Behavioural science approach to managing change

Behavioural science approach to managing change

Adopting a behavioural science approach to managing change means leveraging scientific research about human behaviours and using this to better manage change. A lot of the common practices in change management are not always based on scientific research. What is assumed as common change approaches may in fact not be substantiated by research and data.

We talk to an industry veteran of behavioural science, Tony Salvador. Tony has 30+ years of research background behind him and a long-time ex-Inteller and Senior Fellow. At Intel, Tony travelled around the globe researching human factors and how people behave with technology.

There are many valuable takeaways for the change practitioner.

Some of these include:

  • Engineering psychology and human centric design
  • Analogy of pickaxe and the change approach
  • Principle of aversion to loss
  • People involvement and transactional change
  • Determining the nature of leadership relationship with employees
  • Story telling and insight into change culture
  • Example of Brazilian translator and people’s stories
  • Power of observation and listening
  • The nature of relationships and how they determine change 
  • Change rationale in weaving in multiple changes
  • Involving people in reporting to achieve authenticity
  • Building the case and involving employees to derive case for change

User-centric view of change impact

User-centric view of change impact

Change practitioners usually classify different change impacts into people, process, technology and customer. Then, there is a great effort and focus placed on describing exactly what the change is from a project or program perspective. These can include the processes changes, and how different the new process is going to be compared to the current process.

However, adopting a user-centric view of change impact is critical.

Often what is seen as impact can be very very different from what is experienced by the end-user. Let’s take a few examples.

When a project is ‘rolled out’. There are can be a lot of different impacted audience factors to consider. These can include:

  • Location
  • Role
  • Gender
  • Digital fluency
  • Age
  • Length of service
  • Team size
  • Availability of support staff
  • Availability of effective 2-way communication platforms
  • Effective learning and development processes in place
  • Functional skill sets

So depending on how these factors determine the impact of the change on groups of individuals, identified specific impacts can be different. In the change impact assessment process, these should be carefully teased out and identified explicitly. Even how we express the names of the impacts should consider how the changes are perceived.

For example, is an impact ‘Team Leader briefing team members about the new process’ or ‘Weekly team meeting to discuss new process changes’? The initial wording is more focused on the new process, whereas the latter one illustrates that there can be various changes discussed in the meeting. So as a result, practitioners need to be open to the environment in which their messages will be delivered and through this better position and clarify the meaning of the change from the team’s perspective. E.g. can this change be delivered as a bundle with other process changes?

To download an example of a simple version of different change impacts on different roles click here.

In a recent example, a person is understood by the organisation to be undergoing 6 separate initiatives each with their various impacts. Each initiative has fleshed out the various project impacts and these are listed and planned explicitly. However, this is from the organisation’s perspective. In fact, what the individual is undergoing is quite different.

There are changes that the team or division is undergoing that are not always taken into consideration such as people or team changes. On top of this there are also seasonal workload impacts from the likes of end of financial year, audits or pre-holiday season workload. On top of this, there are also various Covid considerations to take into account – the mother of all changes at the moment. Lockdown and social distancing have profound impacts on individuals leading to physical and psychological health impacts.

To read more about this go to our article How to take into account mental health considerations in change delivery.

How to take into account mental health issues during change delivery

How to take into account mental health issues during change delivery

Ever since the epidemic began people have started to suffer mental health issues.  In fact, according to Harvard Business Review, recent studies have shown that 42% of employees globally have experienced a decline in mental health since the commencement of Covid.  This is not a surprise given that governments have routinely locked-down populations to ensure safety and contain the spread of the virus.  For change practitioners driving change initiatives within this context, it is hard to ignore these facts.

However, a lot of change practitioners are advised to steer clear of any mental health issues since they are not health practitioners and not qualified to deal with mental health issues.  This may be true.  However, just because change practitioners cannot advise on dealing with individuals with mental health issues, this does not mean that their approaches cannot take mental health into consideration.  In fact, if a significant portion of the employee population have experienced reduced mental health, this needs to be taken into account and not ignored.  Ignoring the facts can mean unsuccessful change outcomes.

