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How Can HR Shape Positive Organizational Change With Behavioral Design?

How Can HR Shape Positive Organizational Change With Behavioral Design?

Have you heard the hype around behavioral design lately? Learn how behavioral design can help you, your organization, and its employees to solve problems and get better results with this systematic and highly-effective approach.

Pernille Brun |

Left to our own devices, us humans don’t always make great decisions or engage in positive behaviors. We sometimes overindulge, overspend, and often waste time on quick dopamine hits that make us feel good but aren't necessarily good for us. And while indulgences are a part of life, and something that should be enjoyed from time to time, problems arise when these indulgences dominate our lives and make it more difficult to do the things we need to do or reach the goals we would like to reach. Within a work context, negative behaviors such as procrastination, self-doubt, underperformance, and lack of motivation can hinder our progress and affect the team and organization at large.

What if there was an anecdote to overcome negative behaviors? In fact, there might be. It is called behavioral design, and it has been known to be able to help us make  wiser decisions, hinder biases in decision-making, and help us move people in the right direction – both in life and in work.

In this article, I’ll talk about behavioral design, and how HR and management can employ it to make organizational changes that positively impact individuals and the company as a whole.

What is Behavioral Design?

Behavioral Design (BD) is a systematic approach for applying behavioral insights to solve design challenges that center on human behavior. BD heavily relies on behavioral change theories, such as the distinction between personal, behavioral, and environmental characteristics as drivers of behavior change. Design for behavior change has been most commonly used in the areas of health and well-being, sustainability, safety and social context, and crime prevention. Today, it has expanded to reach organizations and corporations globally. However, organizational changes frequently fail because employees are not helped to understand the importance of adopting the change or what kind of behavior it requires of them. They might recognize that something needs to change or is already changing, but do not necessarily know how to apply the change to their individual circumstances. Moreover, leaders are frequently unprepared to effectively engage individuals during change and manage potential resistance. They are not helped either - through proper guidance on how to engage their employees. Thus a lot of effort might be wasted in the change process on fluffy vision words, or intangible ideas about what needs to happen.

Because of the complexities that occur when trying to change human behavior, a number of models have been developed to overcome this. Within the context of behavioral design, the ADKAR model is often applied as a step-by-step process to reach the desired outcome. The acronym ADKAR stands for:

  • Awareness of the need for change
  • Desire to support the change
  • Knowledge of how to change
  • Ability to demonstrate skills & behaviors
  • Reinforcement to make the change stick

The ADKAR model was developed nearly two decades ago by Prosci founder Jeff Hiatt after studying the change patterns of more than 700 organizations. The ADKAR Model is used by thousands of change leaders around the world, and the idea is to make it very concrete and visibly explain WHY change needs to happen and exactly HOW it needs to happen.

How Can HR and Management Shape Positive Organizational Change With Behavioral Design?

Behavioral design in an organizational setting is not something that an individual should be held accountable to. Instead, change requires an approach where  HR and leaders make it very easy, simple, fun, attractive and effortless to start acting in a way that is desired. This also means that internal change within the company’s culture and leadership values need to be demonstrated by relevant role models, including HR and managers themselves. Let's take a closer look at how desired change is best accomplished as described in the book Switch by Chip & Dan Head.

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

Many of the core tenets of behavioral change are explained in the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip & Dan Heath, which seeks to demystify change. I would seriously recommend HR and management read this book to get a better and more practical grasp of behavioral change!

In summary, Switch poses the following questions: Why is it so difficult to make long-term changes in our businesses, communities, and personal lives? According to the authors, the main barrier is a built-in conflict in our brains. Psychologists have discovered that our minds are ruled by two separate entities that compete for control: the rational mind and the emotional mind. The rational mind wants to change something at work, while the emotional mind enjoys the familiarity of your routine. This tension can derail a change effort, but if overcome, change can happen quickly. This can be explained with the analogy of the elephant and the rider:

  • The Elephant: This is our emotional side — it’s instinctive and reacts strongly to pain and pleasure. Without a clear path, the Elephant will stand in our way and we will make little to no change.
  • The Rider: This is our rational side of the brain, and it provides direction and does the planning. This is the part of our brain where spreadsheets are born, where analysis happens, but also where we carve out the long-view visions.

