How to change the behaviour of your people: Learning becomes the work

In this second of a three-part feature, AstraZeneca’s Brian Murphy and The Creative Engagement Group’s Guy Champniss tell us how you can create behaviour change and develop new habits.


Guy Champniss – The Behavioural Scientist

The required elements to support a new habit

When we’ve identified specific behaviours we want to encourage or change, we need to understand what drives or blocks those behaviours. Typically, people think the block to any behaviour is the fact that people don’t value the outcome in some way. In other words, the dominant belief is that attitudes drive behaviours. 

While attitudes are important they’re by no means the only thing that drives our behaviour. Leading researchers in the area claim that up to 50% of our behaviour daily is driven by habit. In other words, the best predictor of what you’re going to do is not a collection of attitudes, but what you did last time. 

Like it or not, habits are a major force in our work life (and it seems we don’t like this, based on our elaborate efforts to explain away habitual behaviours as something we planned all along). 

Habits are an interesting type of behaviour, because whilst the behaviour may have started as a means to meet some goal, the patterned repeating nature of a habit means the behaviour quickly becomes triggered not by wanting to meet a goal, but instead by environmental and social cues around us.

Think about the coffee we all used to buy on the way to the office each day – did we really need a coffee, or were we prompted by the familiar sight (and smell) of the coffee shop at the same place and same time each day?

One way to make any new behaviour more attainable is to reveal that we’re more capable than we thought.

The ambition to have learning become a habit within an organisation means we first have to establish the goal of learning, show that the goal is attractive and that the cost of attaining (effort) is worthwhile. With any new behaviour we run a quick cost-benefit analysis to see if the behavioural deal stacks up for us. 

Thinking of it as a cost-benefit analysis is useful, because it makes it clear that our decision to act is not simply a product of how desired the outcome is but also how hard we think it’ll be to get it. So changing a behaviour – or introducing a new one – can be stripped back to making sure it’s attractive and attainable.

One way to make any new behaviour more attainable is to reveal that we’re more capable than we thought. Put another way, we increase levels of ‘self-efficacy’. If we can make the new behaviour seemingly easy and valuable, then we stand a good chance of seeing that behaviour appear.

Having identified specific behaviours as foundational to effective learning, we can create light-touch interventions that draw individuals’ attention to both the benefits of the behaviour and the surprising access to that behaviour. 

For example, telling people that Albert Einstein considered himself curious rather than clever, and that he argued it was his curiosity that led to his success potentially meets both of these aims. First, it makes the individual value being curious (as it becomes a behavioural trait associated with being clever). And second, it is accessible (unlike an innate ability with maths or physics).


In terms of the mechanics behind such interventions, as behavioural scientists we have access to two principal levers here. One is a type most of us of heard of – nudges. Nudges – as the name suggests – gently nudge us into a new behaviour. 

This could be through telling us how many other people are already engaged in the new behaviour (priming a social norm), or it could be through changing the default (think about switching the default from opting-in to be an organ donor to having to opt-out from being a donor).

Nudges never take away choice, but they do make one particular choice more attractive in some way. The second lever is a ‘boost’. Whilst these may look like nudges, the key difference is that a boost provides new information in an accessible and timely manner to encourage the new behaviour – a boost allows us to choose a better behaviour. 

We can leverage both nudge and boost mechanics in making new learning behaviours both attractive and accessible.

Whether it’s a boost or a nudge, introducing regular interventions like this can help jolt people out of old habits, through recognising the low costs and high benefits of learning and engaging in a new behaviour.

Plus the regular delivery of these interventions can also help build the patterned predictable nature of the behaviour, which is key to establishing a habit longer-term. But keep in mind – a habit isn’t formed overnight, and the mechanics to establish a new behaviour are distinct from those needed to make sure the new behaviour sustains. 


Brian Murphy – The L&D Leader

The uncomfortable truth about learning

Charles Jennings, one of the world’s leading learning and performance strategists, once told me “The highest performing people on the planet, have incorporated learning into what they do every day, it’s just what they do, and who they are”.

Think of top sportspeople or any professionals at the top of their field. They build reflection and practice into their every day, they are the most networked of all their peers, and they seek to extract learning from everything they do. They do this intentionally, with real purpose and mastery. This is the uncomfortable truth about learning – it takes effort to become good at it.

If only we had more time

As an L&D Leader, the complaint that I receive most often from people is that they don’t have enough time to learn. I tell them that I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that there is no magic bullet.

No fancy new-fangled AI-enabled learning technology can hot-wire or outsource the solution for them. The technology can help, certainly, but in order to develop your skills and capabilities (not just short-term knowledge acquisition), it will take reflection, practice and ideally opportunities to learn from others.

The good news is that this doesn’t have to take up much additional time. The key is to incorporate learning into your work practices, thus creating a learning habit that is not separate from work. Learning becomes the work, and therefore doesn’t require additional workload or a great time commitment.

To develop your skills and capabilities, it will take reflection, practice and ideally opportunities to learn from others.

Santiago Alverez de Mon, Professor of Managing People at the IESE Business School in Barcelona worked with the tennis player Rafael Nadal to assess the learning practice he was applying during his matches. 

Although a champion tennis player, people often complain that Nadal takes too long between points, disappearing under his towel at the change of ends and generally pontificates and slows down the match for his opponents. He is in fact, processing.

He has developed a learning habit that sees him enter into deep reflection to replay the previous point or game and assess what he has learnt and what he needs to do differently as a result. He has developed this habit as part of his work. It’s not learning for him, it’s just what he does and how he works.

The same applies in the corporate environment. The 3Es provides a great framework for reimagining learning as the work. 

Learning moments appear everyday as we interact with colleagues, experts, and our broader network. In a fast-paced dynamic corporate environment, experiential learning opportunities abound, assuming we see them as such and thereby change our work practices to extract this learning. 

Reimagining learning as the work requires forming new everyday habits of learning, and then repetition and practice to embed these behaviours to achieve mastery. I call it ‘learning how to learn’ and it’s not a passive sport.

Nadal says, “It means learning to accept that if you have to train two hours, you train two hours; if you have to train five, you train five; if you have to repeat an exercise fifty thousand times, you do it.” The opportunity for L&D is to support the development of this ‘learning muscle’ within the organisation and to support the behaviour change that enables learning agility.



The Learning Trial – how they did it

The first AstraZeneca Learning Trial was a novel social science experiment with behavioural science interventions priming desired behaviours to measure an effect.


The L&D Team at AstraZeneca worked with 161 employees from 11 business functions and 21 countries to participate over the course of four weeks (figure 2 (IMAGE 4)).

First, they randomly split everyone into two groups: an ‘intervention group’ and a ‘control group’ to compare the findings.

The intervention group

They presented this group with behavioural science-informed communication interventions. These were short daily messages with a theme – each focused on one of the AstraZeneca learning behaviours: bravery, curiosity and collaboration. These messages consisted of a small body of copy (text) presented in the form of a daily notification (figure 3 IMAGE 5)

Each week focused on one of the AstraZeneca learning behaviours, with a set of messages that discussed that behaviour as an approach to learning. Each intervention used established behavioural science mechanisms, to attempt to prime that behaviour amongst our participants and prompt a change.

The team divided the intervention group into three subgroups, allowing them to rotate the order of the behaviour primes. Each day participants would receive one of these messages, a piece of content that helped prompt a response.

They were then asked to record their learning moments, categorising them as either Experience, Exposure, Education on a customised app. At the end of each week, respondents completed a measurement instrument; surveys to find out whether participants’ behaviours, attitudes and perceptions had changed.

For example, there were sets of questions to capture levels of perception for each behaviour at the end of the week, to understand how the rotating groups were performing against their given interventions.

The control group

This group did not receive the daily interventions, but did receive the same end-of week measurement instruments (survey) as the intervention group. This allowed the team to map the rate of change in perceptions compared to the intervention group.

Reflecting on learning moments through the 3Es

Participants reflected on a wide range of learning moments that happened every day during the Trial. Here’s how participants identified those moments (figure 11 IMG6). After recording these moments, participants were asked to reflect on their daily learning in an end-of-day review. The AZ team received 1,759 end of day reviews, helping them assess the impact and value of daily learning.


In the third and final part, we’ll hear Brian and Guy’s thoughts on how to sustain behaviour change and we’ll also share more details of the results of the AZ Learning Trial. 


About the authors

Brian Murphy is Global Head of Learning & Enterprise Capabilities at AstraZeneca and Guy Champniss is Head of Behavioural Science at The Creative Engagement Group


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