Can You Change Behaviors By Following Others?

iStock_000014793457SmallI am sure many of you have come across these omnipresent cards in hotel rooms that request you to re-use your towels to save water and protect the environment. Personally, I think these “suggestions” are just about saving costs for the hotel. I just paid a couple hundred dollars for a room and now you want me to save a few dollars for you by not drying myself in a nice, clean, freshly washed towel? Doesn’t seem right…

Despite the fact that 83% of hotels have a linen re-use policy in place, apparently only about 17% of guests actually re-use their towels. It looks like I am not alone!

So how do hotels get guests to re-use their linens? For that matter, how are people convinced to change any of their behaviors? For example; getting people to save energy at home or to wear their safety belts and goggles. How are employees encouraged to fill in an important survey or comply with organizational policies?

Our knee-jerk reaction is the carrot and stick approach (or stick and carrot depending on your humanistic view). We either ‘bribe and/or push’ people to display a desired behavior or implement processes or policies that force people to work in a certain manner. Both ways can be effective, however they are costly (incentives) and often not liked as they constrain (regulation) people.

Robert Cialdini, Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the university of Arizona, has studied what influences and persuades us to do or accept something. He has identified 6 universal principles (check out the YouTube video: Secrets of the Science of Persuasion) that persuade people to change their behavior:

  1. Reciprocity
  2. Scarcity
  3. Authority
  4. Consistency
  5. Liking and
  6. Consensus

The last principle shows that people like to do what many other people have done before. This is nothing new, of course, because we do this all the time. We want to buy a phone in a price range similar to what our friends have, we agree to join in a karaoke contest if all our other colleagues are also participating, or we are willing to try a new dish on the menu if we are told it is the restaurants best selling item (even when we have no clue what it is).

So how can you use this idea to influence people’s behaviors? Cialdini himself gave an example in which a utility company not only provided its customers with information over their personal electricity usage, but on a monthly basis, gave their customers an invoice in which they could compare their electricity usage with that of their neighbors. Over a 3-year period this led to energy savings of 1.3 billion kw/h.

Now, coming back to the re-use towel example… Cialdini experimented with different messages to persuade people to re-use their towels. Nothing had a significant impact except telling people that 75% of the guests (which was a credible and true statistic) in the hotel during their stay re-used their towels. Sharing a factual, statistical piece of information on what others are doing, prompted 30% more people to re-use their towels. And the funny part is, it didn’t cost the hotel a dime.

I am going to try to use these principles in persuading employees of a large organization to change their behavior. How? I don’t know yet, but if I am able to share in a credible manner with employees what other similar employees have done, I am sure they will follow and change their behavior.

Will keep you posted!

– Paul Keijzer

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How To Avoid Procrastination

procrastination2I just completed the procrastination survey and according to the outcome I rank in the bottom 10% of the population in terms of my level of procrastination. According to the procrastination equation website, (at least) 95% of each one of us sometimes procrastinate and for 15-20% of us it is consistent and problematic. These figures have significantly gone up since the 70’s, where there were only 5% of self-proclaimed procrastinators.

Despite the low survey score (explains how anyone can cheat with personality tests) of course I also do procrastinate and sometimes finish a movie, play that game on my phone, check my emails, go for lunch with my wife; postponing all my work to the latest possible moment. The excuse that I always use is that I work better under pressure and an even better excuse I tell myself is that I am subconsciously preparing myself the whole time. So far it has worked and I have (almost) never missed a client deadline!

According to Dr. Ferrari in Psychology Today “Procrastination: 10 Things To Know”, procrastination is not a problem of time management or of planning. Procrastinators are not different in their ability to estimate time…”Telling someone who procrastinates to buy a weekly planner is like telling someone with chronic depression to just cheer up.”

So how are the people who have been studying the topic of motivation and procrastination and are self-proclaimed sufferers dealing with it? Professor John Perry, an emeritus professor of philosophy from Stanford University, has written a wonderful essay on how he deals with procrastination. He calls it Structured Procrastination and it “requires a certain amount of self-deception, because one is (in effect) constantly perpetrating a pyramid scheme on oneself,” he writes. “One needs to be able to recognize and commit oneself to tasks with inflated importance and unreal deadlines while making oneself feel that these tasks are important and urgent.”

While reading 59 Seconds: Think A Little, Change A Lot, I came across the topic of procrastination once again and found the “just a few minutes” rule to be helpful. According to psychology graduate Bluma Zeigarnik, who first experimented with this idea in the 1920’s, this rule is a highly effective way of overcoming procrastination. The idea here is to work on an activity for “just a few minutes” which leaves the procrastinator with the urge to see it through to completion. This creates an “anxious brain” which makes you want to see the job finished!

