How Behavioral Science Can Supercharge Your Corporate Social Responsibility Efforts

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The world is changing — and with it, our expectations of business.

Today, companies are expected to stand for more than just their bottom line. It’s no longer enough to give lip service to social responsibility through siloed efforts and one-off projects. Empowered stakeholders and consumers are demanding that companies integrate social responsibility into the very core of how they do business — and they’re calling companies out when they don’t.

78% of consumers say that it’s no longer acceptable for companies to just make money — they need to positively impact society as well.
2018 Cone/Porter Novelli Purpose Study

In turn, the role of the corporate social responsibility practitioner is shifting. Teams are being called on to educate, empower and equip people across the business to own the sustainability agenda. They need to spark culture change, create internal movements and build consensus among people who don’t usually agree with each other. They need to persuade, nudge and influence people to change the very way they approach their jobs.

The job description is changing — from program manager to change agent.

This shift requires a whole new toolkit of skills. In addition to making a rational business case for sustainability, social responsibility practitioners also need to layer on a clear understanding of how people change. We need an approach informed by the latest insights in behavioral science, an interdisciplinary field that draws from fields like cognitive psychology, behavioral economics, sociology and anthropology. We need to explore questions like:

  • What are the drivers of behavior change?
  • What motivates people?
  • And how can we make sustainable change more, well, sustainable?

Recently, my consultancy Reconsidered published Making Change Sustainable — a new playbook for CSR practitioners exploring how insights from the world of behavioral science can supercharge the way companies embed social responsibility into their business. In it, I share a few of the insights that I’ve found most fascinating from months of research and conversations with leading behavioral researchers and social responsibility practitioners.

Here is a brief summary:


1. Make It Relevant

Before initiating a change effort, you should first have a strong understanding of “the way things are”. Spend time unearthing the status quo and the dynamics of the group you’re trying to influence. Examine the “social norms”, or the implicit underpinnings of your group’s culture. Try to understand if there are topics suffering from “collective conservatism” — the tendency of groups to stick to established patterns even as new information is introduced and new needs arise. Consider what motivates people within the organization. Is it “extrinsic motivators” like money, power and status? Or “intrinsic motivators” like a desire to have an impact on the world or do work that’s aligned with their internal moral compass?

2. Make It Personal

Our behavior is largely informed by our sense of “identity” — our perception of who we are and what we stand for. If your change effort requires you to get buy-in from certain stakeholders, understanding and appealing to their sense of identity can be a powerful tactic. In his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, psychologist and persuasion expert Robert Cialdini shares that when we are “primed” to consider our identity in a certain way, we feel both personal and interpersonal pressure to behave in a way that is consistent with that identity and its associated stereotypes. If you can prime someone’s identity as a “citizen” or “community member”, you might be able to increase the likelihood that they will recycle, volunteer and take other consistent actions. Creating opportunities for reflection and generating pride are two ways you can start.

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3. Make It Easy

We humans are lazy. We are low-motivation and low-patience and when given a choice, we will often stick with the status quo instead of spending the energy to change. That’s why when you’re designing change efforts, you want to make the right choice as easy as humanly possible. Behavioral scientists call this the “path of least resistance”. The first step is to identify and remove the “bumps in the road” that get in the way of better choices. Put yourself in the shoes of the people you are trying to change. Is there a chance they won’t know what to do next? Preempt inaction by providing a checklist of next steps. Is English their second language? Use simple, jargon-free messaging (actually, do this even if English is their first language!). You can also play around with the principles of “choice architecture” (the way in which you present choices), “default bias” (people’s natural tendency to stick with the status quo) and “loss aversion” (the idea that people hate losing much more than they like winning).

4. Make It Small (To Start)

Most people are motivated to behave consistently with the identity they portray to the world. Once people start to take even small sustainable actions in their lives, it contributes to their identity as a “socially responsible individual” — a change that could spill over into domains where their decision-making authority is needed. Additionally, research shows that if you can get someone to agree to one request, it is easier to get them to say yes to later requests that are consistent — even if those later requests are much larger. Behavioral scientists call this phenomenon the “foot-in-the-door technique”, so named because of its frequent use by door-to-door salesmen.

Say you want your company’s procurement manager to eliminate single-use plastics from the office, but you know that she’s resistant to change. You might first ask her to join an Earth Day campaign and pledge to reduce her personal waste footprint. Later, you could ask if she’s willing to make just one adjustment (say, swap coffee stirrers with metal spoons). Assuming that she views the results of the first two requests positively, you may have a higher chance of getting your third, larger request approved. To make your small request even more effective, make it specific, make the commitment public and design an environment that can facilitate related behaviors.

