Make Your Corporate Social Responsibility Campaigns More Relevant

How understanding the behavioral science concept of “social norms” can accelerate your sustainable business and social change efforts.

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Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN on Unsplash

The role of the corporate social responsibility (CSR) practitioner is shifting. Now — in addition to managing programs, analyzing data and contributing deep subject matter expertise — people working in CSR also need to harness their skills of change management. 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.

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. There is a lot to learn from the world of behavioral science, an interdisciplinary field that draws from fields like cognitive psychology, behavioral economics, sociology and anthropology.

This article dives into one concept in behavioral science that is vital to any change effort — the idea of “social norms”.

“Social norms” are the implicit underpinnings of your group’s culture — the informal rules that govern people’s behavior. In other words, they’re what we think everyone else is doing.

By understanding the social norms in an organization, you can start to get a sense of how people relate to each other and to the group so you can design a sustainable behavior change campaign that works for them.

Here are a few questions to help you get started:

What are the dominant social norms in the group?

Before initiating a change effort, you should first have a strong understanding of “the way things are”. Spend time unearthing the social norms in the group you’re trying to influence — the written and unwritten culture, the incentives and motivations, the power struggles at play. Talk to people. Observe them. Do employees clean up after themselves in the break room? This could signal pride and ownership in the workplace (or lack thereof). Is it common to CC: everyone who might possibly be relevant on a project email, or to message individuals directly? This could indicate levels of trust and autonomy.

Innovation consultancy IDEO’s open-source Design Kit shares several human-centered design techniques for understanding the social norms within a group. These include:

· INTERVIEWS. Speak to key stakeholders one-on-one to understand their lives, motivations and understanding of social norms. Try using the “Five Whys” approach: first ask a broad question, then ask “why” five times to dig at the heart of the response. Emphasize confidentiality and consider using an outside interviewer so stakeholders feel comfortable being honest.

· GUIDED TOUR. Ask someone to give a guided tour of their workplace or a site relevant to the project. Pay close attention to the space, noting how it is used, where it is located, how the person interacts with it and any habits or rituals that seem to be ingrained. This can help you identify social norms that are difficult to verbalize.

· GET VISUAL. Ask individuals to make a collage or photo journal representing their lives. This can help you get at the heart of what motivates their behavior.

Social norms can be a powerful change driver, since most people feel a subconscious need to align their behavior with the dominant norms of their surroundings. Once you understand these, you can decide what norms might need to be emphasized or disrupted in order for your change effort to take hold.

“What we refer to as mainstream is another way to call an ideology that is so widespread, so entrenched, that its assumptions and practices are seen as simply common sense. It is considered fact, rather than opinion. Its practices are a given, rather than a choice. It is the norm. It is the way things are.” — Melanie Joy, Psychologist and Author of “Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism”

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Photo by Ambitious Creative Co. - Rick Barrett on Unsplash

Are any social norms based on untrue or out-of-date information?

Our perceptions of social norms are not always the reality. Social psychologists use the term “pluralistic ignorance” to describe a situation where “no one believes, but everyone thinks that everyone believes.” This can lead to “collective conservatism” — the tendency of groups to stick to established patterns even as new information is introduced and new needs arise.

Once you start to understand the group’s social norms, reflect on whether any of the prevailing beliefs might be based on information that is false or outdated. If so, you may need to make research and reeducation part of your change strategy. For instance, if your company’s sales team assumes that customers don’t care about sustainability and this drives their marketing efforts, initiate a new customer research study to demonstrate (if your findings confirm it) that actually, customers do care, and ignoring this trend is potentially a missed opportunity.

How can you start to shift social norms within your organization?

Once you have a strong understanding of the social norms in your target group, it’s time to use this knowledge to your advantage.

Say your research has found that people in your office see sustainability as boring and unappealing — a pretty common issue. 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”, you can demonstrate that socially responsible behavior is the social norm in the group. Ideas include:

· Using statistics or testimonials to show that “everyone is doing” the more sustainable behavior. So if you want people to stop using paper cups, share a statistic demonstrating that the majority of your colleagues bring their own mug to work (assuming, of course, that the number is true and persuasive). If you’re trying to get more people to join your volunteer program, get several testimonials about how the experience was transformative and put them front and center in your promotional efforts.

· Recruiting “influencers” from within your organization to your cause. These might be people with “hard power” — those who have authority or sit atop the organizational hierarchy. 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. Once you have identified the right influencers, bring them into your work and amplify their involvement by asking them to speak at an event, write a testimonial or be filmed speaking about their project for a video.

“The only way (to address climate change) would be to create social pressure … it would be a milestone if you managed to take influential evangelists, preachers, to adopt the idea of global warming and to preach it. That would change things. It’s not going to happen by presenting more evidence.” — Daniel Kahneman, Psychologist, Behavioral Economist and Author of “Thinking, Fast and Slow”

The concept of “social norms” is just one of many behavior change insights that are relevant for people working in corporate social responsibility. If you’re interested in learning more, my consultancy Reconsidered recently published a free playbook on corporate social responsibility and behavior change that shares additional research, case studies and practical tips for taking action.


Thought-provoking content on corporate social…

Jessica Marati Radparvar

Written by

Corporate social responsibility + sustainability + social impact strategist. Founder of Reconsidered. Newsletter curator:


Thought-provoking content on corporate social responsibility, sustainability and social impact.

Jessica Marati Radparvar

Written by

Corporate social responsibility + sustainability + social impact strategist. Founder of Reconsidered. Newsletter curator:


Thought-provoking content on corporate social responsibility, sustainability and social impact.

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