“Less talk and more action” has been a guiding motto of my life, so I suppose it should have come as no surprise when, after a year of researching the ins and outs of environmental behaviour change for my Masters, I decided to put the theory into practice.
I figured I’d do best to test the lessons I’d learned out on my friends first; after all, if they wouldn’t listen who would? My friends don’t like being preached at — especially when it comes to being green. Like most people, at the mention of any simple eco actions, such as changing light bulbs or driving less, most of them would simply switch off.
I needed a fun way to grab their attention and fuel their motivation to start doing things differently. So I grabbed a friend and we cycled to Morocco.
It was going to be no mean feat, so we asked our friends to support us — but instead of donating money, we asked them to support our big challenge with their own little challenge. 216 people supported us, by starting to make small changes such as cycling to work, eating less meat or recycling.
I soon found myself turning that one-off project into an equally fun but far bigger venture: The DoNation. The DoNation has now reached over 4,000 people, encouraging them to make simple behavioural changes, driven by the motivation of supporting their friends through tough challenges.
More recently, we have started to apply our work within businesses and universities through our Do Good for Business programme, helping them to engage their staff and students in changing behaviours, using simple competition as the trigger (rather than around-the-world cycle expeditions and the like).
Through this combination of theory, practice and business, I’ve learnt more about behaviour change than I’d ever expected — including the importance of driving behaviour change amongst employees. Whilst the only sure cert is that there are no clear rules, because every situation is different — I do believe that there are a few common themes of success that brands could learn from:
- Close the gap: Knowledge and belief mean little without action, yet, according to Ogilvy Earth, for 66% of people there is a huge gap between their intentions and their actions. Narrowing this gap should be the first target for behaviour change schemes. People need a reason and impetus to get on and do something NOW. If you let them put it off until tomorrow, the gap will never close.
- Trial it: Don’t ask people for a life-long commitment upfront — that’s one sure way to scare them off. Start gently, just asking them to try it out at first — but for long enough that they get through the initial awkwardness and frustrations. After a month or two the chances are they’ll feel more and more comfortable and new habits will start to form. Perhaps even that lifelong commitment.
When I cycled to Morocco I just asked my friends to do their pledges whilst I was away for two months — but four years have passed and well over half of them are still doing it. Why? Because now they realise there’s no reason not to. 3. Make it social: Play within existing social networks that people feel a sense of belonging to, rather than trying to create new networks from scratch. These could be friendship groups, workplace teams, classmates or event attendees. The tighter the bond between group members, the more likely behaviour change is to stick and spread. Close social networks not only bring trust and influence, but also a healthy dose of peer pressure — and that, as Alex Laskey eloquently explains, is the key to driving behaviour change.
I initially built The DoNation on the belief that friendship groups were the most powerful networks of influence, and that was the be-all and end-all. But we’ve now run several Do Good for Business programmes within companies and each time it amazes me just how powerful inter-team competition and work place peer pressure can be. When considering how much time is spent at work and how many discussions are shared over lunch or coffees, I see that it is one of the strongest, most influential social networks to build from. 4. Visualise impact: Let people see how their action contributes to the bigger picture, both individually and collectively as a group.
This is something we’ve seen work really nicely on The DoNation. Individuals can see how much carbon their own pledged action will save, and how this contributes to the total pledged for their team or friend, pushing them a bit closer to their target. On this scale, each action, no matter how tiny, makes a tangible difference. The team or friends’ total might pool into their company’s larger total, which in turn feeds into the total impact created by all Doers. Suddenly, through this pyramid of action, the initial tiny step is part of a greater movement that is making meaningful change to the bigger picture. That empowers people and motivates them to get more on board, spreading the change even further and wider. 5. Online vs offline: As someone who runs a digital start-up, of course I’m going to argue that digital tools are invaluable: They make recording, measuring, sharing and educating on scale infinitely easier. But there’s no doubt that any behaviour change campaign has got to be tied into the real world, too — don’t expect to send a few emails or tweets and the world to change.
The Big Lunch is a really nice example of this — pulling people together in the ‘real world’ through their local communities but using social media to build the buzz, capture the size of the movement and share ideas more widely. 6. It almost goes without saying that underlying all of these points has got to be a good element of fun.
Brands are in a very influential position to trigger change, through their employees in the first instance (they are consumers, after all), and then through their customers and supply chains. Engaging employees first is not only easier, it is also critical if a brand wants to be at all credible when asking consumers to do their bit.
My final argument for the importance of driving behaviour change amongst employees is simple: Motivating employees to bring sustainability to life in the business starts with small, personal actions, such as popping a little less water in the kettle when making their morning cuppa. These real changes, however small, get noticed and inspire others to follow — and can snowball into even bigger changes.
What’s your brand doing to get the snowball rolling?