Marion Michele/Unsplash

5. Make It Desirable

Social responsibility has an image problem. People know they should care about social and environmental causes. But too often, sustainability messaging triggers shame and guilt about the lives we have been conditioned to live. And it doesn’t help that these topics tend to feel heavy, complicated and boring. Ignorance is a far easier path. So how do you make social responsibility appealing and accessible?

One way is to leverage the power of social influence. By using “social proof” like statistics and testimonials, you can demonstrate that social responsibility is “what everyone is doing” and is the social norm in the group (assuming, of course, that it is). You can also recruit influencers to your cause — and we’re not just talking about people with large Instagram followings and drool-worthy smoothie bowl pictures. These might be people within your organization who have “hard power” — those with authority, wealth or a fancy title. But more likely, they’re the people with “soft power” — the people whom others are attracted to and look to for social cues, regardless of their job title. Finally, you can use exclusivity strategically. While the sustainability movement is known for being open, inclusive and collaborative, in some cases restricting access to events, groups and opportunities can impact how effective they are. This tactic plays to the “scarcity principle” — the idea that opportunities seem more valuable to us when their availability is limited.

6. Make It Engaging

“Storytelling” is one of the biggest buzzwords in social responsibility. Indeed, when done right, stories can be a powerful way to bring impact to life in a way that shifts both minds and hearts. But are your “stories” really stories? Probably not, asserted a recent Stanford Social Innovation Review article on the science of storytelling. “While the social sector has embraced the importance of storytelling, many people are not actually sharing stories. Instead, they use vignettes or messages,” wrote authors Ann Christiano and Annie Neimand, who lead the University of Florida’s Center for Public Interest Communications. “Stories have characters; a beginning, middle and end; plot, conflict and resolution. If you do not include these elements, you are not telling a story.”

So what makes an effective story with the power to drive behavior change? Be different, using unexpected twists, less-used plot structures and unusual characters to keep your audience guessing — and engaged. Use visual language and metaphors, which were shown in a recent study to spark increased activity in emotion-related regions of the brain (for example, visual words like “sweet” and “bitter” resonated more than words like “kind” and “mean”). And spark awe — research shows that it can open us to connecting with others and can increase both openness to learning and willingness to volunteer.

Rae Tian/Unsplash

7. Make It Visible

When it comes to commitments, appearances matter. When individual commitments are made public, people are more likely to uphold those commitments so that they can remain consistent with the identity they’re portraying to the world. This tactic is known as a “social transmission” mechanism — a way to make visible behaviors that might otherwise remain private. Testimonials, symbols and even strategic, sustainably sourced swag can serve as powerful social transmission mechanisms for social and environmental commitments. Plus, they carry the added benefit of helping to visualize and establish positive social norms within a group.

8. Make It Collaborative (But Effective)

If you’re a change agent within an organization, chances are you’re frequently bringing people together with the aim to drive some kind of action. But how do you make sure these convenings are time well spent and bring you closer to your ultimate change management goal? Before your next event, ask questions like: Are the right people in the room? (Some events are better when open while others benefit from a dose of exclusivity to activate the “scarcity principle”.) When are you holding the event? (Being tired or hungry can deplete our cognitive resources and impact our decision-making — a phenomenon known as “cognitive depletion” — so try to schedule for the beginning of the day/week when energy is high.) And importantly, what are you ordering for lunch? (In addition to keeping energy high, research shows that people become fonder of the people and things they experience while they are eating good meals — so don’t skimp.)


9. Make It Timely

Like in life, sometimes change comes down to the right message delivered at the right time. You may have resisted change previously, but something — an event, an interaction, a bit of new information — makes you more open to new ideas and possibilities. So capitalize on current events and headlines, which can contribute to the “availability heuristic” — a phenomenon whereby people judge the frequency of events by how easily examples come to mind. When people hear relevant arguments, they’re more likely to be convinced since their brains can quickly recall supporting evidence. And play with the idea of “future lock-in”, which is the idea that people think about events in the near future and the distant future quite differently. For example, if you ask employees to volunteer for an event next week, they’re likely to consider the concrete costs of saying yes, like missing out on their favorite show. But if you ask employees to volunteer for an event several months from now, they are more likely to reflect on how volunteering connects with their values, morals and ideologies — and they might be more likely to say yes.

And finally…

10. Make It Happen

Hopefully by now, your head is swimming with ways to incorporate these insights into your social responsibility strategy. Reconsidered can help. We offer workshops and hands-on support to help you turn inspiration into action.

The world is changing. Let’s use all the tools at our disposal to accelerate the change that is positive.

Did you find this interesting? Download our free “Making Change Sustainable” playbook →

Reconsidered is a boutique consultancy that helps organizations build impactful social responsibility strategies, communications and community — all with the goal of driving positive behavior change. Sign up for our popular newsletter, which curates the thought-provoking news, insights and opportunities from the world of corporate responsibility, sustainability and social impact every other week.