nlenbe-nlThe best software for quality and risk management.

Suppose you want to tighten up the security policy in your organisation and are introducing new guidelines. How do you include your employees in this? In other words, how will you change behaviour? This article explains more about achieving behavioural change using the Persuasive by Design model and Cialdini’s six persuasion types. We zoom in on the principle of social proof. While social proof can be challenging for your organisation when creating behavioural change, it can also be the solution.

Definition of behavioural change

Behaviour change is the targeted use of methods and techniques to change existing behaviour patterns.

The definition of behaviour change doesn’t sound super complicated… right? In practice, we find that nothing could be further from the truth. If you really want to change people’s behaviour, this often requires a lot of resources. After all, human behaviour cannot be changed overnight. To change behaviour, you have to go through several stages. But why is changing our behaviour so tricky? The book Draaiboek gedragsverandering[1] quotes a great example from Theo Maassen during one of his shows.

Maassen resented the Nederland Schoon slogan ‘With the same ease you throw it in the bin!’. The cabaret performer thought differently: ‘Wrap up an empty can and throw it on the ground, that’s easy! The slogan of Nederland Schoon may have a nice ring to it, but in terms of behaviour, it is not very accurate, the book’s authors argue. It is easier to throw a can on the ground. It would be good if people admitted more often that doing good or making a positive change can be a hassle.

Just think of the bad habit of smoking or eating a bag of chips in front of the television daily. Quitting these is also often easier said than done. These are examples where rational intentions are put aside for intrinsic impulses and extrinsic temptations. Complicated does not mean impossible, of course. This also applies to employees’ bad habits, for instance, when they structurally ignore e-mails about the new security guidelines.

People’s (and thus employees’) behaviour can be changed if they see the added value of doing so. In addition, they need to be stimulated and made to think if behavioural change is to be successful. You also have to make it possible for employees to do the right thing by offering them the right tools. It is essential to realise that 99% of our behaviour happens unconsciously. So, looking at how you can influence employees’ unconscious behaviour is valuable. More on this later (see Cialdini’s six principles of persuasion).

What behaviour do you want to change?

In organisations, behavioural change is becoming an increasingly important topic. Sometimes, a change happens ad hoc by giving a disapproving or complimentary response to the behaviour of an individual or group[2]; sometimes, the change is part of a well-thought-out plan. In conscious change management, for example, you want to change the organisational structure or a particular way of working.

It would be best to establish the desirable behaviour to start influencing behaviour as an organisation. You do this by asking yourself the following questions:

  • What behaviour are we talking about?
  • Who should run it?
  • Where do we find starting points for change?
  • What interests does the target group (what’s in it for me) have in the change?

The five stages of behavioural change

In their book, the authors of Draaiboek behavioural change introduce a behavioural model that summarises the main principles of behavioural change: the Persuasive by Design model. This model consists of five themes covering the whole spectrum of behaviour change. Five ‘lenses’ zoom in on a particular aspect of human behaviour and behavioural change: Habits and Impulses (unconscious behaviour), Knowing and Finding, Seeing and Realising, Wanting and Being able, Doing and Keeping doing.

Persuasive by Design model - Sander Hermsen

Persuasive by Design model by Sander Hermsen and Reint Jan Renes.
This model is based on five themes covering the whole behavioural change spectrum.

How can you deploy this model in your organisation? Determine what you want to achieve for your target group and project (for example: a campaign about tightened security measures). Do your employees need to do something? Do they need to understand something about themselves or be able to do something? Demonstrating new behaviour will be the outcome in most cases. Still, during the change process, you will find that behavioural change is not easy (remember the example of Theo Maassen) and that you need to work with multiple lenses of the Persuasive by Design model to make it work. 

By the way, this model is not the only one you can use to achieve behavioural change. You can use several models for this purpose, such as BALM’s model or Prochaska and Diclemente’s.

Cialdini’s six principles of persuasion

If we look at the ‘Habits and impulses’ lens of the Persuasive by Design model, we see that people have tendencies that stem from the fact that they have unconscious needs and live with people. Do you ever come home from the supermarket with all kinds of products you didn’t need because they were on sale? Ignoring specific triggers that respond to our intuitive tendencies is difficult.

Robert Cialdini describes six principles of persuasion that capitalise on human intuitive tendencies in his seminal work Influence (1993):

1. Reciprocity

This principle assumes that people are programmed to give something back when they get it because they want to treat others how they are treated.

2. Social proof

How often do you view reviews or read other people’s stories before buying something on Social proof is one of the most widely used persuasion mechanisms. Humans are herd animals; we like to watch what others do and mirror our behaviour accordingly. We discuss this principle in more detail below.

3. Scarcity

People assign more value to an item when it is (or appears to be) less available.

4. Consistency and commitment

Non-profit organisations or charities often make use of this principle. First, they ensure moral commitment by asking if you think charity is essential.

5. Sympathy

This persuasion principle is about the favour factor – people are more likely to say ‘yes’ to someone they like.

6. Authority

According to Cialdini, people mindlessly ‘obey’ people with authority role models. These can be celebrities but also managers of organisations.

