Finding direction at work: using behavioural economics to promote positive change in firms

You’re lost, walking to a concert at a venue you’ve never been to before unsure how to enter. What do you do? 

The answer lies in one of our seemingly automatic behaviours – you look at the crowd and do whatever it is they’re doing. In uncertain situations, the majority of people look to others to determine the correct or acceptable behaviour. 

This is because humans are inherently social creatures and adhere to social norms in the pursuit of acceptance. However, understanding why we might do something is only part of a complex behavioural change story. 

This type of social conformity is known as the “chameleon effect”. The chameleon effect explains the link between perception and behaviour. If a person perceives something to be socially acceptable, they are more inclined to behave in that way. This notion can be likened to the phenomenon where just by seeing a certain behaviour, a person becomes more likely to do it (ie monkey see, monkey do). 

The chameleon effect is beneficial for group cohesion but can also be problematic. With an issue such as men taking parental leave where, arguably, the issue of perception and reality is a bit of a chicken and egg problem, how can workplaces encourage positive parental leave behaviours? 

Studies from the UK show that men significantly underestimate the acceptance of taking parental leave. So while many men may have a stated preference which says “there’s nothing wrong with taking parental leave” in relation to other men, internally, they may feel that they will be judged for taking parental leave themselves. 

A pulse-check survey which looks at the stated views of an organisation, and follow up emails which document how others in the organisation are feeling, is one way to encourage and improve the culture around men taking parental leave – because it may assist to change the internalised message many men have on the issue by making it socially acceptable.

Workplaces and firms can encourage employees to take parental leave by – in the vernacular of the concert example – simply pointing the way to the entrance. 

CPD for Australian lawyers has never been more convenient or easier to access. Liked this article? Check out Episode 66 of Hearsay: The Legal Podcast with special guest psychologist and behavioural economist Alex Gyani for more on this issue. CPD – the Hearsay way. 

By: Hearsay: The Legal Podcast with research by Keira Hoyland.

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