5 Behavioral Science Principles You Can Put To Use Every Day

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2 min read

May 23, 2023

By Chris Dornfield. The article was originally published in HR.com on December 12, 2018: https://www.hr.com/en/magazines/all_articles/5-behavioral-science-principles-you-can-put-to-use_jpdo5k84.html

Every HR professional knows the type of culture they’d like for their organization, and how they’d like their employees to behave. Companies go through elaborate processes to create their definition of culture, and the behaviors to drive success. Convincing people to buy in and actually behave that way? Often a different story.

But convincing people to do what they’re already inclined to do? That would certainly make shaping behavior a lot easier.

It all comes down to the “whys.”

There are existing systems, existing behaviors and new people with new behaviors constantly influencing your company culture. Creating a great culture starts with collecting all the underlying whys: why people behave or perform a certain way, why certain actions continue to occur or don’t occur at all, why they respond to certain incentives but not to others.
Understanding these “whys” is behavioral science.

Our company has spent decades examining the science behind motivation and human performance, and we’ve become pretty familiar with many time-honored behavioral science principles. Appropriately applied, these principles not only serve as the necessary foundation for all your employee reward and recognition efforts, but also as techniques for continually refining your employee experience and corporate culture.

None of this happens by accident. People do what they do because that’s what people are wired to do. With that in mind, here are five behavioral science principles, illustrated by examples, that you can use to align what people do with what your business wants them to do.

1. Shared Identity/Purpose

Job one of culture-building: Bring everyone onto the same page, working toward the same goals. This objective is accomplished through the principles of shared identity and its close cousin, shared purpose.

Layers of shared identity work together at the same time. First, the organization must define a set of values to guide employee behavior. Those values are then promoted and shared via employee recognition programs, which are thereby shared with employees.

Some researchers believe that mirror neurons could be the delivery vehicle for a shared identity. Located in several critical areas of the brain, they activate whether you experience something, or you see others experience something. This is what’s behind our process of identifying with people, or brands, or corporate values. When we think about them, we’re using the same brain machinery as when we think about ourselves.

So, when we’re exposed to positive goals and values, and see fellow employees living out the company mission, we can have the same emotional and cognitive reaction as if it were our own experience. A shared identity is formed, leading directly to a sense of shared purpose.

A famous study demonstrates how a sense of purpose can deliver rapid and dramatic results. Students were engaged in the usually thankless task of calling people to solicit funds for a school scholarship. The recipient of one of these scholarships met face to face with one group of students for 10 minutes. A month later, over the course of one week, these students spent more than twice as much time on the phone, and secured nearly three times as much money, as those in the control group.

Ultimately, through shared identity and shared purpose, business purpose interlocks with personal purpose. Knowing that what you do makes a difference…makes all the difference.

2. Autonomy

The principle of autonomy explains why most people (make that all people) find micromanaging so annoying.

People are born needing to feel they control as many aspects of their lives as possible, and to feel dictated to as little as possible. Making your own choices, and behaving according to your personal interests, is associated with increased enjoyment, satisfaction, intrinsic motivation and engagement. Autonomy is a key ingredient for an integrated sense of self.

In the workplace, activating the desire to create brings autonomy into play. One example would be job crafting. While it’s true few employees will be able to design their jobs to their own exact specifications, there’s still plenty of room for shaping the contours. Allowing them to align their tasks closer to their strengths and passions gives employees a semblance of control. Can they have a say in their job description? Can they help design their professional future, and guide the education and training they’ll need? Can they offer input into which skills they want to develop, and be rewarded for?

Attachment to one’s own creations begins at a very early age. In one experiment, four-year-olds were given craft materials and asked to design artwork that the experimenter would assemble. Next, the roles were reversed, and the children were instructed on how to place their materials. Told they could take their favorite piece home, they chose the artwork that was the outcome of their idea, rather than their labor, by a wide margin.

That’s an obvious segue into the IKEA effect, but it’s so widely known that it suffices to say rather than “If you build it, they will come,” try “Let them build it, and they will stay.” At base, the principle of autonomy may be described as simply getting out of your employees’ way.

3. Progress Feedback

The primary driver of job satisfaction? That would be making progress. No matter what employees do, they need to know that they’re always advancing the ball. A subset of progress is the behavioral science principle of progress feedback.