So how can change practitioners take into account mental health issues affecting employees so that they are still able to drive successful initiatives?

Common mental health issues

Firstly, let’s look closer at common mental health issues impacting employees during the pandemic.

Anxiety and Depression

A recent report found that a quarter of 10-24-year-olds in the United States (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) said that they had seriously considered suicide.   Other surveys consistently show significant increases in anxiety and depressive disorders and correspond with pandemic trends.

Symptoms of anxiety can range from insomnia, panic attacks, feeling of apprehension, or impending doom, and breathlessness.  Anxiety symptoms can also be less physically pronounced such as sweating, dry mouth, dizziness, nausea, difficulty concentrating, and irritability.  Symptoms of depression can include difficulty finding joy and difficulty in engaging in normal activities, low energy, declined appetite, hopelessness, and that everything seems an effort. 


For a section of the population, it may be that they are not feeling severe enough to be diagnosed as being depressed or anxious in a clinical sense.  However, it does not mean that their mental health states are optimal.  The New York Times labelled this ‘feeling blah’ as ‘languishing’ and that it could be the dominant emotion of 2021.  Languishing is the in-between level of the optimal level of mental health and suffering from mental health illness.

People were not feeling burnt out of depressed per se.  However, there’s less of the usual excitement, hope and joy in their usual daily lives.  Recently I visited my medical practitioner and he commented that of his patients most are suffering various medical conditions and that there are definitely a lot more reports of mental health concerns.  People who experience this may not even report it nor even notice it.  First comes fewer social interactions, then comes increasing solitude and even isolation.

Incorporating mental health concerns in change delivery tactics


The first step to take in incorporating people’s mental health concerns in change delivery is to openly acknowledge this.  A lot of corporate communications functions would much prefer to not touch anything that is even remotely negative.  However, acknowledging what people are going through builds trust and connection.  Ignoring the elephant in the room will not help to engage employees.  It is not that this needs to be the front-and-centre of the communication messaging.  However, mentioning that there may be employees suffering from mental health issues can be the first step in building improved connections and confront the stigma.

This is especially important if you are driving an initiative that will have a significant impact on employees.  If you are requiring employees to undergo significant impact whilst they may be battling with mental health issues, then addressing it head-on is critical.

Role model and sharing of experiences

The initiative sponsor and various change champions can be leveraged to share their personal experiences in dealing with mental health concerns.  This helps to de-stigmatize mental health in the workplace and open up the discussion of people’s challenges.  During forums, town halls, or even in articles or newsletters, the sponsor can share his/her own experiences in dealing with mental health issues.  The trick is to be candid and open.  This helps to foster trust with the employees.

Picking up on cues when engaging with individual stakeholders 

When working with various stakeholders it helps to establish routine of ‘checking-in’ to sense-check the mental status of everyone prior to starting the meeting.  This helps to level-set everyone’s mental status prior to diving into work discussions and helps everyone to understand how others are doing, thereby creating connectivity and inclusiveness.  

If you pick up particular cues that the stakeholder may be suffering from mental health issues check-in individually with them to see if they are doing ok.  Then, connect them to any company resources available such as employee assistance programs.

Map out the initiatives that impact them – prioritise and sequence.

Mapping out the various initiatives that impact the stakeholder group is one of the most strategic tactics in this list.  It means taking an end-user perspective and plotting out all the various initiatives and changes that impact them.  Taking this end-user, and design thinking approach, we are not just concerned about the particular initiative that we are driving, but all the various initiatives that the person is/will be experiencing.

During times of change fatigue, it may be that proactive intervention may be required to better prioritise and sequence the change rollout to manage the capacity of the impacted stakeholders.  To read up on how to do this refer to the following article:

The Ultimate Guide to Change Portfolio Management

Segment employees to understand differing needs.

