In a serious change program it is necessary to change people’s behaviours, “the software”, as well as the processes and systems, “the hardware”. Forgoing a serious attempt at changing individual behaviours leaves the extent of behavioural change affected in the hands of individuals with patchy results.

A very useful framework for thinking about changing people’s behaviour is provided by the “Theory of Planned Behaviour” developed by Ajzen (1985).

According to Ajzen, intention, as the precursor of human behaviour, is guided by three considerations: behavioural beliefs, normative beliefs and control beliefs. In their respective aggregates, behavioural beliefs produce a favourable or unfavourable attitude toward the behaviour; normative beliefs result in subjective norms; and control beliefs gives rise to perceived behavioural controls. Actual control and intention form the basis of actual behaviour.

In this second of a series of four articles, I will explore what is required to change people’s behaviour with regard to serving customers, as an example. This article explores normative beliefs and subjective norms. It will illustrate how it may be measured and what influence may be brought to bear on it in the workplace.

Changing people’s behaviour requires more than understanding and changing our attitude towards the behaviour.

Our perception of how our friends, family, peers and “hero” figures expect us to behave has a high impact on our intention to behave in a certain way. Our motivation to comply with the collection of those normative beliefs forms our subjective norm with respect to the behaviour.

The perception that an individual holds of how people want them to behave is likely to be different for different groups. An individual may perceive that their parents want them to behave in a particular way, their girlfriend/boyfriend in another way and their sports club team mates in yet another way.

For example, a young sporting personality may have been brought up in a teetotal family which frowned upon drinking alcohol. Her boyfriend may consider it acceptable for men to binge drink on weekends but finds it unacceptable for women to do so. Her team mates in the hockey team may consider it normal to celebrate after their game on the weekend by going out to nightclubs and drinking alcohol to excess. It may be that part of the positive myths and stories told around their club are about the aftermath of excessive drinking.

Each of the influences in the sporting personalities life will consider the other a somewhat “bad influence”. Each will have a degree of influence over the sporting personality’s belief of what is normal. The motivation to comply with what is normal for one group will most likely be strongest when the sporting personality is in their company. The aggregation of the beliefs of what is the “normal” expectation and her desire to comply becomes her subjective norm.

Changing service behaviours

Measuring subjective norms by understanding the normative beliefs and the motivation to comply is a three part process.

First, a qualitative study determines the commonly held beliefs of different reference groups in an organisation who are likely to apply social pressure with respect to a behaviour. For example:

  • Older members (reference group) of the golf club prefer the use of “Good morning, Sir” (behaviour) as a mark of respect.
  • Younger members (reference group) of the golf club prefer the use of their Christian name as a mark of familiarity e.g “Good morning, John” (behaviour).
  • The General Manager (reference individual) prefers the use of “Good morning, Sir” (behaviour) as setting a more formal, respectful tone to the club.
  • My family (reference group) tends to say, “Hiya” (behaviour) in the morning if they say anything at all.
  • My friends (reference group) tend to say “Gidday mate” (behaviour) as a normal Australian greeting, whatever the time of day

Second, from our list of reference groups and behaviours, a questionnaire determines the extent to which people believe a referent group thinks a person should do. For example:

  • Older members think we (should not/should?) use more formal greetings such as “Good morning, Sir”
  • Our General Manager would (disapprove/approve) of us using a member’s Christian name.

Third, a questionnaire covering the sources of social pressure measures the importance of the sources of social pressure. For example:

  • What members think I should greet them with in the morning is important to me…(not at all/very much?)
  • Complying with the standards set out by the general manger matters to me…(not at all/very much?)

To score the normative belief multiply the value of the Likert scale (1-7) of the should/should not response with the value of the not at all/very much response and sum the resultant values for all questions linking to the one behaviour. Low scores indicate low positive social pressure towards the behaviour.

Establishing the degree to which individuals are driven by social pressure allows us to take action to reinforce or change normative beliefs and the motivation to comply.

There are three elements to consider.

The first element is to change the exposure to referent groups. In our customer service example we may want to consider:

  • Increase the degree of interaction between our staff and customers to improve the knowledge of our staff about what really matters to our customers.
  • Have the staff member responsible for an error occurring take responsibility for speaking with and resolving the problem for the customer who has received poor service. Do this with internal and external customers.
  • Get our staff to experience what the customer experiences. For example, get hotel staff to spend a night in the hotel and order room service.
  • Have customers come in and address staff about what their experiences are like.
  • Have our staff addressed regularly by senior managers on what they care about. Make sure the managers are passionate and congruent about their topic. A soporific address will reduce the perceptions about the manager’s beliefs on behaviour to zero, no matter what they say.
  • Training people explicitly in the desired behaviours

The second element is to introduce people to new referent groups. This might include:

  • Expose staff to “experts” in the business and leave them with the do’s and don’ts of successful behaviours. For example, a body language expert for front of house staff at an hotel.
  • Expose staff to the competition’s approach to certain behaviours e.g. send waiting staff to eat at another restaurant.
  • Get them to meet the General Manager for the first time.

The third element is to change the motivation to comply. This might include:

  • Measure the level of errors in exhibiting the behaviour and publish an error rate league table e.g. level of incorrect and incomplete reservations in a restaurant.
  • Build a reward and recognition scheme around the fulfilment of the desired behaviours e.g. rewards for being explicitly mentioned by customers as delivering good service.
  • Explicitly include the desired behaviours in the appraisal process e.g. measure and discuss how well an individual executed the selling process as laid out in the Pro-Shop standards of operation during the year.
  • Coach and counsel those who do not exhibit the desired behaviours.
  • Move on those who are able but not willing to exhibit the desired behaviours.

Changing normative beliefs and the motivation to comply (subjective norm) is as important as understanding people’s attitudes towards a behaviour. Without appropriate subjective norms, behaviour will not change. Attitudes towards behaviour are mainly in the hands of the individual. Creating the appropriate subjective norms is mainly in the hands of leaders.


Related articles:

Changing service behaviours – my attitude
Changing service behaviours – my control
Changing service behaviours – my intention