Dangerous Myth: Communication Equals Behavior Change

By Liz Guthridge

Words matter. However, words and other aspects of communication do not reliably spur action.

Those who want to believe that communication is the answer to everything—especially inspiring others to change their behavior—need to dispel themselves of this dangerous myth.

For example, take the deadly safety defect that General Motors is grappling with at great expense to their bottom line and their reputation.

Last week The Wall Street Journal reported that back in 2005—yes, nine years ago—a GM employee wrote an email to some of her fellow employees about a problem she had just experienced with her Impala. She described how her car shut off when she drove over a bump in the road.

She further explained that she had a GM technician look at her car. He told her that other employees had reported similar problems with their cars. They were different GM models but with shared components.

In her email message, which was forwarded to 11 employees, she pressed engineers to consider changing the part. “I think this is a serious safety problem, especially if this switch is on multiple programs,” the employee wrote in one of a chain of emails released by a US House panel on June 18 and reported by The Wall Street Journal.

dangersign“I’m thinking big recall. I was driving 45 mph when I hit the pothole and the car shut off, and I had a car driving behind me that swerved around me. I don’t like to imagine a customer driving their kids in the back seat, on I-75, and hitting a pothole, in rush hour traffic.”

Hindsight being 20/20, we know this employee wasn’t “crying wolf.” Her plea was a legitimate request to act on the evidence of a faulty ignition switch.

It’s telling that GM sponsors a program called “Speak Up for Safety,” not “Act Safely.”

Even speaking up for safety is hard to do for some GM employees. They fear they could lose their jobs by raising safety concerns, as noted in an internal GM report, which Congress has received.

By contrast, when Paul O’Neill became CEO of Alcoa back in 1987, he proclaimed “SAFETY: Zero Injuries.” That was hardly a communication campaign.

Instead, it was a habit loop that changed employees’ behavior and transformed Alcoa into a streamlined aluminum company.

As Charles Duhig wrote in the best-seller The Power of Habit, every time someone was injured, the unit president had to report the injury to the CEO within 24 hours with a plan for making sure the injury would never happen again.

Furthermore, there was a reward. The only people who would be eligible for promotion were those who embraced “Safety: Zero Injuries.”

Reward, a sense of purpose, belonging and accomplishment all contribute to stimulating people to take action.

Plus, to encourage people to keep going with their behavior change and make it stick, you need to help them. More than likely, they’ll need to adjust their workspace and environment to make it easier to take actions. And they’ll need structure and accountability to follow through.

Information by itself is often too subtle, abstract and open-ended for people to do anything with it. It isn’t always clear what the next step is. “What? Me Act?” becomes a legitimate response for those who even notice the communication.

And with our overloaded email boxes, smartphones and brains that are dealing with continuous partial attention, it’s not even a guarantee that messages will cut through the clutter.

Over the past week, several communication professionals have told me they’re struggling to get their leaders to recognize communication as change management.

Communication is not change management, even if you use this phrase that many of us consider obsolete.

We should be making change, not managing it. (See 3 ways to be agile with change as background.)

Making change involves prompting people to take action and helping them along the way.Provide triggers, rewards and supportive environments to encourage baby steps that can then turn into giant strides.

Yes, you need to communicate, but you also need to take actions.

Taking action is much more than saying “Everything we do in safety, leadership, compensation, change management, ‘fill in the blank’ is communications.”

What are you doing to spur action?

Liz Guthridge presented the recent webinar: 

Dangerous Myth: Communication Equals Behavior Change

June 4, 2015

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