Influence is nothing new. Retailers have long embraced the science of persuasion with the aim of getting us to buy things we might not otherwise have bought. For those of us concerned about safety we can learn from our colleagues in retail to shape the behavioural choices of our employees.
The history of persuasion can be traced back at least 4,000 years to the days of the Greeks and use of ‘Rhetoric’. Rhetoric is the ability of a communicator to influence the behaviours of others – usually to get someone to vote for you, rather than an opponent.Over the past 50 years or so, influence and persuasion have become a foundation stone in consumer psychology. Retailers encourage us to buy one brand rather than another, or buy 'while stocks last'.
Psychological research underpins a lot of this marketing, from words and phrases, to the place of products, store temperature, smells and subtle place of one product next to another.
The pioneer of the development of persuasion is Prof. Robert Cialdini. He has suggested six principles that can be used to help shape behaviours; influencing shoppers and employees alike. The six principals are Reciprocity, Commitment, Consensus, Liking, Authority and Scarcity.
People generally aim to return favours, to pay back debts, and treat others as they treat us. For example we are more likely to give to a charity if there appeal for money includes a free gift As a result if a colleague helps you when you're busy with a project, you might feel obliged to support her ideas at the next team meeting, even if you are unsure if the idea will really work.
Human behaviour is driven by commitment. If we have made a committed to something, we are more in likely to go through with it, than if we have not previously made a commitment. This is the reason why in my coaching sessions I ask people to make at least one commitment to do something differently.
This principle relies on people's sense of "safety in numbers." For example, we're more likely to put a tip in a cup at the cash desk if it already contains money, or to eat at a restaurant if it's busy. The assumption is that if lots of other people are doing something, then it must be OK.
We are are more likely to be influenced by people we like. Likability comes in many forms – we tend to like people who are similar to us, as well as those who are familiar to us or who give us compliments.
The fifth principle is the influence of authority. We feel a sense of duty to people in positions of authority. This is why advertisers of pharmaceutical products employ doctors and dentists to front their campaigns. This influence can be enhanced by job titles and uniforms.
This final principle says that things are more attractive when their availability is limited. In this case we fear losing the opportunity to acquire them on favourable terms. For instance, we might buy something immediately if we're told that it's the last one, or that a special offer will soon expire.
So what next?
The six principles provide us with some useful ideas that can be applied to behavioural safety programmes, as well as wider organisational change. These may include how we create the circumstances for change, for example by encouraging people to make personal commitments during safety programmes (commitment). Or how we can build a wider consensus for change by sharing stories through newsletters of other employees who have already made the change, even better if these individuals are popular and well respected individuals (liking) or are in key roles across the organisation (authority). The science of psychology has a lot to offer organizations, lets make use of it to create a better and safer workplace together.