Engaging Employees: Keys to Sustainable Behavior Change

Fortunately for employers who are actively trying to engage their workforce, there are some fascinating modern theorems and analyses around this concept that might offer the key to sustainable behavior change. These approaches, two of which I will highlight in this article, focus on decision-making and persuasion.


Gretchen Rubin, in her work Better Than Before, puts a great deal of emphasis on habits. She found that habits eliminate the need for, or preserves, our self-control, and those with better self-control  are happier and healthier. She concludes that the key to habits is decision-making or the lack of decision- making. Your habits keep you from having to make decisions such as whether to eat that ice cream or skip the gym. Penny has good habits (more support for choosing to hire her). Amy does not. The good news is that Rubin provides a solid framework for developing good habits.


While Rubin focuses on how the individual can make a change, Steve J. Martin’s work in persuasion sciences has interesting applications for employers looking to promote positive behavior. He notes that we need to align with the three fundamental motives that we all use in our decision-making:

  • make decisions that are the most rewarding
  • make decisions that gain the approval of others
  • make decisions that have us stand out in a positive light

One simple example he uses is in getting people to keep their doctor’s appointment. To effect the change, a health system trained nurses to ask the patient, when making the appointment, to repeat the time of the appointment. This had a significant impact and plays to #2.

8 Recommendations for Employers

So how is all this actionable for employers? What steps should they take to engage Amy? While most people want to foster the habits that will allow them to eat and drink more healthily, exercise regularly, sleep better, accomplish more, simplify and engage more deeply in their relationships, oftentimes bad habits get in the way. Using the following eight recommendations employers can promote good habits and sideline the bad:

  • Don’t assume everyone responds the same way to expectations, and segment your population. A good number of us will respond well to outsider expectations while others will need to know why they are doing something and follow their inner expectations.
  • Understand motivations, both interests and fears (eg. public speaking). This is powerful information when you are trying to engage. You can find out when someone is ready to make a change and what could drive that change. This is difficult to do across your population but technology will help.
  • We manage what we monitor, so individuals need an easy way to monitor their behavior.
  • We need commitment and accountability. If we verbalize our goals to others we are more likely to follow through. We do better if someone is watching.
  • Keep it fresh. Continue to provide opportunities for people to start over or try something new.
  • Try to make goals process-oriented and not based on rewards or finish lines. Rewards are not enough to sustain behavior change. To continue to want to do something you need intrinsic motivation. Similarly if your goal is finishing a race vs just racing or running then you are not going to be running long.
  • Make it convenient. Make it easy for people to take part in activities. Set group events up until the program is self-sustaining. Individuals like to take part in group events where like-minded people will take part. This creates built-in networks and is very habit forming. It is like having a cafeteria where you know at least one of the group will be sitting at your table, where you don’t have to schedule a lunch date every day.
  • Make bad habits less convenient. Take out the soda and candy machines or lower the number of bad choices. Offer to replace sitting desks with standing desks or exercise balls. Raise the cost of smoking.

None of this replaces the typical advice around creating a successful wellbeing program. You should still do your homework, evaluate, develop a vision and holistic strategy based on solid data, your culture, environment etc.

Create a strong team, manage the change from the top down, middle and bottom up, evaluate and refine continually. Martin and Rubin’s work makes  it clear that culture and management can have a big impact by developing outside expectations and providing approval/distinction for appropriate behaviors.

Finally, note that if wellbeing is not already a part of your culture it is not easy to make the change. Not to discourage, but it takes work, and employees can’t feel like they are being manipulated. It might work once, but as they say, “Once bitten, twice shy.” Integrity is important.

Source: Williswire


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