Six sources of influence for behaviour change

Pistacchio cupcake via  Marjolein Knuit  on  flickr .

Pistacchio cupcake via Marjolein Knuit on flickr.

Sometimes the sustainability changes you want to bring about will rely on people changing their individual, everyday behaviour: using resources more efficiently, pulling each other up on unsafe practices, counteracting unconscious bias.

According to Patterson et al, there are six 'sources of influence' you can use to motivate people and ensure they have the ability to carry out the better behaviour.

They’ve got to ‘get it’, right?

Our first instinct is so often to run an awareness campaign, telling people about threats to the environment. Because if you want people’s behaviour to be more sustainable, then it helps if they have the right attitudes? Well, yes, but much less that you’d think. According to Professor Ken Peattie of Cardiff University’s Centre for Business Relationships, Accountability, Sustainability and Society (BRASS), research shows that attitudes towards the environment explain less than 20% of the differences between low-impact choices and high-impact ones. (See: Wells, V.K., Ponting, C.A. and Peattie, K. (2011) Behaviour and climate change: Consumer perceptions of responsibility. Journal of Marketing Management, 27 (7-8). pp. 808-833.)

Even if people have them, eco-values are a weak predictor of eco-action. So, if you want to change people’s behaviour, changing their attitudes, while helpful, may be a very slow and unreliable way of going about it.

Six sources of influence

Fortunately, individual motivation is just one of six key sources of influence which together provide a sound foundation for getting the behaviour you want.

The Six Sources of Influence on behaviour divide into ‘motivation’ and ‘ability’. You need to address these two crucial components at the level of the individual, their social setting (peers) and the structures within which they work. The more sources you utilise, the more powerful your behaviour-change programme will be.

six sources table.png

Let’s look at each of those sources of influence in turn.

1. Personal Motivation: Make the undesirable desirable. Give people reasons to do the new thing, or stop doing the old thing. Not just your reasons (which may be altruistically ethical or environmental), but reasons which match their own motivation (which could be completely different).

2. Personal Ability: Surpass your limits. Find out what people need, to be able to adopt the new behaviour and put it in place. This could be skills, equipment or permission.

3. Social Motivation: Harness peer pressure. Encourage those who are prepared to, to prompt and comment, to lead from the middle.

4. Social Ability: Find strength in numbers. Does the change need critical mass (for example, a car sharing scheme), are there economies of scale (for example, buying Fairtrade refreshments)? Put them in place.

5. Structural Motivation: Design rewards and demand accountability. Make sure people get feedback. Will anyone notice if the behaviour changes? What will the consequences be for them if people adopt the new way of doing things, and if they don’t?

6. Structural Ability: Change the environment. Ensure that the equipment, resource, and physical environment prompt and enable the new behaviour.


What behaviours are you planning to change?

If you are going down this route, make sure you have a clear ask: what is the new behaviour you want people to adopt? There should be good evidence that the new behaviour is practically doable and will lead to improved outcomes. Don’t just assume that because a few colleagues have suggested using an interactive whiteboard instead of paper, that it really has a lower environmental impact! Do your homework.

Find out more in my book Change Management for Sustainable Development as well as the original source for this great model: Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, Patterson, Grenny, Maxfield, McMillan and Switzler. McGraw-Hill, 2007.

Making the Path by Walking

This post was first published in my Making the Path by Walking newsletter, September 2019. For practical tips on facilitation, organisational change and sustainability to your inbox each month, scroll down to the footer to subscribe.