Using Behavioural Science to Build a Resilient Culture

In the white paper Undertaking Culture Transformation to Adapt and Thrive, released by the CEO Health + Safety Leadership Network in 2020, Cheryl Fullerton, EVP, People and Communications at Corus Entertainment, talked about how Corus maintained engagement, commitment, and performance during its 2016 merger with Shaw Media. She shared details of how they worked as a leadership team and across the organization to make this happen.

Last month, she addressed CEO Health + Safety Leadership Network members in a session called Taking a Behavioural Science Approach to Building a Resilient Culture. She dove deeper into behavioural science and discussed how this approach has served the organization in the face of a global crisis.

When she talks of the merger, she jokes that they didn’t do too much; they just changed everything, including operating model, leadership structure, titles, compensation and incentives, pensions, locations, communications style, performance management, technology, and values. She believes their application of a behavioural science approach was a critical success factor.

Analyze behaviour, understand it, and help shape it

“We know so much more than we used to about human behaviour—how we behave and learn—and you can reinforce organizational culture with that. People are motivated to minimize threats and maximize rewards. You know that, and you can use it. We are inherently social, and we are unstoppable learning machines. People keep learning at all ages and stages and in different situations,” Fullerton says.

Despite sounding “sciencey,” as Fullerton says, applied behavioural science is practical and it works in the real world. At the heart of this approach is understanding the correlation between antecedents, behaviours, and consequences. “If you prompt a behaviour with an antecedent and someone acts on it, and it was hard for them to do, but they don’t get a ‘great job’ afterward, the chances of that happening again are lower than if you said, ‘That was amazing. I know it was hard, and you did a really good job. Can you help this other person?’ You will have a huge impact on that person. They feel good, and they are more likely to do it again.”

Fullerton acknowledges that this is a simple example but notes the important thing to take from it is that antecedents only have a 20% influence over behaviour. She stressed that it’s not enough to tell someone what to do and then leave it in their hands. Consequences carry more weight than antecedents in ensuring that the behaviour is repeated.  Timely consequences have even greater impact. “Consequence that follows shortly after behaviour has more influence than when it follows a long time after.”

Behavioural Science

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A. Antecedents

  • Triggers behaviour 20% of influence
  • Expectations, directions, training, tools, etc.

B. Behaviour

C. Consequences

  • Follows behaviour
  • 80% of influence
  • Feedback, rewards, personal feelings and impact, etc.

Many academic and other materials are available to support the ABC model of behavioural science. Sharing here a link to one reference https://www.bain.com/contentassets/354733bc16224a2ebf19dc771a53ae82/bain20brief20changing20behaviors20to20deliver20business20results.pdf

She also emphasized that it is critical to create consequences that are important to the person who is following through on the desired behaviour, and that you let them know what to expect. Don’t create consequences that are important only to you. It is better that people know what is coming and see it come to fruition instead of not knowing and being disappointed, or worse yet, the consequence not being fulfilled at all.

The culture was purposely designed to help them get to “what was next” in a fast changing and uncertain industry. Fullerton says it was critical that people feel comfortable and safe operating in ambiguity. She acknowledges this is hard; uncertainty is scary, and when we feel scared, we instinctively fight, run away or freeze. “None of that works when you’re trying to build a nimble organization that can find its way through a risky environment.” Fullerton said the answer was building a context that allowed for creativity and the ability to try different things knowing that some wouldn’t work, and some would change over time. This was the “secret sauce,” as she calls it, that enabled them to respond in a very natural and authentic way when COVID struck.  

The same approach applies to COVID

The Executive VP of Technology  at Corus sounded the alarm for the organization in late January last year. He recommended buying enough laptops to support large numbers of people working from home. His foresight and the swift action of the organization were important first steps in managing the crisis.

They set up a core team with executives empowered to make decisions and move quickly, and created site leaders – one in each location across the country – to ensure country-wide standards were applied, with site-specific plans. These individuals could feed information about how people were feeling up the chain, and they could cascade information down and tailor it as needed because not all facilities are the same.

“People need to feel heard. If someone feels scared and uncertain and they feel like they have no control, and you are in Toronto telling them what to do in Lethbridge or Winnipeg, and they believe you don’t understand their world, how likely do you think it is that they are going to do what you’re asking?”

They created objectives that supported the health, safety, and wellbeing of people. Fullerton says it wasn’t just about protecting people from virus transmission; they were paying attention to psychological safety, too, such as stress due to family illness and disruption. They also worked hard to create a sense of connection and engagement within the company.

At the same time, they were focused on business continuity and making sure they weren’t weakening prospects for the future. “These things are important to our people. Not just for getting through COVID but for creating ongoing connection, pride, resilience, and engagement. We had to keep people safe and business from being disrupted.”

Always think about antecedents, behaviours & consequences

Pay for sick time is an excellent example of how applied behavioural science factored into Corus’ response to COVID. Fullerton pointed out that if you tell employees that you want them to stay home when they feel sick, and the consequence is that they don’t get paid, or they feel guilty, or they have to deal with insurance, there is little chance they will do what you want them to do.

The leadership team was determined to prevent onsite transmission. They made that happen with the right antecedents and consequences. They made it easy for employees to take the action that supported the greater good by simply paying them to stay home if they felt unwell, with no paperwork, and no dependency on whether they had sick days or not.

With respect to mental health, the team at Corus considered that they were telling staff, “Get the support you need.” They looked at the bigger picture and realized that people might run out of benefits but still need support. With an annual cap on mental health coverage in the benefit plan, employees who followed through might experience a negative consequence both from facing personal costs or loss of coverage, as well as from loss of trust in the ongoing messages from the company . As a result, they removed the annual cap from the benefit plan permanently for non-unionized staff and given the unprecedented nature of the situation did the same for unionized staff in 2021.

The slide below shows some of the other decisions Corus made to support its employees' physical, mental, and financial health.

Corus - Context for Culture

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Context for culture

  • Removed annual limit for mental health therapy in benefit plans with that coverage – permanently for non-union, during 2021 for union-represented
  • Information sessions with external experts – medical information, mental health support, parenting
  • Wellbeing sessions with internal team members – mindfulness, yoga, ergonomics, “five to thrive” videos
  • Resources on working at home, supporting team members, leading in the pandemic and much more
  • Meeting-free Friday afternoons
  • Limited meeting week, last week of each month, providing space to recharge and refocus

Corus didn’t put its behaviour commitments and values aside in the face of the crisis. They did just the opposite. They leaned into them more than ever. “We set up antecedents and gave reinforcing consequences. We asked, ‘how does this feel?’ all the time. And throughout we listened to people and shared information openly to create incredibly support and understanding.”

Fullerton closed off by impressing on the audience that culture is far too important to leave to chance. It should be a strategic priority. Create the context to prompt and sustain the behaviours that are important to your organization. And if having a resilient culture is important to you, make sure that you make people feel safe and involved.


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