Kicking the habit, changing behaviour with communications

Post by Lester Posner

Tuesday 5 February 2019

Image of text reading

We all know that internal communications professionals have a hugely important role to influence how others think and act. From asking colleagues to adopt new ways of working (like adopting modern IT systems or moving office spaces) to supporting wider transformation and capability building programmes, the outcomes you’re aiming to achieve will always involve encouraging people to behave differently.

If you’re looking to become a more effective influencer, a working knowledge of behavioural science can really add to your skill set.

But where to start?

There are literally hundreds of theories that set out how you can change people’s behaviour. Some of them take hours to studying to understand, let alone apply when you’re in a busy communications job.

Well, look no further.

The Government Communications Service (GCS) recently published its own guide for mastering behaviour change through communications. Strategic Communications: A Behavioural Approach was developed between GCS and behaviour science experts working in government. Based on rigorous academic research, it sets out in a simple and practical approach, how communications can confidently apply behaviour change techniques in their work.

At its heart, our approach has three steps which work within your OASIS planning that will help you deliver brilliant behaviour change communications:

Step one – the most crucial

First things first, you’ll need to identify the specific behaviours that will help you and your organisation meet the business objective you want to achieve. For example, to support work building capability in your leaders, or a transformation programme.

Define the behaviours you’re trying to change. It’s a collaborative process, and will often involve you working with your operational, policy and HR colleagues. Together, you can assess which behaviours communications can influence, and then set appropriate objectives.

Step two – identifying barriers

Once you know what you want people to do, or change, you also need to understand what’s stopping them. This is where our behaviour change model comes in, COM-B can help you identify barriers in a systematic and effective way. It says there are three conditions that need to be met before you can influence behaviour, which include people’s capability, opportunity and their motivation.

The key is to ask yourself, and your colleagues, if there’s any evidence these barriers exist, and then consider how you can overcome them. Once you’ve diagnosed what’s getting in the way, then you can move onto…

Step three – creating effective communications

This also involves a bit of collaboration. To make this step easier, our new approach recommends using the Behavioural Insight Team’s EAST framework. Your communication activities should make the desired behaviour Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely, where possible.

Ultimately, evaluation will tell you how successful you’ve been realising your original objectives, but you can test, learn and adapt as you implement your strategy. GCS’s Evaluation Framework 2.0 can help you here.

What’s the secret to success?

The most important thing you can do to apply behavioural science in your internal comms is starting. Our new approach costs you nothing, and you can pick it up and start using it any time, without needing to be an expert first.

If you find the approach useful, let us know by emailing We’d welcome case studies so we can share your success with internal communicators across government and the public service.



About the author

Lester Posner is Head of Communications at the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and one of the authors of the new Strategic Communications: A Behaviour Approach.

The guide was developed between colleagues from GCS and the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP)’s Behavioural Science team, drawing on the work of Susan Michie, Lou Atkins and Robert West of University College London.

You can follow Lester on Twitter at @PosnerLester.