Different employee groups may be experiencing different needs and challenges.  Those with children and that are dealing with childcare challenges during the working day may be experiencing different mental health challenges than those who are singles.  Singles may be more inclined to feel isolated and disconnected with limited social support. 

By creating different segments, you can position communication messages to better target those audience groups.  These are some ideas of potential change tactics for different employee groups:

  • Employees with children and/or dependents – Offering flexibility in selecting time slots for training sessions, or record any town hall sessions in case they were interrupted during the session
  • Fully remote workers – Scheduling engagement sessions that involve facilitated discussions on personal experiences in the broader sense beyond just the initiative itself
  • Non-remote workers – Organising virtual sessions for non-remote workers to connect with remote workers to foster greater connection
  • Managers – Organise engagement sessions with managers that include content on dealing with employees on mental health issues as a part of the overall manager engagement session content


As a part of the overall change tactic of successfully implementing the initiative, it makes sense to measure and track employee sentiments.  A typical change readiness assessment survey may be supplemented by items on employee mental health.  This will help to proactively assess the extent of the mental health challenge for employees and how they may impact the extent to which the initiative could be successful.  Survey findings may be socialised with leaders to derive subsequent strategies to tackle the issues.

Surveys do not need to be long and exhaustive.  A common digital practice for applications is short, and sharp pulse ratings that only have a few items.  Having frequent pulse surveys also helps to assess the development of the issues at hand and to what extent employee sentiments are as anticipated.

To read up more about measuring change visit The Ultimate Guide to Measuring Change.

Infographic – Gamification for change delivery

Infographic – Gamification for change delivery

Are you looking for quick practical ways to gamify change delivery to improve engagement?

Thanks to Covid we can no longer rely on traditional ways of delivering change.

Don’t fret! There are many ways in which we can use proven ways to engage all types of users through gamification tactics.

Spoiler alert – You won’t need to be an expert in gamification nor buy into expensive software.

Download our infographic to find out more …


10 ways you can easily gamify your change interventions and get immediate results

10 ways you can easily gamify your change interventions and get immediate results

Gamification is the application of game elements to non-game activities.  Whilst gamification has been around for a long time, it is only recently that it has been formalised as a structured method to achieve specific outcomes.

We see the application of gamification all around us.  Yes most of the apps we use on our phones have game design elements.  However, more broadly, we can see this all around us.  Through gamification design, we can make significant behaviour changes.

Two of my favourite examples are:

1.Improving aim and decreasing spillage in urinals.

Amsterdam airport wanted to keep the urinals clean and reduce spillage.  They pinpointed the aimed spot within the urinal design where the least spillage happens.  What happened was that men would aim for the fly as a fun activity (or even aiming subconsciously), and thereby reducing spillage.

The fly acts as a target

2. Encouraging physical activity by taking steps vs. the escalator

In Sweden, they did an experiment to see if they could encourage people to take steps over the escalator by making it fun to use steps.  This was at Odenplan (where I used to frequent regularly on my way to bars in my younger days), a major subway stop in central Stockholm.  They turned the steps into a piano where stepping on a step would the be same as hitting a piano keyboard.  The result was that 66% of people chose the steps over the escalator.  Here is a video that shows the behaviour of people as they use the stairs. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7frzYFcbqjc

You will notice that these elements are not necessarily about playing a ‘game’ per se.  Instead, they’ve borrowed elements of game design to engage people and make it more fun.  However, ultimately there is a very clear goal and clear behaviours to be achieved.

6-D model of gamification

The 6-D model of gamification is a very practical step-by-step framework to help you design an effective change intervention using gamification.  The value of this framework is that it ensures that there are clear objectives and focus before jumping into utilising one of the many gamification tactics.

These are the 6 steps to follow:

  1. Define Business Objectives – Define the goal you are aiming for.  Is it increasing stakeholder engagement scores?  Is it increasing the viewership of articles?  Or is it getting users to follow the new process?

