How to Effectively Change Organizational Culture: A Behavioral Scientist's Approach

Oct 19   ·   Reading time: 12 minutes
Behavioral science approach to organizational change has six steps:
  1. Define desired business outcome(s).
  2. Translate the desired business outcome(s) into behavioral goal(s), known as target behaviors.
  3. Identify and map barriers to change.
  4. Design behavioral change initiatives to overcome the barriers.
  5. Boost solutions with behavioral change tools.
  6. Prototype and test the best solution(s) to evaluate impact.
How to Effectively Change Organizational Culture: A Behavioral Scientist's Approach
There are many models of organizational change, but most have been created without considering how the human brain-mind works and how employees really make decisions. Many models rely on the assumption that employees always act in the best interest of themselves and their company; that they know what they want; and that if we explain why a change is needed, they'll embrace it. That's simply not the case.

Today I will walk you through an approach to changing or building an organizational culture based on behavioral science approach and insights, leveraging cognitive biases to help develop better work culture. What you'll find below is a case study describing a project I did for an FMCG client several years ago. The MAPS model used in this approach is one I've developed throughout years of consulting work. I like to think of it as an improved version of the COM-B model (if you're familiar with it), which, honestly, I find clunky and challenging to use in business practice.

The Objective

The client has approached me with a request to help them create a culture of feedback within their organization. They've already started working on the endeavor, a fact that'll become important later in the story.

Change Process Overview

On a high level, the behavioral science approach to organizational change has six steps:
  1. Define desired business outcome(s).
  2. Translate the desired business outcome(s) into behavioral goal(s), known as target behaviors.
  3. Identify and map barriers to change.
  4. Design behavioral change initiatives to overcome the barriers.
  5. Boost solutions with behavioral change tools.
  6. Prototype and test the best solution(s) to evaluate impact.
Let's look at how we can practically apply these steps to shape organizational culture.
How to Effectively Change Organizational Culture: A Behavioral Scientist's Approach

Step 1: Define Desired Business Outcomes(s)

This part of the process is as much about behavioral science and evidence-based approach to organizational change as it is about strategy. Before you do anything, it's a good idea to get clear on what you truly want to achieve.

During a workshop, the client said they wanted to create a culture of feedback to achieve three desired business (HR) outcomes:
  • They wanted employees to develop skills and grow professionally.
  • They wanted employees to be more motivated and productive at work.
  • They wanted to improve collaboration within their organization.

Warning: Distinguish means from ends

Can you see that now that we know the three desired business outcomes, building a feedback culture isn't necessarily the best tool to achieve what the client truly seeks? If I told you I wanted to do something at my organization to motivate employees or to improve collaboration, feedback probably wouldn't be the first thing you'd recommend I do.

Since the client was committed to creating a feedback culture, we kept the project's scope. I've worked with the constraints (and I don't use that word in a bad way here), and we've developed great behavioral change initiatives. However, let that be a reminder always to ask yourself, "What do I really want?" enough times so you understand what you're genuinely trying to build. Make sure to distinguish means from ends.
How to Effectively Change Organizational Culture: A Behavioral Scientist's Approach

Step 2: Define Behavioral Goals (Target Behaviors)

Knowing the three desired business outcomes helped us identify behavioral goals, i.e., create a list of specific, measurable behaviors that employees should engage in. A well-defined target behavior answers the following question: Who? What? Where? When? How often? With whom? For example, one of the target behaviors the client has defined was: “We want members of project teams to give feedback to one another at the end of each project.”

This part of work can seem burdensome, as one desired business outcome often becomes a long list of target behaviors. Yet, by getting clear on who needs to do exactly what, we gain clarity on what to do. (There are many more benefits of this approach, but we won't get into them now.)

To be concise, I won't list all the target behaviors we've listed in this project. Instead, here is a high-level behavioral target list of what we were working to achieve within this organization:

Professional growth: Classical 1-1 feedback conversation
Increased motivation and productivity: Appreciation, celebrating successes, communicating success stories
Improved collaboration: Within-team feedback, cross-team feedback, sharing of good practices

As you can see, while all these initiatives can help achieve the desired business outcomes, they are a loose take on the definition of feedback. By clarifying what the client truly wanted, we could identify approaches to help build a feedback culture and better serve the desired business outcomes.

Step 3: Identify and Map Barriers

The next step is to identify barriers to the target behaviors. The MAPS model I use is an excellent framework for doing just that. If you've ever worked with me or have heard me talk about behavioral science approach to change, you know I'm all about barrier mapping. Ninety percent of success lies in understanding what stands in the way of people not already doing what we want them to do. Once you know the barriers, designing solutions to overcome them is simple (albeit not easy).

MAPS Stands for Motivation, Ability, Physical Context and Social Context

There are four types of barriers to any behavior. People may not do what they should because:
  1. They aren't motivated enough to do it (Motivation barriers).
  2. They don’t have abilities necessary to do it (Ability barriers).
  3. The environment in which they are makes it more difficult or impossible for them to do it (Physical context barriers).
  4. Others around them make it more challenging to do it (Social context barriers).

Together, these four components — motivation, ability, physical context, and social context (MAPS) — are what we call "the building blocks" of behavior. They all need to converge simultaneously for a behavior to happen.

Each of those four barriers can be further divided into sub-categories:
How to Effectively Change Organizational Culture: A Behavioral Scientist's Approach
The brilliant thing about this model and approach is that you can go through a list of questions that will help you identify all the relevant barriers. Thanks to this "checklist," we can be sure that we've looked in all the places we need. Otherwise, we're only relying on what we remember or what people tell us. For example, suppose we ask people why they're not already giving one another feedback after each project. They may say it's because no one has told them to do so, or they don't know what feedback to give. But they may not mention, or even realize, that lack of infrastructure (such as appropriate rooms to hold feedback conversations) or mental effort associated with giving feedback stands in the way.