Social proof

We will take a closer look at Cialdini’s principle of social proof, or social proof, as it can be a valuable persuasion principle if you want to change employee behaviour. People use other people’s behaviour as a yardstick for two reasons: because we do not know the proper behaviour and need information from others, or because we want to belong to the group and adapt our behaviour to that of others. When one copies the behaviour of others, it is easier to assess unfamiliar situations, which leads to social approval and increases self-esteem.

Researchers at New York City University developed interesting findings around social proof. They put a man on a busy city pavement and had him look upwards. When this man stared at the sky, only 4% of the passers-by also looked up. But when the experiment was repeated with four men, 18% of the passers-by looked up. With 15 men, the percentage even rose to 40%. Cialdini cites this experiment as an illustration of how social proof persuades people to behave in a certain way.

Marieke Kessels, CEO at Infoland and a Ph.D. in risk management, recently gave a fascinating talk at the Vitalis conference in Gothenburg, Sweden. Vitalis is the largest eHealth event in Scandinavia and focuses on transforming healthcare and social welfare. Marieke spoke about the importance of social influence based on her scientific research. Even though social proof is a big challenge when creating behavioural change in organisations, Marieke says it is also the solution.

Marieke Kessels (CEO Infoland) elaborated on the topic of social proof – and how it can be the solution for organisations if they want to achieve behavioural change – during her talk at Vitalis in Sweden.

You can watch the recording here >

Marieke Kessels-Habraken, PhD, MSc - CEO Infoland

Practical examples of social proof

People are herd animals and often do not make decisions individually. This is not only true for large groups – social science says that people adapt their opinions and beliefs to those around them, even in small groups. People often do something ‘because others do it too’. So, the power of the group cannot be underestimated. If we look at topics such as quality, risk management, and data security, the persuasion principle of social proof is hugely important.

Marieke researched drug safety in hospitals. The situation was as follows: nurses agreed that opiates were kept in a locked cabinet, which could only be opened with an access code. All nurses agreed to this rule. Although the government held for a while, some nurses complained that opening the cabinet took too much time. ‘We can do without it,’ they thought. As it turned out, as fewer and fewer people locked the cupboard, after a while, nobody locked the cupboard. In such a situation, social proof is a problem.

But, said Marieke at the Vitalis conference, fortunately, there are also many great examples of how we can use social proof to our advantage. We all know the example of a card in your hotel room asking if you do not want to throw your towels on the floor after just one time but want to reuse them for the environment. Research shows this helps, but it is too general a message to make an impact.

What turns out? The more personalised and detailed such a card, the more likely people are to reuse their towels. See the difference in the messages below? The fact that percentages are mentioned (45% of hotel guests reuse towels) makes guests do it themselves.

  • General ticket
    Will you join us in contributing to a better environment? Please don’t throw your used towels on the ground immediately; use them again.
  • Descriptive, personalised card
    45% of hotel guests at this hotel reuse towels. Are you also contributing to a better environment?
  • Personalised card
    Marieke, in your hotel room (room 321), 72% of guests reuse their towels. Don’t you? Do your bit for a better environment, too.

There are also good examples in organisations regarding the benefits of social proof. Think back to tightening up your security policy. We see that the reportability – of phishing emails, for instance – grows considerably when employees are facilitated with the right tools. When they visit each other, this is being reported with increasing frequency.

Samen bereik je meer

Achieve more together

So, you can positively use social proof to change behaviour through your colleagues. If you introduce the new security policy, employees must know what is asked of them. They know a bit about security but not what they have to do with it themselves. Provide the proper documentation and resources so employees can read up and explain the new guidelines’ importance and everyone’s role in it.

Even if the above issues are apparent, employees may still be unsure. This is where the power of social proof comes in. Your colleagues are keen to talk to each other about the new security guidelines, know how others do it, and learn from people who are already doing it right. Ensure you facilitate them, encourage mutual conversation and share desired behaviour.

For example, you do this like this:

  • Make your message even more personal and concrete (remember the example with the towels):
    Did you know that 50% of your colleagues have already read the new security guidelines? Have you?
  • Ask employees for their opinions and also show what others think. You can do this using a short quiz or poll, for example.
  • Record a video with employees who already exhibit the desired behaviour (such as reporting phishing emails) and share this video organisation-wide.

The form of communication, therefore, determines the effect. Software, such as Zenya BOOST, can be a valuable tool. You don’t want to transmit but engage with employees in conversation. They need to feel heard, be able to give feedback and consult with each other. It is precisely by involving staff and working together on those new security guidelines that you achieve success.


[1] S. Hermsen and R.J Renes, Draaiboek gedragsverandering (understanding and using the psychology of influence), Publisher Business Contact Amsterdam/Antwerp

[2] S. ten Have en J. Rijsman, Naar een sociale psychologie voor gedragsverandering in organisaties (towards a social psychology for behavioural change in organisations)

Discover Zenya BOOST

Request the brochure to have all the information easily to hand.Download the brochure for Zenya BOOST.

Free demo available

Want to see for yourself what Zenya BOOST can do for your organisation?

Request a free demo »

Want to know more about Zenya BOOST?

Read all about it on the Zenya BOOST page. On this page, you can also request a free demo.