How to change the behaviour of your people: Start with the end in mind

In the first of a three-part feature, AstraZeneca’s Brian Murphy and The Creative Engagement Group’s Guy Champniss outline why learning is all about behaviour change, and how they accomplished this through the company’s Learning Trial.

Guy Champniss – The Behavioural Scientist

A consulting challenge seen through a behavioural lens

‘If we’re in business, then we’re in the business of behaviour.’ 

So says Dilip Soman of the Rotman School of Management. It won’t surprise you to know he labels himself a behavioural scientist. But there is a truth in what he says – every organisation is interested in changing someone’s behaviour – a customer, a client or a patient. And organisational effectiveness and performance depends on changing someone else’s behaviour – employees.

It’s fair to say that behavioural science has become more famous over the last 12 months (which is a good and bad thing), and most if not all organisations now glimpse behaviour woven through the far-reaching key strategic decisions they face. Yet many businesses don’t talk about behaviour and behaviour change.

Businesses do, however, frequently talk about culture and culture change. Behavioural science has the potential to be hugely influential here. We can recognise culture as being those behaviours which are regularly seen, easy to do and widely supported by senior leadership. So culture is reflected as those behaviours that we see within an organisation.

But it also goes the other way, in that culture is a reflection of the behaviours that persist within the organisation. This small virtuous circle means culture and behaviour are closely linked, and if we want to bring about revisions or wholesale change to our organisational culture, then starting with behaviours is a pragmatic and effective starting point.

As a behavioural scientist, I would argue this is certainly the case for building or refining a learning culture within an organisation; that this process should start with identifying the core behaviours we would want to see as both a product of, and a contributor to, an effective learning culture.

If we can build stronger behaviours, we can then have confidence in thinking more strategically about what that increased capability means for us and the business.

Focusing on specific behaviours opens-up numerous advantages. First, it allows us to put to use a broad range of proven techniques and effects from applied psychology which we know can change behaviour. These grass roots levers are incredibly effective, and do not need to be intrusive in the workplace (in fact people tend to like being exposed to them).

We also shouldn’t forget that we’re far more malleable than we like to think and that ‘hardwired’ behaviours or capabilities are far more open to improvement than we imagine. As an example, in a previous study, we showed we could dramatically improve an individual’s creative capability and behaviour (to their and the company’s benefit) through a simple intervention.

If creativity can be increased, then we should be confident most other behaviours are also within reach, if we just know which levers to pull. The second advantage of a behavioural focus is we’re tapping into something everyone wants – to be better at what they do.

Increased competence has been shown to be one of the most stable and powerful drivers of our behaviour. This leads to the third benefit: a behavioural focus means we’re focusing on the individual and not on the process. Put another way, a behavioural science lens focuses on the receptiveness and ability of the individual, not on the process or systems placed in front of that individual.

Like any foundational piece, if we can build stronger behaviours, we can then have confidence in thinking more strategically about what that increased capability means for us and the business. It can mean an increased ability to identify learning opportunities throughout the day. It can mean a stronger willingness to apply learning in one’s work.

Plus it can positively impact on how the individual perceives their impact on the business. These are all profoundly positive outcomes, and they all stem from focusing on fostering and fuelling the right behaviours at the core of a learning culture. To paraphrase Dilip Soman; if we’re in the business of learning, then we’re in the business of behaviour.


Brian Murphy – The L&D Leader

The case for change

Behaviour change for behaviour change’s sake doesn’t really make sense. Neither does trying to spark change without focusing on how you will support people’s ability to behave differently. For an L&D leader or professional, being intentionally clear about what change you are seeking to bring about and what behaviours will be needed to underpin this is foundational to our work.

However it often gets lost or even bypassed entirely in the early stages. L&D must flex its performance consulting muscle when beginning any engagement, starting with the end in mind (what is the business outcome for clients, patients etc) and establishing the performance gaps that exist.

This should help diagnose the root cause and this is where the behaviour change requirements get identified. If you follow this process there are few change projects that won’t require a behavioural change dimension.


Organisational development

This approach can be applied to performance gaps at the individual, team or organisational level. It’s at the latter level where we enter the realm of organisational development.

Previously an area of focus shunned by L&D professionals – something that was seen as too abstract or worse where we didn’t have the right to apply ourselves -, increasingly this is the sweet spot for L&D, diagnosing and supporting culture and capability requirements at the macro level and breaking this down to teams and individuals, and ultimately to the task level.

This is where the behaviour and mindset change become critical components and the L&D function becomes a true change enabler.

Learning culture

Many companies talk about ‘creating a culture of lifelong learning’. But few define what that means. Essentially it is a growth mindset to continuously learn. Not just what I call big ‘L’ learning such as deep skills development, but also on-the job continuous improvement or small ‘l’ learning.

Indeed these two worlds increasingly overlap as colleagues learn new skills through gig opportunities as the way work design becomes more agile and less functionalised.

Understanding how learning happens as well as the required learning behaviours are increasingly important in this unprecedented changing world of work

Having ‘learning agility’ is another way to explain a ‘learning culture’. Agility at organisational, team (work) and individual level. I define learning agility as: (1) the ability and willingness to learn, and (2) proactiveness to apply that learning in the flow of work to successfully deliver results under different situations.

This requires real intent and deliberate practice. It’s certainly not a passive exercise; it doesn’t just happen. Therefore understanding how learning happens (through our experiences, our exposure to others as well as formal education – the 3Es) as well as the required learning behaviours are increasingly important in this unprecedented changing world of work.

Behaviours like curiosity, bravery and collaboration provide that agility and the learning mindset which enables learning and work to be combined.


The Learning Trial – how they did it

At AstraZeneca, both the company and its people are driven by innovative science and an entrepreneurial culture to deliver life-changing medicines that transform the lives of patients and contribute value to society.

To do this, the company knew they needed to invest in their people and provide opportunities to continually strengthen and evolve their capabilities, so that they could challenge convention and explore new possibilities.

Creating a learning culture at AstraZeneca

Culture is about our collective habits and behaviours. So the L&D team at AstraZeneca got curious about how a person can build a habit of continuous learning. What would they do, as an organisation, to help their people adopt learning behaviours so that they could become routine? And what kind of behaviours were going to fuel their collective ambition for development and growth?

The AZ Learning Team designed the first ever AZ Learning Trial to help understand how colleagues could change their approaches to learning and build everyday learning habits over time to deliver on the collective ambition of development, innovation and growth.

“It’s why we are committed to fostering a culture of lifelong learning across our company by creating the everyday development experiences that will be a catalyst for our natural curiosity, empowering us all to develop new ideas and thrive in a fast-changing world.” – Pascal Soriot, CEO, AstraZeneca 

Using the AstraZeneca values and behaviours as their guide, the company decided to help their employees to find their personal combination of formal and informal learning. At AstraZeneca this is called the combination of the 3Es: Experience, Exposure and Education.

The intent of the Trial was to encourage everyone at AstraZeneca to make the most of these learning opportunities, everyday. By noticing them, reflecting on them and using them, to make a greater impact in their roles.

In part two, Brian and Guy will look at nudge theory and how to form new habits.

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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