The psychology that makes change work

The psychology that makes change work…


The term viral change is being used to describe the new change model many organisations are attempting to adopt.

For most people this is inspired by the way in which social groups have annexed the Internet. As usual these days, organisations are trying to follow the trends being set by “ordinary people” who just happen to know how to connect using technology. And as a result the idea of change in organisations has become associated with Social Media… that’s a basic misnomer.

I’m not saying that Social Media is not relevant or important, but I am saying it is only a tool – it does not create change that is viral in itself.

Change that is “viral” is the only real change – and when you look at the major changes that have happened in society – even before the days of the Internet – it is clear that creating a groundswell is what makes a difference. Business leaders have to change their thinking if they are to create change that makes a difference. I’ve talked before about cognitive dissonance and how this can either support or undermine change.


Here are three ways you can create viral change…


1) Changing attitudes won’t work

You have to change behaviours first and attitudes second. I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but it is proven in research. We tend to think that if we alter attitudes then behaviour will follow, but actually you need to first set behavioural expectations, and as you do you reinforce the values that this behaviour supports. For example, the concept of washing hands in hospitals has actually caused change by telling people to wash their hands and use alcohol rub. Now people will seek to do this…we changed our behaviour and now we’ve altered our attitude and so this now has become a proactive behaviour. If you want people to become proactive, then set the behavioural expectations and tell them why they are contributing to the values by doing this.

2) Don’t use values to motivate people

So do you think that you  are motivated by values…well, we all do, but the research shows that, actually, we aren’t! The main motivator that causes real change is if we believe other people are doing the behaviour. Social norms are so powerful. And as a result we can, in error, encourage the very behaviours we don’t want. For example, by telling people “65% of people have been too generous on their expenses – don’t cheat the system” you are likely to create more fraudulent expenses claims simply because “everyone else is doing it”!

3) Make messages reinforce what you don’t want

The power of negative consequences can’t be underestimated. Research has shown that you need to spell out and make these “tangible”. For example, only 20% of people weather stripped their houses until they realised that the size of all the small gaps in their windows were equal to a size of a basketball. The idea that a hole that large was allowing the chill winds to blow through their houses altered this number to 60%. It’s important to put a “negative” frame on it i.e. what you will lose, and this is more likely to change our behaviour.



Jeni Cross (Sociology professor at Colorado State University) Three Myths of Behavioural Change

Dr Leandro Herrero’s “Viral Change” explained in this video:


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: