Motivating Behavior Change: Where the rubber hits the road in health care and sustainability

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The panel at this morning's conference entitled Sustainability: Don't Market to Key Audiences- Motivate Them! was amazing. Panelists, whose work focuses on sustainability, shared lots of interesting details about what works and why.

Sustainability and health care on parallel tracks

For me, the biggest takeaway was that sustainability professionals face the same challenge that is starting to top the list at health care institutions.  That is, motivating lots of individuals to change their behavior.

In health care, the focus is on motivating patients to comply with their treatment plans.  In sustainability, it means motivating employees to make lots of small changes such as re-using and recycling both at work, and at home.

From central control to broad engagement

As one panelist pointed out, from a sustainability perspective, leading organizations have done the simple things that they can control centrally (e.g. redesigning and retrofitting buildings).  Now they need to turn their attention to broad employee engagement.

Another panelist provided confirming evidence from a conference she attended the previous week on energy and climate change.  There, she learned that "improving employee engagement" is now the top priority for Chief Sustainability Officers.

Behavior change techniques that work

So, although there was lots of fascinating content at the breakfast seminar, this post centers on techniques for changing employee behavior to increase sustainability-that have, or may have, parallels in health care.  Examples include custom incentives, social influence, use cases, gamification, sequencing, and erecting barriers to undesirable behavior.

Custom incentives

One of the panelists advises others to "meet employees where they are"-advice near and dear to this marketer's heart.  She's found that employees are often resistant to changes that employers may see as desirable.  For example, employees may be eager to adopt organic mattresses or gardening practices, but not as keen on taking public transit.

Health care organizations have reached similar conclusions.  Many now provide custom incentives to motivate patients to reorder medications and comply with treatment plans.

Some hire third parties to analyze past behavior to determine what they need to do achieve optimum outcomes.  Then, they customize incentives accordingly.

Social influence

Perhaps the best quote of the day was that people prefer "fitting in" to rewards.  In both sustainability and health care, practitioners are finding that people are motivated to match their peers' behavior.  One of the panelists credited social media for making sustainability "visible" and "personal".

Use cases

Susan Hunt Stevens, CEO of Practically Green, noted that behavior theory recommends showing people how "someone like them" made a change.  Her company's blog uses individual storytelling to "bring an action a day to life".


Often closely related to social influence is gamification.  Sustainability and health care professionals alike are experimenting with games that enable individuals to compete and earn rewards and recognition for exhibiting desirable behavior or achieving preferred outcomes.


Moderator Jim Nail told us that he learned to market using the AIDA acronym: Attract, Interest, Decide, Act.  Today, he says sustainability professionals are finding it's often effective to get people to act first, because individuals often identify with the actions they take.  I know professional fundraisers employ this technique by seeking small  donations first.   I don't know if there are health care examples but we've all heard to "fake it until we make it".

Erecting barriers to undesirable behaviors

Monica Nakielski, Sustainable Initiatives, Partners Healthcare said that her organization also sometimes just prevents undesirable behavior.  For example, departments can no longer order certain toxic supplies. Health care parallels may be safety caps on medications or stocking the refrigerator only with nutritious food.

Other techniques

Panelists discussed two techniques that have changed behavior at a macro level, rather than at an individual level.  Frank Marino, Corporate Environmental, Health and Safety Manager, Raytheon, told us that his company had executed sustainability initiatives in MA and NJ, but not in Tucson, where there were no regulatory incentives.  In health care, it took regulation and federal incentives to accelerate EHR adoption.

Several panelists discussed the impact of data transparency.  They noted that "greenwashing" is less common, now that reporting requirements make it easy to spot inconsistencies in sustainability execution.  Health care advocates are also seeking data transparency to stimulate competition and drive behavior change.

Kristine Kalaijian, Director, Environmental Compliance and Sustainability, Philips Electronics NA emphasized the importance of integrating sustainability into everything the company starting with the company's overall business objectives.  This practice provides a stretch goal for other organizations desiring to achieve sustainability-and the health care industry as a whole.

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