The 5 Stages of Behavior Change Science and Compliance

Kezia Farnham

Your employees may be, at the same time, over and undertrained. They may feel like they have sat through too many courses too many times. Simultaneously, this training fatigue might make it harder for them to retain or apply the information they were supposedly learning. Behavior science can change that. 

In a recent white paper, Compliance Wave Training’s Co-Founder Joel A. Rogers explains how to improve the effectiveness of your compliance program by utilizing behavior change science. Doing so isn’t just a matter of improving your employees' attitudes but also satisfying federal guidelines. 

The Department of Justice mandated in 1991 that organizations deliver effective training programs and further clarified in 2019 that "effective” means training can’t be once-a-year training modules that check boxes. Rogers details the many stages of behavior change and how they can be used to develop a truly effective compliance program. 

What follows are five critical stages of behavior change that Rogers recommends compliance officers use to transform their training programs. 


The Science of Behavior Change

According to Rogers, truly effective compliance programs must influence the behavior of covered employees. By changing their compliance behavior, you can impact their actions in the short term and shape the attitudes that will inform their actions in the long term. You can achieve this by employing the principles of behavior change.

“At the core of this approach is the understanding that much of human behavior is the playing-out of patterns of neuro-associative responses to stimuli in our environment that are repeated and, eventually, become habitual,” says Rogers. 


Humans Act Out Conditioned Responses Every Day

These responses allow humans to make millions of decisions without thinking about it. We make countless decisions moment-by-moment—can I put this leaf in my mouth without dying, should I be afraid of that person walking towards me—without ever using our conscious minds. Instead, we rely on conditioned responses that live within our nervous system. 

These responses have a downside, Rogers says. The patterns we develop aren’t always in our best interest and may lead us through addictive or self-destructive habits that have become our conditioned responses. Developing better behaviors requires changing the conditioning so that the response changes alongside it. 


Compliance Officers Must Realign Their Employees’ Responses

“In the corporate compliance context, an employee might associate compliance and compliance messaging with linguistic responses like, ‘This is always boring.’” says Rogers. “The challenge for the compliance professional is to develop a program that will start to realign an employee’s neuro-associative responses.”

The key to realigning your employee’s responses, Rogers says, is to continually repeat, reinforce, and make relevant your compliance programming through training technology that uses behavior science. Good technology, according to Rogers, will incorporate these five main stages of behavior change. 


The Five Stages of Behavior Change

Learning information is very different — and far easier — than conditioning behavior. Conditioning behavior requires a strategic approach to education that interrupts your employees’ existing ways of thinking, introduces new ways for them to understand compliance and then repeats what they have learned to ensure compliance is always front-of-mind. 

This can be achieved through continual “waves” of information, a core element of Compliance Wave Training wherein manageable chunks of information is delivered on an ongoing basis to impact behaviors and attitudes. Rogers says that these “waves” utilize the following behavior change approaches. 

1.  Pattern Interrupt

Much of human behavior, according to Rogers, can be attributed to conditioned responses. Changing behavior almost always requires breaking those patterns. This can be a question, an unexpected event, or even a spontaneous experience, all of which can break through an existing pattern. 

“When an event breaks the stranglehold of an old, destructive pattern, it creates a space for a new pattern to be introduced,” Rogers says.

Change can begin at the very moment a pattern is broken. People are much more open to new products, solutions and approaches without their defense mechanisms. Pay attention to marketing messages, speeches, books and more; then, you’ll start to see pattern interruption everywhere. 

How to Use This Principle in Your Compliance Program: 

Everyday experiences over the course of your employees’ lives have conditioned them to disengage from compliance programming. Even the word “report” carries connotations of tattling to teachers or parents. They may also be conditioned to view work-related training as tedious or time-consuming, regardless of whether your program is either.

Interrupt your employees’ patterns by delivering compliance training that is anything but what they expect. One example Rogers cites from Compliance Wave Training is a video where children talk about their take on compliance issues. Such an approach defies your employees' training expectations, leaving them open to your compliance lesson. 

2. Commitments and Consistency

Small commitments can make a significant impact. Once someone makes a small commitment, making a more considerable commitment becomes almost automatic as their self-image shifts to include each of those commitments. Living in alignment with them feels good while defying them does not. 

“We don’t like to change, so once we express an action or an opinion in a certain manner, we will do practically anything to avoid contradicting ourselves,” Rogers says. “We do our utmost to be consistent.

This principle has played out in several psychology experiments. In the white paper, Rogers references an experiment cited by Robert Cialdini in his book, “The Psychology of Persuasion.” Americans in Chinese POW camps in Korea were asked to write pro-China essays. Those who wrote the essays were more likely to have a conflicted opinion on the U.S.’s role in the Korean War even if they didn’t believe the pro-China bent of the essays. 

