What Limits Sustained Behavior Change?


How do we create systemic behavior change—that point where conservation practices become routine, almost an unconscious part of daily life? Although most psychologists and marketers would agree that we haven’t found one simple answer, there is evidence of what does or doesn’t work in moving people toward habitual behaviors.

We recently completed three separate research studies on energy efficiency adoption in the higher education, commercial building,and consumer goods sectors. The findings provided insights into a number of actions that limit sustained behavior change. Understanding these impediments could save you time, money, and resources when establishing and implementing behavior-change based programs.

Insight 1: Culture will never take hold if you forget the middle in a top-down, bottom-up approach.

Institutions and businesses that are making great progress in fostering behavior change and teaching sustainability are literally embedding it in their culture. This goes beyond simply making a commitment to be more responsible stewards and asking people to do things differently. It requires effective engagement strategies at all levels.

For example, company CEOs and Presidents are eager to sign and publicize pledges to reduce the impact their organizations have on the environment, but more than 60 percent have not set goals to reflect these commitments in their strategic plans. Instead of being a measurable business imperative, sustainability is often pushed onto middle management to identify projects at the location, building, or systems level. What’s equally troubling is that, without a documented place in the overall strategy, these efforts aren’t given appropriate resources and funding. This severely limits an organization’s ability to establish effective frameworks for conservation and foster consistent practices.

To build a culture focused on sustainable routines, benchmark organizations do several things well:

  • Demonstrate leadership’s true commitment to sustainability by establishing goals, key performance indicators, budgets, and roles and responsibilities as a part of the strategic planning process.
  • Empower middle management to have ongoing discussions with employees about conservation to seek ideas for what can be done differently, assess the potential and real impacts, and identify what’s in it for them. This helps organizations to not only define the beliefs that employees can self-identify with, but the behaviors that everyone can do at the functional level to make conservation a part of their job.
  • Share best practices at the team, department, and company level so that everyone fully understands what success looks like and is aware of the progress being made.
  • Regularly recognize individual and team contributions so that people feel respected for their work and have pride in what they do. This helps encourage people to emulate desired behaviors, without the need for less effective “carrot and stick” mechanisms, like paid incentives

Insight 2: Long-term behavior change won’t happen by taking a short-term view.

Virtually everyone we interviewed in the different studies said that behavior change is an important element in sustainability initiatives. In fact, the majority admitted that it’s a topic that’s discussed during planning sessions, especially when it comes to implementing energy efficiency efforts or installing new systems or processes.

So why do most of these organizations leave behavior out? It’s because of a universal perception that it’s very labor intensive and costly to do. Part of this problem is that organizations use inappropriate methods to evaluate return on investment (ROI) from sustainability initiatives. Instead of applying a model that reflects a system for behavior change maintenance, organizations evaluate behavior change initiatives the same way they do a new piece of equipment. This creates pressure to demonstrate a rapid return, many times within payback cycles that are as little as 18 months or less—a timeframe that is unrealistic for activities to become habitual.

To get around this, many organizations have established innovative internal funding structures. For example, some institutions provide departments with a specific amount each year for conservation efforts. Internal teams brainstorm and decide on what can be done and then implement the initiatives. All savings that are realized are given back to the department to reinvest. This perpetuates a focus on behavior change and inspires people to continually innovate how they do things. It makes them look good, and it makes their department look good. These organizations are consistent award winners, leaving other industry players wanting to know more about how they’re raising the bar, year over year.

Insight 3: Automation doesn’t lessen the need for behavior change.

The energy and sustainability industry is filled with engineers. By training, these professionals are programmed to automate as much as they can to minimize labor costs and human error.

To get around the need to implement behavior change, many organizations today are taking an engineering mentality and adopting automation as their primary strategy for managing systems and consumption. Although automation provides a platform for monitoring and minimizing waste, it’s not a guarantee for achieving high impact. We heard from management, manufacturers, and facility directors alike about the effects of putting controls in place but not paying attention to them. This is leading to missed opportunities and reduced ROI for their organizations.

While these stakeholders believe that automation does play a key role in conservation efforts, they all agree its most effective when paired with behavior change. To reap the benefits of automation, organizations should:

  • Regularly observe how controls are applied and document the affect they have on building occupants.
  • Use the findings, along with other data, to identify inefficiencies.
  • Evaluate if simple human interventions will resolve issues more effectively than small automation changes.

Insight 4: Changing behaviors may take a change in expectations.

Through our research, we found there’s one thing that everyone wants: a way to make it easy for people to change their behavior. Perhaps the best way we can do this is to reset our expectations.

In talking with stakeholders, it’s clear behavior change requires ongoing maintenance. It doesn’t happen overnight. Or in a month or quarter. Rather, it’s a process of helping individuals continue positive behaviors, of emphasizing the positive outcomes of new behaviors, and of providing options that are easy to understand and do. It’s also about reshaping environments so that the resources—both physical and psychological—are available for individuals to successfully maintain these behaviors over time.

By recognizing what is truly required, we can let go of preconceived notions of what we think might get us there faster.

This became clear in talking to the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development about the Better Buildings Challenge. For years, building owners who were stalling to adopt energy efficiency because they said they needed more monetary incentives are now participating, without having received any such incentive.

In the end, for them it really wasn’t about the money. It was about an easy, one-step enrollment process that didn’t require paperwork. It was having the freedom to select the options that are best for their organization instead of a prescribed path. It was being able to implement change in the timeframe that made sense for their organization instead of a one- to two-year period where penalties could apply. And, it was about being recognized as a leader committed to having a positive impact—in their industry, in their state, and in their country.