Most of us spend a shocking percentage of our lives trying to convince others—friends, bosses, kids, parents, colleagues, siblings, subordinates, customers, vendors, etc.—to change their behavior in ways minor or major. But very often these efforts fail to produce the desired outcome. Kids still won’t eat vegetables. Friends still keep dating losers. Colleagues still keep violating travel policies.
So it may not be quite as shocking to learn that a growing body of research suggests that an effective way to affect behavior change in others is to stop focusing on persuasion and shift our efforts to removing—or, more likely, adjusting—whatever roadblocks might be in their way.
The power of these adjustments—called “channel factors” by the pioneering psychologist Kurt Lewin—was illustrated notably by researchers at Yale University. As part of an effort to convince seniors to get tetanus shots, a group of students were asked to attend a lecture meant to educate them about the dangers of tetanus, as well as the importance of being inoculated against it. After the lecture, most of these students said they’d been convinced and planned to get their shots. In the end, however, a mere 3% actually did. But another group of students, presented with the same lecture, had a 28% inoculation rate.
So what was the difference between the two groups?
Well, in addition to a lecture, the second assembly of students was given a map of the campus and asked to plan their route to the health center—and pick a date and time to go.
Sometimes, it turns out, motivation isn’t the problem. Rather, we need to identify the mental obstacles—inertia, resentment, fatigue, overconfidence, fear, to name five of many—and put ourselves and others into position to hurdle them.
What does this mean for travel managers? In brief: Less focus on persuasion and more on roadblock removal. For a little more detail, we asked business travel consultant Michelle “Mick” Lee for some first steps along that path:
- Look to the data. “The first thing I do when I’m brought in to a company is conduct a thorough analysis of the data,” says Lee. “That’s where you see the gap between policy intentions and employee actions.” Lee says that addressing that gap and amending policy ensures two immediate and sustainable benefits: compliance reporting improves materially, as does traveler satisfaction and engagement. Allowing employees to participate in the shared economy—Lyft, Airbnb, etc.—while traveling is one obvious example.
- Simplify, simplify, simplify. General Motors CEO Mary Barra made news when she boiled down the company’s dress code to two words: “Dress appropriately.” Says Lee: “Obviously, no corporate travel policy can be two words, but almost all of them can be simplified. Your traveler cannot comply to a policy they don’t understand and if you need a training session on your policy, it’s time to toss it and begin again.”
- Elevate rewards programs for the user. Human beings are creatures of habit, even when those tendencies go against their best interests (or those of their employers). So they’ll need help breaking those habits. Says Lee: “Progressive companies use rewards programs to empower employees and incentivize cost-conscious business travel. Not enough of them make it easy to use those technologies in their travel programs. But in my experience, doing so results in the easiest of wins for what is often one of the largest expenditures at any company.”
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