I am trying to deal with my procrastination bouts by trying to create new habits, habits in which I force myself to do things and hope that over time they become automatic. Luckily for me my guilt kicks in if I am not able to do stuff as planned (must be the Dutch work ethic that my parents have pumped into me) and this pushes me to get things done.

How do you deal with procrastination?

– Paul Keijzer

Breaking Bad Habits

good-bad-habits-300x263We all have bad habits. Some people bite their nails, some smoke, some can’t resist that last cupcake and some just can’t get out of bed in time. Some bad habits are small nuisances (mostly to others) while others can be detrimental to our own, and other peoples, happiness (addictions of any kind). We often try to break them, but the majority of people fail to kick their bad habit to the curb. Only 5% of people that join Weight Watchers achieve and sustain their target weight for 2 years!

What are habits, how do they come about, how do you recognize them, and if you know what they are, can you change them? These were some of the questions that New York Times business writer Charles Duhigg tried to answer in his new book; The Power of Habit.

According to Duhigg, habits are powerful things. They prevent you from having to make millions of decisions every day; from how you brush your teeth, to what you eat for breakfast, how you drive to work or to what you do first when you open your computer (read the sports page, check your Facebook page or dive right into those big tasks that you have to complete today). When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in any decision-making and your behavioral pattern unfolds automatically.

The problem is that your brain can’t tell the difference between good and bad habits and as a result, whenever a behavior has become a habit, your brain just waits for the cue and then simply executes it.

So what is a habit? A habit is a loop in which a specific action is triggered by a cue and followed by a reward. Whether it is a sugar rush from eating that chocolate bar, the caffeine kick from your morning coffee or the endorphins that get released by regular exercise, your mind becomes trained to expect the same certain reaction to your actions.

As a habit is a simple cue, action, reward loop, you can actually go about to change it. Duhigg offers a four-step framework to change a habit:

Step 1: Identify the routine
Step 2: Experiment with rewards
Step 3: Isolate the cue
Step 4: Have a plan

At the end of his book, Duhigg himself concludes, “All patterns that exist in our lives are habits that we know exist. Once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom -and the responsibility- to remake them. Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt, the only option left is to get to work and change them.”

Today I started trying to create a new habit for myself. Instead of waking up lazily at 7:30am to check the sports pages, my blog counts and my emails, today I woke up at 6:00am, had 90 minutes more to get in some exercise, meditate and start the day with my writing. This blog is a result of my first day! My cue was my desire to get more out of my day with the personal insight that I am most productive early in the morning. My reward; exercising and writing gives me the discipline that I crave and producing something early in the day gives me that feeling that, no matter what happens later in the day, I have still achieved something.

Will keep you all posted on whether I am able to translate this intention into a good habit! Good luck changing your bad habits!

– Paul Keijzer

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Using Office Gossip To Your Advantage

bigbookpic-1All of us do it; we gossip. There are some stunning statistics available as to how much the passing along of information contains traces of gossip. Did you know that one out of seven emails sent in office contain gossip? And that negative gossip outweighs positive gossip by a factor of three. No one really thinks of the statistics behind gossip, because for so many people adding those extra “juicy” details into a conversation comes naturally. We love to gossip, certainly when it is about other people, but what do you do when the gossip is aimed at you?

What To Do If You Are The Subject of the Gossip:
The first thing you have to do when you hear gossip about you is to know exactly what is being said. Find out where the gossip originated from and confront that individual. How do you do this? Let’s give an example: You have heard in the corridor that people are talking about the fact that they feel the boss is favoring you and giving you opportunities that others don’t get. After asking around, you have been able to identify one colleague (the one you have always been in competition with) who is behind originating this gossip.

So, how do you confront this individual? While it may be your first instinct, do not run over and start shouting at your colleague, throwing around accusations. Instead, take a couple of breaths, think about your actions and plan on how you should approach this situation. Choose the best moment (preferably when no other colleagues are around and when you know your colleague will have nothing to fear) and prepare how you will start the conversation. Instead of an aggressive “I have heard that you are spreading rumors about me and I want you to stop” try the following opening: “I know that it is your right to say whatever you want to whomever you want and I don’t want to deny you this right, but I would like you to know that it really hurts to hear that you are implying that the boss is favoring me for reasons that are not performance related. If it is your intention just to bad-mouth me, then go ahead and continue. However, if you really think that this is an issue then I would like to discuss this with you and the boss to sort this out, as this is certainly not the way I want to be seen”.

Tough, yes of course, but at least you show that they can’t simply get away with talking about you. Even if the person denies being the originator, addressing the issue will ensure that you have nipped the problem in the bud.

If you don’t know or are not sure who the source is, bring it up with your line manager or HR director (whomever you feel more comfortable with) and ask for advice.