  2. Delineate target behaviour – Define the target behaviours you are aiming to achieve.  Note that behaviours need to be discrete and concrete.  Then, decide how you are going to measure them.  For example, let’s say you want to get users to follow the new additional process steps.  What actions do you need users to perform?  How do we know if these processes have been performed?  Can the outcome of performing these steps be traced or observed?  Are these documented?  Are they easy to report on?

  3. Describe your players – How well do you know your target audience/users?  In this step, you need to clearly articulate and define exactly what they are like.  For example, what are their demographics?  How do they tend to behave?  Do they have a history of behaving in certain ways in certain situations?  If you need them to add more steps in a new process will they tend to ignore it?

  4. Devise activity loops – In this step, we are identifying the key motivations involved to sustain the desired behaviour.  Are there particular reinforcements required to sustain this behaviour?  Do we need to design feedback loops?  For example, if you need to ensure that the user performs 3 additional process steps, what triggers or reinforcements are required?  What notifications need to be in place to remind the user and motivate him/her to perform these steps?  And how do we reward those behaviours?

  5. Don’t forget the fun – This step may seem quite generic but nevertheless an important part of the design process.  People prefer to perform tasks that are more fun.  However, it is not always easy to determine what is considered fun.  It is about incorporating the element of interest and fun where possible to increase engagement.  For example, can the messaging or graphic design incorporate an element of fun?  Or can the notification or reward elements be designed to incorporate fun?

  6. Deploy appropriate tools – This is the action step.  It is about choosing the right gamification tactic to deploy your change.  There is a very long list of various gamification tactics to be leveraged.  Here, we will review 10 different tactics and demonstrate examples from The Change Compass.

Now that we understand the theory and steps required. Let’s put these into practice.

10 example of gamification elements and how The Change Compass has applied this

1.Onboarding tutorials 

The classic approach for change practitioners in implementing changes has tended to rely on training.  However, depending on the change being introduced there are more engaging ways to socialise the change.

For example, with a new system there are tools to create context-specific walk-throughs and detailed explanations that are more engaging.  These are not necessarily part of the tool design itself.  There are digital tools such as Stonly, Help Hero, as well as a myriad of others that may be leveraged to easily design context-specific onboarding.

Here are some examples how we use context-specific onboarding walk-throughs and information.

This is the context-specific guide to help users navigate the features

The Help button on the right is context-specific to provide detailed guides

The Help button expands providing detailed guidance to the user

2. Theme

At The Change Compass we love using the airport analogy because it explains the various components within the system that needs to hum for holistic portfolio change management.  Each plane is an initiative and how the airport is run is portfolio management.  The available runway is the business change capacity.  Stakeholders understand this because it’s a tangible analogy that they have experienced first-hand.  

We’ve embedded the airport theme in different parts of the application to create a sense of fun and visually more interesting.  For example, here are some examples of how we have done this.

The user experiencing the airport analogy when creating an initiative

Another example of using graphics/language to be on theme

3. Random rewards

This tactic is about creating excitement and unexpected reward to surprise users in a positive way.  Ideally, it would bring a smile to users since they were not expecting this pop-up or another form of reward.

For example, we have created various automation features to make it significantly faster for users to enter data.  And when the task is completed we surprise users with a pop-up that celebrates this task completion.

Here a pop-up animation provides a pleasant surprise/reward

4. Status/points/leaderboard

The leaderboard concept is quite a common tactic to generate engagement and in this case competition.  The idea is that those that have the highest points feel a sense of achievement and recognition.  Please note that it depends on the motivation of users and may not work in all contexts.

We have created a user community to promote sharing of practices.  In our platform there is a leaderboard that shows who has made the most comments.

5. Customisation

Customisation gives users the ability to tailor and customise their experience.  The more users spend time and effort to ‘create their space’ the more wedded and engaged they become.  Most people are familiar with the concept of using avatars as an expression of themselves.  This is another way of expressing who they are digitally.

