Environmental Behavior Change: Making it Stick

How do you get people to change their behavior so they act in a more environmentally-friendly way? This is a question that we frequently get asked by our clients who are attempting to shift their organizational culture and motivate employees to reduce the amount of energy and resources they use. As with anything behavior related, there is no simple explanation or answer. Behavior is complex and so is changing it. However, one thing is clear based on research in this field—in order to change and sustain behavior, it’s important to move beyond traditional approaches that strictly focus on boosting awareness and fostering a positive attitude about the behavior.

AWARENESS + POSITIVE ATTITUDE ≠ BEHAVIOR CHANGE

It is a common misperception that simply informing people about why a specific pro-environmental behavior is important and fostering a positive attitude about the action will directly lead to engaging in and sustaining the behavior. Research has repeatedly shown that general awareness/knowledge and positive attitudes do not highly correlate with environmental behavior change. For example, employees frequently report that they feel it is important to conserve paper (i.e., have a positive attitude). They also claim that they are aware of the positive benefits of double-sided printing and that it’s an option at their workplace (i.e., are generally aware and knowledgeable). Yet, they still do not duplex print at work. But why is this?

As with any behavioral explanation, it depends on the situation and could entail a myriad of reasons. Assuming double-sided printing is available on all machines, it may be that people don’t know how to actually select duplex, and they want to avoid looking foolish or incompetent if they try and fail. People may also think that no one else in their department is duplexing so why should they do it, or they may perceive that their efforts really don’t make a difference given the total amount of paper used by the organization.

Regardless of the reason or combination of reasons, the aforementioned example demonstrates how many people often fail to adopt a pro-environmental behavior even if they see it is as important and are keenly aware of the benefits. This is not to say that generally educating people and trying to instill positive attitudes about environmentally-friendly behaviors are unimportant—these elements are definitely valuable. However, in conjunction with disseminating benefits information and promoting awareness about the behavior, it is critical to also include details and tactics that address human nature, social influence, and any perceived barriers connected to the targeted action.

TIPS FOR INCREASING THE LIKELIHOOD OF BEHAVIOR CHANGE

There are multiple strategies that can be employed and details to consider when trying to promote and sustain behavior change. Having said this, I’d love to talk about them all (yes, I am a behavior nerd). However, for the sake of this blog post, I will only highlight a few (five to be exact) that research has shown to be particularly effective and that take into consideration human nature and perception, as well as social influence.

1. Provide Clear Procedural Instructions: Lack of “how-to” knowledge tends to be one of the most significant barriers for people who are generally willing to engage in a specific pro-environmental activity. Regardless of how motivated people are to perform a given behavior, they typically will refrain from trying it out if the process to complete the action is not clear. In light of this, it’s important to always provide clear procedural steps about how to complete the behavior even if the action appears to be relatively simple.  For example, with the double-sided printing situation discussed earlier, it would be beneficial to post step-by-step instructions on how to select duplex copying near all of the applicable copiers.

2. Model the Behavior: In addition to providing static “how-to” instructions, it can also be beneficial to have someone demonstrate the actual behavior. People are typically more willing to try something when they observe someone else do it first and can subsequently test out the behavior at their own pace and in a “safe” environment where they won’t feel publicly embarrassed if they fumble in their attempts. Video recording someone going through the steps of completing the behavior and making the file accessible online for people to independently view at their leisure is often an effective approach. Referencing the duplex example again, an IT person could video record someone going through the on-screen motions of selecting double-sided printing on their computer. Following promotional efforts that note the availability of the video online, an employee could then access and view the video via his or her own work computer, rewinding as necessary to catch each step.

3. Communicate the Norm: Even though individuals are generally unaware of it, they are strongly influenced by what the majority of people around them are doing or what is perceived to be common behavior. Considering this, if a survey or structured observation indicates that a targeted behavior is generally supported or exhibited by a majority of people in an organization, it is highly beneficial to incorporate this fact into all educational efforts. Communicating this “norm” will strongly influence people who are not engaging in the behavior; the more these individuals perceive themselves as not being a part of the majority, the greater the probability that they will adopt the behavior. Granted, there is a caveat with this behavioral tip. If less than half of the group supports or demonstrates the target behavior, do not advertise this since it will often have a counterproductive effect. This strategy is more about capturing the remaining few that are still not engaging in a targeted behavior versus trying to promote a behavior that is only exhibited by a small minority.

