Use psychology to influence employee behaviour

Studies show that when people in the workplace are aware they want to influence others, the strategies they choose by default are not very effective. But HR professionals can learn a few tips from psychology to improve their ability to change or modify employee behaviour.

When attempting to influence others, we rely too heavily on the assumption that humans are logical.

Research in the workplace shows that our most common approach to influencing employees is to give them logical, rational reasons for doing what we ask. Although this approach can work, it is nowhere near as effective as you might expect.

Those same studies show that the more reasons you give someone to do something, the less influential you often become.  

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Next time you find yourself with the need to influence employee behaviour, try applying one of these three simple but effective principles from psychology.

The principle of effort

Studies in psychology show us that the more effort, difficulty, or inconvenience involved in complying with a request, the less likely people are to do it.

This is a factor that would-be influencers rarely consider because we think in terms of what we need others to do, instead of what they are most likely to do.

For example, as an HR professional, you may hold responsibility for establishing policy and practices.

Some of these policies will have high rates of compliance, while others require significant follow up to reach compliance targets.

To address this issue, consider what could be done to make compliance as easy as humanly possible. Once you drop the effort involved to the minimum number of seconds or calories spent, you will find compliance rises significantly.

The principle of social imitation

Although we are mostly not aware of it, we continually seek information about what is normal, usual or expected behaviour in a given situation.

Once we have that data, studies indicate we tend to follow suit. This is all just part of being a socially gregarious species, and it happens for example whenever you do what you think is ‘normal’ when you enter a lift, attend a birthday party or step inside a meeting room.

There is even neurological evidence that we find it rewarding to align our behaviour with what we think others are doing.

In a study of workplace cafeterias in England and Wales the basic intervention of putting posters in the cafeteria stating “most people here choose to eat vegetables with their lunch” led to a significant increase in the purchase of meals containing vegetables – without any need to hold seminars or provide people with good reasons for making that choice.

The principle of reasoning and reward

Reasons can work to influence employee behaviour, but your approach will be much more effective when the reason you choose focuses on emotional benefits or the expectation of reward than on something logical or rational.

Health researcher Valerie Curtis explained that people are more likely to adopt a healthy behaviour if told it will make them more attractive (emotional) instead of claiming it will help them live longer (rational).

When your goal is to influence a change in behaviour, start by thinking what would make employees actively want to choose the new behaviour (instead of explaining why it makes sense for them to do so).

The best approach to developing your ability to influence using psychology is to start small, in relatively low-risk situations. Learning from your first attempt will help you get better results from your second attempt.

Amanda Nimon-Peters, is professor of Leadership at Hult International Business School