In our application we allow users to upload their own avatars.  In keeping with the overall airport analogy, we have ready-made avatars of different airline characters for them to choose from.  Again, injection a bit of fun into the experience.

6. Challenges/quests

Challenges or quests keep users engaged and interested.  It could arouse their curiosity and through this increase their likelihood of undertaking a particular task.  It could be a question or a notification to let them know of a new feature.  It could also be quizzes or Q&A to challenge users and thereby increasing their knowledge.

7. Sharing knowledge

Building features to allow users to share knowledge and support one another can be a motivating feature for some users.  Helping others and building credibility can be intrinsic motivation for some.  After all, helping others makes one feel good.

Our Change Tribe community has been a great platform for users to exchange tips and experiences.  Different channels are setup to address different types of sharing.  For example, ‘Feedback and features’, ‘Sharing practices’, ‘What’s new’, ‘Community tips’.

There are various platforms available for you to build community for users.  It can be using your corporate Yammer platform, or others such as Slack or Tribe.

8. Voting/voice

Giving users the ability to have a voice and share their feedback can be powerful and engaging. However, depending on the platform you are using you may need to manage the types of feedback that are openly shared.  Giving users the ability to vote can also be quite powerful.

For example, at The Change Compass our features backlog is primarily determined by users and their feedback.  This ensures that users feel that they determine how the application is designed and therefore feel more invested.

9. Meaning/purpose

Having a clear and strong of meaning and purpose may seem like a no-brainer for change practitioners.  Yet this is a very important one for game design.  The most engaging games that instill a strong sense of purpose for the user, where the user feels emersed into executing on the purpose.

In the same way, designing meaning and purpose into all facets of the change intervention is critical.  Ideally, with every step of the change journey, the user can feel ingrained into carrying out steps towards the purpose of the change.

For example, in The Change Compass we have an Action Planning module where the application steps the user through the analysis of the data, key observations, patterns, and what actions to take to potentially package or re-sequence the change rollout.  This helps to directly address the overall purpose for the user in using the platform.

An excerpt from the Action Planning module to help walk users through analyses and recommendations

10. Social discovery

Social discovery is about enabling the support of users to find one another so that they can connect.  This helps to support those with shared interests or connections.  People are social creatures and we like to find others with whom we have shared interests.  Think about designing your change intervention in a way that supports social discovery and networking.

For example, The Change Compass is about sharing initiatives across the organisation and the impacts they have on different parts of the company.  Initiative drivers can discover other initiatives and how they may potentially impact the same stakeholders.  This leads to better alignment and shared understanding and therefore makes it easier to collaborate for a better business outcome.

Now it’s your turn! What are some of the gamification tactics that you will deploy to improve stakeholder engagement and ensure your change initiative is designed with a view to creating a deeply involving experience for users?

To read more articles about agile practices within change management please click here. Or, to read more about different change approaches click here.

Why change communications are often designed to fail

Why change communications are often designed to fail

Communication is an absolutely critical part of your change initiative.  In every part of the change initiative, communication is a must-have.  Too much and you may overwhelm your stakeholders.  Too little and you may not get traction or engagement.  Done in the wrong way and you may not get the right results.

So how would initiative change communication be designed to fail?

To understand this we need to analyse elements of what constitutes standard practice in corporate internal communications, of which change communication must adhere to in practice.

1. Maintain a positive or neutral tone.  You will notice that most of your internal communications usually have a positive or neutral tone.  It is almost never negative.  The goal is to maintain a positive mood as much as possible and hide any nuance of negativity.  A key rationale is to avoid imparting a negative mood to the target audience.

2. Impersonal corporate speak.  Typical corporate communications use a voice that is business and commercially focused.  One that is mostly formal.  This again may depend on how the communication is crafted, but often any emails or statements from leaders are often crafted in a way that is impersonal and void of personality.  

3. Focus on reason over feelings or emotions.  Communications are always carefully crafted to focus on logical reasoning over feelings or emotions.

