Cutting back on sugar: thinking about behavioural change

In November I and colleagues will be delivering the next iteration of the Jisc Digital Leaders course, the fifth, and we have also got dates in the diary for January and February. One of the elements to the course is change management, we use examples of digital, but the key is the change.

This week I picked up on a paper by Andrew Balmford, Lizzy Cole, and Chris Sandbrook from Cambridge University and Brendan Fisher from the University of Vermont. “The environmental footprints of conservationists, economists and medics compared”, the paper does exactly what the title says. I’d suggest reading it but It’s behind a paywall so I haven’t linked to it.

The narrative, in what is essentially a critique of people who should know better, is sensitively handled; and from the conclusions, the big take away for me was:

Increased exposure to information does not lead to behavioural change

What does that mean for those of us who are trying to create change in organisations? What are the things that we can do that will lead to behavioural changes?

There are lots of papers, frameworks and models out there, but they can basically be distilled down to several simple ideas.

Adoption of the behaviour needs to be easy

When I was at TechDis (a disability advice service) one of early accessibility things I understood was that colour and font is important for a range of needs. Getting IT departments to make the default setting of the “normal template” font for new documents a sans serif font (such as Arial) is an easy step toward accessible documents – as long as you communicate it to staff.

Reward the change

It doesn’t have to be financial, but some sort of recognition of when the new behaviour is adopted should be used.

Use the power of other people

Make it a socially desirable change, encourage peer sharing of the behavioural change, or embed the change in commitments to other people.

Think about time

Time is our most valuable asset, it is the one thing we can’t make more of. Demonstrating how the change can save time, or free up time for something else will make adoption easier. Also think about when you communicate the change, people are receptive to different things at different times.

Model the change

There’s an often told story (and it may be apocryphal) about Mahatma Gandhi. A Mother is so worried about her Son’s health and his excess consumption of sugar that she decides to take him to see Ghandi, his hero. In hot sun,  she walked for many miles, and when she got there she explained to Ghandi her worry. She asked him to tell her son to stop the behaviour, to eat less sugar.

Ghandi refused to tell the boy to change his eating habit, but told the mother to return with the boy in two weeks. Perplexed the mother left.

When two weeks had passed the mother walked many miles again, but this time Ghandi looked at the boy and told him for the sake of his health he should eat less sugar. Hearing this from his hero the boy committed to change.

Before she left the mother asked Ghandi “why did you make me take the journey twice, could you not have told him on my first visit?”

Ghandi replied “I needed those two weeks so that I could cut back on my sugar.”


Modelling the change is important, it lends credibility to your reasoning. Even if the change is not part of the role you have, you need to demonstrate how you are committed to it, and make it impact on you personally. Conservationists telling us to drive less and eat less meat, whilst driving to a burger bar will have less credibility than the vegetarian cyclist, or just by changing the diet. The staff developer running a workshop about the VLE, who never uses it themselves in their practice will not be able to empathise with the staff that need to, or have been told to. Go do Twitter, is something that staff have been told in terms of engaging more widely with their subject – but have they been told by people who are effective in their social media practice?

These are some of the things that we discuss on the leaders course in much more depth, looking at the barriers and enablers to change, the tacit assumptions of our organisations, and looking for ways to model the changes we want to see.

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