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It ain't over 'til it's over
How effective management of setbacks can energise behaviour change campaigns
Making social change happen at scale is tough work – for individuals, for public sector bodies, governments and activists but also for brands that increasingly have ‘purpose’ as a core strategy. After all, if brands fail to make wider social change happen then their efforts may simply be seen as ‘purpose-washing’ with reputational and commercial harm.
But making change happen requires resilience – as any business student knows, the vast majority of innovations fail. Perhaps we can say similar things about change programmes, it’s just that the visibility is lower than for new products.
One of the challenges is that any change involves challenging established practices of ‘how things are done’. Behaviours are typically embedded in a network of social, cultural, political, financial and personal interests, which inevitably discourage change. It is unlikely that new behaviours are adopted in one go; change can take time and we will inevitably get set-backs.
The question for this week’s post then, is how do we deal effectively with these set backs?
Losing the battle
To examine this we have used the inspirational example of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was no stranger to having to take a dissenting position, not infrequently being in a minority on the US Supreme Court where her conclusion was not reflected in the ruling.
Ginsburg talked of a case from the UK in the late 1970’s when pregnant female teachers were required to go on unpaid maternity leave with no guaranteed right of return. The Supreme Court was asked to rule whether or not this was sexual discrimination. Unfortunately, it found that this was not discrimination, ruling that the world was divided into pregnant and non-pregnant people and that the latter included men as well as women. On the basis of this strange logic, it was found not to be sex discrimination for pregnant teachers to be required to go on unpaid maternity leave.
Although at this stage Ginsburg had lost, she pointed out that this loss actually resulted in a groundswell of opposition from both sides of the political spectrum. Fairly soon after this the US Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, setting out that discrimination on the basis of pregnancy is indeed discrimination on the basis of sex.
This is an example of the way that a losing position came the law, illustrating Ginsburg’s point that losses can in fact turn out to be winners. Every time she wrote a dissenting position in her role as Supreme Court judge, she hoped for a review at some point.
The lessons of losing
We thought about the lessons that could be learned from this when designing change programmes and have a number of suggestions:
Seek support from as broad a base as possible: Research on civil disobedience campaigns suggests that drawing on as broad a base as possible is most likely to result in change. Harvard political scientist Erica Chenoweth’s research on civil disobedience campaigns found a key element of whether or not they were successful was the presence of a broad support base, representing a diversity of people. In this case the fact that support was gained from both sides of Congress was likely a key factor in making change happen.
Use the power of dissonance: If we perceive contradictory information in the environment then we are motivated to find a way to resolve it. This reflects what Nick Chater and George Lowenstein call our ‘drive for sense-making’, analogous to better known drives such as hunger, thirst and sex. On this basis, we need to understand the way people make sense of their current positions to present information in as dissonant a manner as possible. The sex discrimination ruling was at odds with the way people think about gender (clearly) and as such created disfluency, encouraging people to engage and reflect.
Work towards tipping points: It may not always be possible to win in one go, not least as our environment is set up in a way that disincentives us to reflect on issues. As we have reported previously we can address this by understanding subjective tipping points so that problematic comparisons are steadily accumulated to a point which then drives change. There was a great deal of social justice activity at this time, so the Supreme Court case would likely have been acting alongside other activity, together contributing to change this outcome.
Consider an underdog strategy: While it is tempting to present the case for change as being the dominant and natural choice for people, there can also be advantage in being the underdog as it can create energy and determination. The act of losing, as is the case here, might confer this status to a campaign which then energises and drives public sentiment.
Support identities: Helping to build the resilience of early adopters of change is also key. We consider it helpful to support a sense that their acts signal who they are and what they stand for. Supporters are then more resilient to setbacks because, as Rebecca Solnit suggests, “You hope for results, but you don't depend on them”. This signalling can of course, also impact those around us as well, normalising the desired behaviours for the wider population.
Our existing behaviour is there for a reason – we have managed to master the environment in way that suits us, not least as there is undoubtedly a variety of explicit and unseen incentives in place. This means that there is much in place that will support inertia, so any behaviour change will have its fair share of challenge. Understanding how to address this adversity can potentially turn a loss into a strength, and it is therefore key in the planning and execution of any campaign.
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