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Corporate Cultures

Getting Employees To Really Own Their Behavior Change

Most talk about changes to office culture or policies inevitably uses language lifted from a simple sales transaction: How can we “sell” employees on a new way of doing things? Or get “staff buy-in” on a particular initiative? But reams of workplace studies demonstrate that employees are far more interested in making changes when it means putting their own ideas in motion rather than adopting those of others.

This not only makes intuitive sense, it also dovetails with what we know about human judgment and decision making in general. Several years ago, the economist Richard Thaler conducted a groundbreaking experiment involving … coffee mugs. Specifically: Thaler randomly distributed mugs emblazoned with the school logo to half the students in one of his classes, while the remaining students received nothing. The mugs, which were always available at the school gift shop, generally sold for about $6 each. Thaler then created a market for mugs, asking each mug owner to write down on a card how much they would charge to sell their gift while asking each student who didn’t receive a mug how they would pay to buy one. And wouldn’t you know it: On average, mug owners wanted $5.25, while mug buyers on average refused to pay more than $2.75.

Thaler, who later won a Nobel Prize in economics for his work, called this discrepancy the “endowment effect,” demonstrating that the mere fact of ownership was enough to make mug owners judge a basic campus commodity to be almost twice as valuable as did students who didn’t own mugs. This insight has been used to understand all sorts of behaviors, ranging from the tendency of car owners to pay more for makes that they’ve previously owned to the likelihood that investors will overvalue the shares of companies based in their city, state or region.

The takeaway for the workplace is more subtle but just as powerful: There’s tremendous power in ownership, even when it isn’t particularly hard-won. Specifically, employees are more likely to value an initiative or policy if they feel they had a hand in its creation. Subsequently, they’re also more likely to comply with it. Knowing that, we asked business travel consultant Michelle “Mick” Lee how travel managers can leverage this truth when it comes time for large-scale change. Here’s her three key insights:  

Be proactive. Ask employees to identify trouble spots before they start complaining. Does it take too long for them to book a simple trip online? Are they opting out of a preferred city pairing when selecting flights? Spotting trends, and addressing them, goes a long way toward building credibility. “Do your homework and  learn what isn’t working,” Lee says. “It will resonate with employees and show that you understand their needs.”

Build Community. Let’s say the Four Seasons is your company’s preferred hotel in a particular city, but 85% of your employees stay at the Marriott. Rather than penalizing the non-compliers, Lee recommends inviting a handful of them to join a council. “Simple is best,” she explains. “No meetings. It’s essentially a community.” Send out a brief, five-question survey to find out why they’re booking the out of policy hotel: Is it because of location? Reward miles? Each council member is motivated to participate to ensure his or her views are represented. “Maybe the outcome is that the Marriott becomes the preferred hotel,” says Lee. “One immediate benefit is your out of policy numbers go down substantially, almost overnight.” A longer-term benefit? You now have a cabal of hotel super users to consult with any time your hotel policy needs an adjustment.

Play The Long Game. “One of the biggest mistakes all managers make is that they want to be right,” says Lee. “Travel managers are no exception, which is why some don’t look at problems holistically or identify the end game. If our end game is compliance, traveler engagement and satisfaction and controlling costs, then we must let go of the ideas that aren’t working.”

To be sure, this more deliberate approach takes time, but, Lee explains, it’s also bound to create more lasting change. “You could come down with a hammer and insist that your people comply,” she says. “But you’re not going to build trust or credibility by doing it that way. And trust and credibility are the quickest paths to compliance.”

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