When it comes to influencing behaviors in the workplace, you might not initially think to take a page out of the NBA playbook.
Every year young athletes entering the professional basketball league face new challenges—finances, personal relationships, or even how to behave on social media—so the league developed the Rookie Transition Program to help enculturated newcomers and share expectations of what it means to represent the NBA.
First initiated in the mid-80’s, the program was a less-effective information dump until they figured out that the content held more weight when it came from someone who’d been in the players’ shoes… Cut to the 2017 program introducing NBA legends Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jerry Stackhouse who share sage advice with the new class about life on and off the court. As Piston’s guard and recent graduate of the program Luke Kennard put it, “they know what they’re talking about, so we listen.”
Organizations jump through their own proverbial hoops to encourage the right attitudes and behaviors among their employees, but the rookie orientation taps into something the corporate world could benefit from: using peers, particularly the successful ones, to give context. Rather than telling someone how to behave, show them what success looks like. Organizations look to influence an array of behaviors related to space usage (helping workers move from private offices to open plan), or technology (implementing a new customer relations management tool), culture (seeking more collaboration across teams) or process and programs (rolling out a new benefits package.)
It’s less about trying to change behaviors but rather finding the right influence that encourages people to change their own behaviors.
Whatever the initiative, the goal is often to bring benefits to employees but first they must adopt new behaviors. Such adoption can be nearly impossible across an expansive group of people. As the NBA learned, it’s less about the organization trying to change behaviors but rather more about finding the right influence that encourages people to change their own behaviors.
When we educate people about the activities of their peers, whether it be superstars or even just the early adopters of a new initiative, they are more apt to allow that to influence their behavior. You might think of it as positive peer pressure. College campuses use this insight to help incoming freshman develop healthy, productive habits. New students immersed in the college environment are more sensitive to the actions of their peers as they transition into adulthood away from home. Campuses have responded to this reality by introducing simple poster campaigns highlighting good habits of successful students, such as hours spent in the library. The schools aren’t trying to force new behaviors but rather giving the students context from their fellow freshman.
When we educate people about the activities of their peers they are more apt to allow that to influence their behavior.
In the world of workplace, a medical research company realized similar success in encouraging teams to utilize newly designed collaborative spaces. After investing in tech-friendly lounge and café spaces packed with sensors to track utilization, company leadership was discouraged to find the spaces persistently empty. To help users understand the purpose and potential benefits of these new spaces, the company launched a blog with daily photos of fellow employees using those spaces, along with comments from management encouraging work away from the desk. In addition to the shared posts, they included the utilization data from these designated spaces each week to show if the usage in space was increasing; which indeed it was. Each week that the utilization increased, the company hosted a Friday-afternoon happy hour. By making the efforts visual and easily digestible, they kept successful behaviors top-of-mind for the whole organization.
Now we must remember, these initiatives worked because the intent was clear but also pure; the college campus wanted to promote student health and productivity. The research company wanted to help their employees realize the benefits of internal mobility. And while incentives like the happy hour can help momentum, they are only temporary and therefore not strong enough to stand on their own.
A bourgeoning engineering firm learned the hard way when they underestimated the level of influence of their employees. Leadership endorsed a campaign posting life-sized images of an open plan workstation throughout the office to advertise the new workstation design coming that fall. The building full of engineers, however, at that point resided in private offices with ample privacy and personal storage. So as we might imagine, the new workstation campaign was not well-received. The failure here was not in the design of the station, nor in the purity of leadership’s goal—which was indeed to help boost productivity and allow workers be more collaborative—rather, the failure resided in the lack of context or clear intent shared with the employees. The firm eventually course-corrected by establishing a council comprised of engineers from multiple teams to provide feedback on the new design but it cost them valuable time and additional design services.
Authentically communicating intent is the other common thread between these successful initiatives. To illustrate, when a call center wanted to encourage its employees to use the stairs more often, they didn’t simply share a company-wide directive or send out a memo. Instead, to champion this initiative, the company posted outlandish caricatures of their executive team using the stairs all up and down the stairwell—one executive easily identifiable by his favorite blue bowtie. The goal was not only to avoid a long queue for the single elevator in the building but to encourage movement throughout the day. This coincided with a company-wide competition to see who could climb the most stairs in a 30-day period, which tracked the front-runners publicly for all to see. By exposing the efforts of their peers visually, and using their leaders to help inform the intent, the company successfully encouraged a culture focused on long-term healthy habits.
The key is learn more from people than any memo or rule book and we always will.
Many of today’s practices attempt to change user behaviors directly, but the alternative is to give users a look at how the rest of their peers are operating. Sharing how it’s done successfully and why that matters is more effective in driving the desired behaviors. The difference is that the change comes from within. We may not all get to heed warnings from Kareem about life, love and a 401(k) but everyone’s a rookie at some point, and every company has superstars to learn from. The key is we learn more from people than any memo or rulebook and our employees have more influence over their peers than they may know. So, highlight your best players, applaud their signature “skyhook,” and share it with your team—the more creatively and authentically you share, the better.