Seven Key Barriers

By going through the list of questions, we've identified dozens of barriers that stood in the way of building a feedback culture at my client’s organization. We've then prioritized and grouped them to end with a list of seven key barriers:

  1. Lack of skills: All employees have received feedback training but knowledge ≠ skills. The fact that someone knows something, in theory, doesn't mean they can do it in practice.
  2. Excessive mental load for those receiving feedback: Once someone receives feedback, they don't know what to do with it. There are no clear guidance or company procedures to help "translate" the feedback into action to improve professional growth.
  3. Physical context barriers: There is a lack of a comfortable and safe place to give/receive feedback.
  4. Negative emotions: The word "feedback" provokes feelings of stress and fear.
  5. A belief that providing feedback to one's supervisor doesn't have any benefits or can even lead to being punished.
  6. Lack of salience: You can't see feedback, so people forget about it easily.
  7. Lack of proper social norms inside the organization.
How to Effectively Change Organizational Culture: A Behavioral Scientist's Approach

Step 4: Design Behavioral Change Initiatives

To address these seven barriers, we've designed 19 behavioral change initiatives. Some were as simple as developing a one-pager that employees could take with them to a feedback conversation to remember what to say. Others were more complex and evolved around re-designing the company's HR processes. Yet all were easy to implement and created with a design thinking "prototyping and testing" mantra in mind. Behavioral science approach is all about low-hanging fruit. We want to implement changes quickly rather than spend two years developing them before they see the light of day.

I wish I could describe all 19 ideas here, but that'd most likely put you to sleep. Instead, I will focus on a selected few to give you an idea of the output of this process and approach.

Solution 1: Knowledge and Skills

One of the first barriers we’ve identified was that people didn’t have the right skills to give one another feedback. The feedback model used at the organization is (like all feedback models) rather complex. True, a nice acronym is supposed to make it easier for employees to remember to go through all the steps. But it's one thing to list five elements of a model and an entirely different something to be able to use it in practice. This requires figuring out and remembering what and how to say in the correct order while under the stress of a feedback conversation (after all, it's never easy to have to tell another person what they're doing wrong).

I advised the company to embrace a much simpler feedback model — even the traditional "sandwich" that most companies now leave behind. Despite what many HR gurus will tell you about "the sandwich," its undisputable strength is its simplicity. Most, if not all, other models put a great mental/cognitive strain on their users.

Employees also needed to undergo proper training. A training pathway with enough practical experience was required to allow employees to use the chosen feedback model in practice easily. They needed more than knowledge. They need skills.

Solution 2: Ask for Specifics

The organization wanted employees to give feedback to their supervisors. For this to happen, managers needed to ask for feedback explicitly. Too much stress is associated with giving your boss feedback to expect employees to do it on their own spontaneously.

If the input was to help managers grow professionally, it needed to be relevant to their development goals. That's why another recommendation was for managers to ask for feedback explicitly and to ask specific questions to encourage employees to discuss whatever needs to be addressed openly. If a supervisor asks their employee, "So, tell me, how am I doing?" the employee is likely to give a vague and somewhat positive (yet not necessarily true) answer. Yet if a supervisor asks, "What feedback can you give me regarding my abilities to delegate tasks?" the employee is likelier to say things that will help the manager improve their skills.

Solution 3: Transparent Goals

As you may recall, one of the desired business outcomes was to help employees grow professionally. That’s why one recommended solution was for employees to know one another's developmental goals. Otherwise, their feedback was unlikely to have anything to do with what a feedback recipient was working towards.

Solution 4: A Safe Space

No one was going to give anyone feedback if there was no safe space to do so. With so many organizations having turned their offices into open spaces with see-through conference rooms, there is often nowhere to sit down to have a feedback conversation. The client has been advised to re-design their office to create easily accessible rooms that offer privacy and create a feeling of comfort and trust. For example, the company should furnish such spaces with armchairs facing sideways instead of chairs opposite ends of a table, which is more confrontational. And there need to be actual walls and doors, not ones made of glass through which everyone can see.

Solution 5: Gratitude Day

One of the barriers identified in the project was that the word "feedback" had negative connotations. No wonder people didn’t want to spontaneously give one another feedback if they felt anxiety and stress just thinking about it. We can help employees re-frame how they feel about feedback if we ask them to express gratitude towards others. To make giving feedback more salient, the client has been advised to create "Gratitude Days," during which employees will be encouraged to thank others for their work.
How to Effectively Change Organizational Culture: A Behavioral Scientist's Approach

Step 5: Boost Solutions with Behavioral Change Tools

The last step in solution development is to enhance the initiatives with the so-called behavioral change tools. There are many cognitive biases we can use to promote better behaviors. For example, we know that people are more likely to do something if they see others doing it (social proof). We can therefore use this technique, for example, when planning details of a "Gratitude Day". One way to make “Gratitude Days” more social is for managers can thank their employees publicly.

Step 6: Prototype and Test

Behavioral science approach to organizational change is evidence-based, meaning it's rooted in evidence and science. This means that the process and behavioral change tools come from scientific research. But it also means that we test solutions. As any behavioral scientist will tell you, the devil is in the detail. And context matters, so the fact that one initiative has worked somewhere doesn't mean it'll work everywhere. It's always a good idea to test selected initiatives and measure their impact before rolling them out throughout the entire organization. As Peter Drucker said: You can't improve what you don't measure.
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