I hear you nod.  So what is wrong with these practices if they have been the norm for decades and is adopted as common practice by most organisations?

OK let’s go through these one by one.

Maintaining purely a positive or neutral tone.  

Driving traction and motivation for change requires establishing ‘the why’.  Why are we doing this?  And what is wrong with the current status?  What do we have to gain by changing?  

One of the most important motives of communication at the commencement of a change initiative is to engage the organisation on the vision or end state of the change.  To do this effectively communications need to grab the attention of stakeholders and impart the rationale of the change.  In most situations, the change is not all rosey.  It needs to balance addressing the burning platform for change, what happens if change does not happen, and on top of this, outline the positive aspects of the change outcome.

Achieving this balance is not always easy in crafting messages.  However, ignoring any potentially ‘negative’ tone in favour of positive or neutral ones would only be perceived by the audience as ‘fake’.  Being candid is always preferable (as long as it doesn’t become overly negative and freak people out at the other extreme).

Perhaps this is why employees often read the communications and then ask their team members or managers about how to interpret the message and what it ‘really means’ to them?  Versus absorbing what they read as bible?

Impersonal or corporate speak

The corporate-style of communications is so pervasive in organisations that it is basically accepted as the norm. However, if you really ask your audience about this type of communication you will find that the tone is one of a level of pretense that it is not always easy for employees to relate to.

Especially with leader or manager communications, the content needs to match the person.  Think of the last time you listened to a manager who was talking about a change, but it came across so contrived that you know he/she was just delivering a message passed down from above.  It was not genuine or believable.  The message and tone of the communication need to match the person saying it, with all the personality and nuances that come with him/her.

On the other hand, the new economy startups and new tech organisations tend to communicate in more of a casual and relatable voice.  Even if you look at any email subscriptions that you might have, you will notice that what is emerging is more of a casual and personal tone.

Organisations are now evolving to be less hierarchical, less formal and more personal.  We also tend to wear less suits, have less hierarchy, and be less formal in addressing senior managers.  What about the way we craft communications messages in changes?  Have these evolved accordingly?  Or are they still done in the same way as 20 years ago?

Focus on reason over feelings or emotions.

This is a big one.  We know from research that people are much more likely to buy into the change if they can emotionally relate to the rationale for the change.  We also know that leaders who are more candid and share their emotions including vulnerabilities with teams are more likely to gain their trust and engagement.  Of course, we are not talking about emotional outbursts, but instead, ongoing open and candid conversations about their perspectives, i.e. speaking from the heart.

Gaining the trust and commitment for those impacted by the change requires appealing not just to the head but to the heart.  

When I was at Intel many years ago, there was a time when rival AMD was slowly gaining momentum in market share in the computer chipset market.  Leaders started very candidly and group-wide discussions about what this meant, the risks to the company, and really appealed to what this meant for Intel.  For the longest time, Intel was the unbeatable market leader.  Even the thought of being challenged by a smaller player was too much to bear.  

The overall rally across Intel was how might each team contribute in different ways to come up with ways to challenge AMD.  How might Intel continue to take the reign and be the global leader?  This emotive goal drove various teams across functions.  Technical teams challenged themselves to speed up their pipeline of delivering faster and better chipsets.  Marketing teams worked on strategies to target key accounts.  This led to huge success and in less than 2 years Intel had at the time squeezed AMD out of the limelight.

So, the challenge for change practitioners is to really question the effectiveness of your current change communication.  Look at the communication that you get from new and emerging companies as a reference.  How might you better engage and grab the heart of your audience?  

John Kotter in his new book ‘Change. How Organizations Achieve Hard-to-Imagine Results in Uncertain and Volatile Times’ mentioned that in the ‘modern organisation’ a lot of the practices are really designed for many decades ago.  These practices have not moved with the times and to be truly agile many of these practices need to be questioned.  It’s time to take the challenge and pivot.

Learn how The Change Compass deliver results in managing complex, multiple changes.

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