Here’s a recent client example of how this can work. Realizing their employees were sitting on mountains of unredeemed reward points, one hospitality organization took steps to encourage them to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Each employee was sent a personalized email that included his or her point balance. The result of this appreciation reminder was 10,000 program site visits, to the tune of $800,000 in redemption.

Progress feedback has a lot to do with activating memory, and therefore awareness. It consists of pulling information that may have been unconsciously diverted into long-term memory back to the forefront. As notably described by a model known as Ebbinghaus’ Learning Curve, people remember longer with more exposure to the information, so the key is hitting heavy to start, and then spreading out the subsequent reminders. This spacing effect makes the information more accessible and easily retained.

Employee engagement and motivation are increased by bringing the payoff for their hard work—the actual reward experience, rather than the idea of a reward—back into focus. Wisely, instead of regarding unredeemed reward points as money it didn’t have to spend, the hospitality firm recognized that the actual value rested in motivated and committed employees. Both the company and its employees truly got their money’s worth.

4. Social Rewards

Besides a desire for autonomy, there’s something else people are born with: the need to make connections. This is the principle known as social rewards.

Every company has its share of employees who quietly keep to themselves and avoid extended contact, but that doesn’t mean the desire is absent. It’s right there in the middle of Maslow’s hierarchy. Tellingly, one recent study demonstrated that contrary to expectations, passengers on trains and buses had a more enjoyable experience connecting with strangers than sitting in solitude.

This principle of social rewards was the driving force behind another recent client example. Introducing a new platform, a financial services provider ran a one-month campaign encouraging employees to issue at least five recognitions per week. The result was an increase in employee recognition of 500 percent.

Were the employees only dutifully following a corporate directive? Hardly. Studies cited to support the principle of social rewards determined that non-monetary rewards—in one case, the acquisition of a good reputation—activated the “reward center” in the brain the same way a cash gift would. Social recognition, activating pathways associated with positive emotions, turns out almost literally to be as good as gold.

This principle underscores that even recognition programs without tangible rewards still have a highly beneficial impact on the employee experience. The reward is the act of recognition, or the human connection itself. These are the connections that keep your people coming into the office every morning. You can do no more important work as an HR professional than to encourage and facilitate these connections.

5. Social Proof

If everyone wore their bathrobes to work, would you do it, too? According to the principle of social proof, yes, probably.

Social proof is the human tendency to follow the patterns of the majority and similar others in new or unfamiliar situations. It’s a principle with almost endless application in the workplace, from following simple policies to creating and maintaining a positive corporate culture. In fact, without this principle of “everybody’s doing it,” you couldn’t build a culture at all. And the more you use it, the stronger it gets.

Social proof can be a very subtle, yet very powerful principle, as evidenced in its most noted study. Hotel guests were presented with a bathroom sign asking them to reuse their towels. One group saw a standard sign, while another’s stated that most guests had reused towels at least once during their stay. The latter sign worked about 25 percent better than the former.

Interestingly, a follow-up study showed that signs stating that guests who had stayed in that particular room reused towels outperformed signs stating “most guests” had done so.

Social proof is an extremely reliable method of driving change and shaping behavior—for better, or for worse. This is because every employee knows exactly what kind of culture they work in, every day. If the company is uninterested in new viewpoints, if innovation is discouraged or failure is shamed, employees will adjust to the prevailing standard. If the company is committed to a thriving and fulfilling employee experience, elevating its culture by recognizing and celebrating success, employees will adjust to that standard, too.

In this way, each company gets the culture it deserves. And that’s why social proof is a very good thing. Although weak cultures use it to stay weak, strong cultures use it to remain strong. New hires will notice immediately if meetings start on time, how quickly they’re expected to respond to emails if deadline really means deadline and the way people treat each other.

They’ll also notice that no one is wearing a bathrobe to work. Provide the outlines of a good culture, and social proof will do the rest.

Employees come to work already primed to engage in the habits and behaviors your recognition program is designed to shape. Your role as an HR professional is to create a culture and environment that allows them to do so. By consciously structuring your employee initiatives on proven behavioral science principles—and there are many more than those described here—you’re shrewdly calling upon innate instincts that have existed as long as people have been people.