Two Big No-No’s
There are two big no-no’s when you are sharing rumors. First, never share company sensitive information. Certainly if it is a listed company it can get you into serious (legal) trouble. And although studies show that sharing negative feelings about a third person can increase the closeness between the two people sharing it, no matter how tempted you are or how upset you are with your boss, never speak negatively about him/her to others. Almost always the negative comments will come back to him/her and put you in a position you don’t want to be in.

How To Use Gossip To Get People To Like You
Not many people would associate gossip as a tool to make other people like you. However in his book 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot, Professor Richard Wiseman shares an experiment that shows when you gossip about another person; “…listeners unconsciously associate you with the characteristics you are describing, ultimately leading to those characteristics’ being “transferred” to you. So, say positive and pleasant things about friends and colleagues and you are seen as a nice person. In contrast, constantly bitch about their failings and people will unconsciously apply the negative traits and incompetence to you”.

So say good things about your boss and colleagues, keep away from negative gossip, share accurate market information and other trends you have picked up from friends and from the web and see your likeability and your career skyrocket.

– Paul Keijzer

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Managing Office Gossip

gossip-webAs an HR Director I was once the gatekeeper for a lot of sensitive information and was always amazed at how fast, widespread and accurately gossip spreads. Studies from the 60s (although I don’t know whether this is still relevant as that sounds like a lifetime ago) show that more than 75% of the details in gossip are correct.

Why People Love To Gossip
According to Frederick Koenig, a sociologist and author of Rumor in the Marketplace: The Social Psychology of Commercial Hearsay, people listen to and pass on a rumor because it satisfies an inner need. This is why understanding the nature of the people involved is key. According to Koenig, different people have different needs that lead to their reasons behind passing along gossip.
Rumors …

  1. … can circulate because the topic is interesting or a source of diversion.
  2. … can pull together events and fill in the gaps to make sense and provide explanations for what is going on.
  3. … can validate and support a point of view.
  4. …can reconcile one’s psychological state with what one sees as actually going on. (Studies show people who have high anxiety frequently participate more in the rumor process and groups in stressful situations have more rumor activity.)
  5. … are a means of getting attention.
  6. … are ways of manipulating situations. The idea of individuals or groups deliberately starting a rumor to serve selfish ends is frequently suggested.

The Grapevine Is On 24/7
It is the informal communication highway and it works 24/7; in company buses, cafeterias, hallways, meeting rooms, bathrooms and water coolers. But don’t think it stops when the office closes down. Nowadays, more often than not the grapevine really comes to life through Facebook, Twitter, or any other social network platform. It never stops and most of the time it is much faster and more direct than the organized formal communication methods that companies rely on. (You won’t see anything scandalous written in an office memo, but what employees communicate from desk to desk would shock you.)

Benefits of Gossip
Of course gossip and the infamous grapevine that carries the gossip can have both positive and negative consequences for the organization. The negative is that the grapevine can carry all kinds of misinformation and create insecurity in individuals. There are, however, also a number of benefits. The simple fact that people are talking about the organization shows that they are interested in what is going on with the company (as a leader you should get worried if employees stop discussing the company as it shows that they are not engaged). The benefit is that gossiping allows employees to express their feelings (both positive and negative) rather than keeping it bottled up.

How to Manage the Downside of Gossip
Of course, when the going gets tough and difficult messages have to be communicated (for example: downsizing, re-locations, or organizational changes) the grapevine works at its best and the consequences are most likely the most detrimental. In these cases as a leader you have two options (1) share as much as possible as soon as possible, even if not everything is clear and decided or (2) share information once when everything is decided and clear. The advantage of the “ASAP approach’ is that you let people in on what is happening with the downside being that things can change over time and you might be increasing their insecurities (as not everything is clear). Telling people when everything is clear is of course the flip side of the same coin. Although here, the biggest negative is that you are unable to formally influence the grapevine as you have not communicated anything and have left it up to others to exaggerate or downplay (as any piece of gossip can turn). Both approaches have their time and place.

How To Manage The Grapevine
First and foremost is accepting that the grapevine is always on and can’t be stopped. You can try to ‘kill’ it in one situation, but I bet you it pops its head into another soon. The best way to manage the grapevine is to:

  1. Make sure you inform employees as quickly and fully as possible of what is going on in the company. Use social media and the formal communication channels available to you. Remember the key mantra in communicating to employees is: Communicate, then communicate more and if you think that you have communicated enough, double your efforts.
  2. Listen to the rumors and decide what are facts and what is biases. If, as a leader, you are in tune with the grapevine you get a feel of what is really happening in the company and you can use this as influence.
  3. Act fast. If rumors are wildly incorrect then make sure you come out ASAP to set the record straight by proactively communicating to all employees. Otherwise, distorted half-truths will make the rounds — so nip these destructive rumors in the bud.

Learn to love the grapevine. Don’t get jumpy if ‘secret’ information is out there. Simply accept and try to use it to your benefit.

– Paul Keijzer

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