We recently worked with The Nebraska Medical Center (TNMC) to incorporate this strategy into the organization’s Lights Off campaign, which was focused on motivating people to shut off the lights when leaving unoccupied rooms and workspaces. Based on an initial survey of the organization, we found that an overwhelming majority of employee respondents agreed that it was important to save energy at work by shutting off the lights. This “normative fact” was then incorporated into TNMC’s promotional efforts. Mixed with other strategies, such as placing reminder stickers above light switch plates, this approach of communicating the norm helped significantly increase the percentage of employees who regularly shut off the lights.

4. Leverage the Consistency Principle: Generally speaking, people like to act in a consistent manner. Keeping this in mind, it can be very beneficial to ask people to sign some type of informal pledge form indicating that they will engage in the targeted behavior. By signing a pledge and demonstrating an initial level of commitment, there is a good chance people will actually follow through with the behavior due to a general tendency to be consistent with what they have previously promised to do. To further increase accountability and the likelihood of follow through, it’s also advantageous to publicize the names of pledgees in some fashion (assuming you receive their permission). Periodically thanking them for agreeing to engage in the behavior can also help serve as reminder of their commitment, increasing the likelihood that they will follow through and continue engaging in the behavior.

We leverage this consistency principle by creating an online pledge tool for our clients. This tool allows people to select and commit to a few simple pro-environmental behaviors. The name of each pledgee is then placed on a digital wall of honor and grouped with other departmental colleagues who completed the pledge. Automated emails are also periodically sent out to pledgees thanking them for their participation and tactfully reminding them of their commitment to engage in their selected behaviors. An example of this online pledge tool and the wall of honor can be viewed on the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s green team website, entitled UNMC LiveGreen.

5. Provide Feedback: People inherently like to know how well they are doing at something and feel successful. Consequently, providing consistent feedback about progress and advertising the collective impact of people’s efforts can be incredibly beneficial in motivating and sustaining behavior change. In fact, providing individual and/or group feedback is often more effective at sustaining pro-environmental behavior change than providing incentives—a topic I plan to discuss in more depth in my next blog post (in a nutshell, incentives can be great at inciting behavior change, but they often stink at maintaining it).

To view an example of a feedback mechanism that we use with our clients, check out the Omaha Public Schools’ (OPS) tracker tool on the OPS Green Schools Initiative website.  This feedback tool helps OPS visually demonstrate the district’s progress toward its sustainability goals, such as increasing the district-wide ENERGY STAR rating and reducing the total amount of waste produced. Feedback is also provided at the individual school level via quarterly snapshot sheets that are provided to each school, highlighting the progress they’ve each made toward OPS’ overall sustainability goals. As a result of integrating school-specific and district-wide feedback mechanisms with other behavioral strategies, OPS has been able to significantly reduce the amount of energy and resources that the district consumes.

HARNESSING BEHAVIORAL INERTIA & MIXING STRATEGIES

As noted previously, changing behavior is hard. Sometimes really hard. However, this can be viewed as a positive (I realize you may think I’m crazy at this point). If we can get people to change, they will often maintain that change simply due to behavioral inertia—their innate tendency to keep on acting in the same way. In essence, once they make the change, their natural inclination to remain consistent can set in. To promote this initial change and set the stage for maintaining the behavior (i.e., behavioral inertia), it is important to keep in mind that basic information and awareness campaigns are often insufficient at provoking and sustaining behavior change. People typically will not change simply because they are aware of the benefits of the behavior and generally have a positive attitude about it.  In light of this, promotional and educational efforts should incorporate research-supported strategies that take into account social influence and human nature and perception. However, even with some of the more effective strategies that I’ve mentioned, incorporating just one additional strategy is often not enough. Integrating several of these strategies tends to produce the best results and increase the likelihood that people will not only make the change, but also sustain it—the true goal of any campaign focused on promoting environmentally-friendly behaviors.

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