out for people who weren’t wearing a seatbelt. Therefore, they had a sense of the immediacy of the negative outcome. In contrast, people didn’t believe that the accident would happen on this trip. Again, if they’d believed that, they’d have avoided the journey in the first place.

Desire to avoid the outcome

The outcome for both the advertising campaign and the legislation was negative. So, both scored highly here. But it didn’t have a powerful influence in its own right. As we have already seen, while we might wish to avoid an outcome, we must also believe that it is highly likely to occur and that it is highly likely to occur in the short-term.

If you are currently seeking change in behaviour within your team, you can apply these three factors to make it more likely that people will change behaviour. This can be uncomfortable because most leaders prefer to make change in behaviour attractive and so focus on the positive around the change. Unfortunately, because we’re human and we like to cling to the status quo more often than we care to admit, focussing only on the positives is rarely enough. We also need to highlight the outcome of not changing. And for this to work, you must make sure that this outcome ticks these three boxes:

1. The outcome must be one that people want to avoid
2. People must believe that the negative outcome is likely to occur
3. People must believe that the negative outcome is likely to occur in the foreseeable future

In what ways are you asking people to change their behaviour right now? How might applying these factors help you to engage people so that you get a bigger result more quickly?

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