The Rider’s weakness is the tendency to over analyze and overthink things – spinning his wheels. When the Rider does this, the Elephant lacks direction and change cannot happen. Change is only possible when both Rider and the Elephant work in tandem:

“If you want to change things, you’ve got to appeal to both. The Rider provides the planning and direction, and the Elephant provides the energy.”

The good news is, you can live in harmony with both the elephant and rider, if you balance the two entities. To do this, and to make change easier, you need to:

  • Direct the Rider. Provide crystal clear direction. “What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.” Within a HR and management context, this analogy is an easy one to understand. The more directive, clear, and in-sync you are with employees, the more empowered they feel to move the needle in the right direction and work with confidence.
  • Motivate the Elephant. Engage the emotional side. As the authors of Switch put it, “What looks like laziness is often exhaustion.” You need to engage your employees' emotional side by demonstrating empathy and not jumping to conclusions. Do you know why an employee is underperforming? Having an open and vulnerable conversation with them before jumping to conclusions or reprimanding them immediately is what is needed.
  • Shape the Path. Create the conditions for both the rider and the elephant to excel. “What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.” Within a work context, react to employee problems in a wider, situational context. For example, how is work-life balance? Have you been hearing a lot about employees facing burn out or high stress? If so, it’s time to evaluate their environment, and not just the individual.

By understanding the above facts, motivating the ‘’Elephant’’ (e.g. the employees’ emotional side) becomes easier. Now that these facts have been established, let’s look at some practical steps you can take to motivate your employees. You can create a growth mindset for yourself and your team by:

  • Highlighting progress: Humans love progress — hence why civilization has innovated and created extraordinary feats, and continues to do so. Within an organizational context, highlight progress no matter how big or small. This might look like setting up a Slack channel to share positive news and accomplishments, or calling out individuals or teams for their contributions. As the authors of Switch put it:

“In situations where your team has embraced the right behavior, publicize it. For instance, if 80 percent of your team submits timesheets on time, make sure the other 20 percent knows the group norm. Those individuals almost certainly will correct themselves. But if only 10 percent of your team submits timesheets on time, publicizing those results will hurt, not help.”

  • Creating milestones: The human brain also likes patterns, dates, and just about anything that we can easily make sense of. Creating concrete milestones is integral to behavioral design, as it engenders a sense of achievement and establishes a proactive and realistic timeline.
  • Accepting learning as part of the process: Behavioral design is not linear — just because HR have certain measures in place does not mean that everyone will achieve success in achieving the desired behavioral results. Accept that change is a learning process that will not happen overnight.

Seeing Is Believing: How HR and Management Can Measure Behavioral Change

One of the wonderful aspects of human behavior is that it can be measured, indicating whether or not people respond to behavioral-based design programs. Any lack of action should be interpreted as a signal that accountability or ability needs to be improved, under the right circumstances.HR and management should always keep an eye on the success of design elements, programs, and practices, by examining questions such as:

  • What participation, completion, and achievement targets have been established?
  • Are they sufficient to raise the level of productive tension?
  • Are we meticulously tracking the cohort groups that achieve the desired goals?
  • Are there tangible results demonstrating the strategy's financial impact on the organization at large?


Behavioral design isn’t a fad — it’s a tried and tested method that HR and management can implement to increase positive behaviors — for themselves and their employees. If you’d like to learn more about behavioral design, please check out our webinar, ​​How Nudging and Behavioral Design can Help us Reach our Goals at Work, which includes a panel of experts discussing the topic in depth.

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Meet the Author

Pernille Brun

Pernille Brun

Erhvervscoach, CEO & Co-Founder, Session

Erfaren strategisk rådgiver, Forretningskonsulent, Executive Coach, Facilitator, Bestyrelsesmedlem og oplægsholder. Forfatter til fire bøger om organisatorisk liv og ledelse, som f.eks. "Strengths-Based Leadership Handbook" og "On the Move - lessons for the Future from Nordic Leaders".

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