When You Need to Change People’s Behaviors

When working with leaders to change people’s behaviors, I’ve found the most effective approach is to appeal to rational self-interest and use carrots rather than sticks.

As an example, Ohio State professor and dean, Cheryl Achterberg, wrote in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal about how the U.S. Government’s new Dietary Guidelines are changing again (and in ways that are contradictory to previous guidelines.)  But the key point she makes is how the government is using chastisement and seeking ways “to limit public access to “bad” foods in hopes of pressing us all to eat “good” foods instead.”   Her view is that this strategy will fail and she references studies that show incentives work better than penalties when changing people’s habits.

On a larger scales, this is borne-out by the failure of Prohibition to change habits on the one hand, and the very successful educational approach which has led to a significant reduction in smoking within the U.S.

It’s an important point for leaders when attempting to change habits in organizations.  While it’s easier to dictate new norms and penalties for non-compliance, effectively educating people and recognizing better behaviors leads to longer-term substantive changes.

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