How To Use This Principle in Your Compliance Program:

Most organizations have a Code of Conduct. Though this is theoretically a commitment, employees are so used to signing them that they might not read and understand the entire statement. Rogers recommends that compliance officers find opportunities to elicit actionable employee commitments over time. 

“People can identify and understand the immediate behavior or action they’re committing to, and those commitments will aggregate to cause individuals to align their own identity with compliant behavior,” Rogers says. 

Tracking simple commitments is also a great way for compliance officers to protect their organization in the event of employee violation. You’ll always be able to point back to your ongoing compliance reminders. 

3. Social Stigma

Negative social consequences can be even more powerful than fear of authority. Disappointment from family, loss of employment, and reputation loss are all strong deterrents to misbehavior. Rogers says that’s why social stigma can be a powerful part of the behavior change process. If people associate the risk of social stigma with a given behavior, that can be enough to turn them off of that behavior altogether. 

Rogers cites a 2013 study by Rob Nelissen and Laetitia Mulder. In the study, participants had to contribute to a group kitty that was then multiplied by 1.5 and then divided among them. One-third of the group was asked to impose a fine on freeloading group members, while the remaining third played under the threat of social sanctions. Interestingly, the group that received social sanctions were the only group to continue to play fairly even after sanctions were removed later in the game. 

How to Use This Principle in Your Compliance Program:

Compliance training doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. But Rogers says that Compliance Wave Training sees the best engagement from employees when they associate social stigma with a lack of compliance behaviors. Consider incorporating a fear of loss of trustworthiness or reputation within your training.

“The challenge, of course, is to help employees associate positive social results with compliant behavior and negative social results with non-compliant behavior,” says Rogers.

One example from Compliance Wave Training is the use of a video in which a man is on his way to work and sees his name plastered across billboards and newspaper headlines. 

“There is no hint that he is necessarily going to be prosecuted for any of his inappropriate activities, but he finds that he has become an instant pariah,” Rogers says. “The impact is lightly comical, but also a poignant reminder of the potential consequences of unethical behavior.”

4. Repetition

Constant repetition is the key to retaining information and stimulating behavior change. Repetition is powerful enough to rewire the brain and form habits surrounding repeated information. Evolutionarily, this allows us to conserve time and attention spent on activities we often repeat and focus our resources on other, more demanding tasks. 

“Each time we receive a message or repeat an action we reinforce a pattern that becomes unconscious over time,” Rogers says. “Repetition causes concepts to be incorporated into long-term memory.”

Rogers references in the white paper the one-way messaging in TV commercials. There are countless brand slogans or jingles the average consumer can repeat back simply because they’ve heard them so many times. This tactic can be useful to compliance officers as it allows you to repeat your compliance messages over time, effectively “wiring” your employees to embrace compliant behavior. 

How to Use This Principle in Your Compliance Program:

Rogers says the power of repetition should be motivation to move away from once-a-year compliance training. He recommends regular, consistent reinforcement to do away with prior conditioning while building up employees’ compliance know-how. But don’t just fall back on periodic one-way communications. 

“Interactive, two-way communications will be that much more effective because the repetition of the interaction helps to reinforce habits of both thought and action,” says Rogers. “not to mention that interactive communications are more effective simply because we are more attentive to messages that require a response.”

Consider sending out repetitive “waves” of information, much like those used by the Compliance Wave Training Libraries. The library allows you to choose from more than 4,000 tools and a diverse array of media to keep employees engaged with your consistent messaging stream.

When mixed in with your standard long-form trainings, these quick, more imaginative content pieces can stimulate interest in the program and reduce the risk of training fatigue. Keep in mind that your employees will expect videos to be quick and to the point. If they see that the video is just four minutes, they’re more likely to watch the video without rushing to judgment about its contents. That means their full time and attention will be on the details they need to know about your compliance program. 

5. Avoiding Pain, Gaining Pleasure

Pain and pleasure are two of life’s greatest motivators. According to Rogers, almost everything we do is motivated by either avoiding pain or gaining pleasure. 

“Whether we act in ways that are healthy and constructive or ways that are unhealthy and unconstructive (or destructive), it is because we associate more pleasure with our current behaviors than with changing those behaviors, and we associate more pain with changing our behaviors than with continuing on with our current pattern,” Rogers says. 

The challenge is building the appropriate associations between our behaviors and pleasure and pain. These neuro-associations happen within the nervous system rather than within the conscious brain, says Rogers, which means that they aren’t always rational.

“When we can cause a person — ourselves or others — to truly associate pleasure with a change in behavior and pain with a failure to change, behavior change will immediately follow,” says Rogers. 

How To Use This Principle in Your Compliance Program:

You might think that all you have to do is showcase the painful consequences of non-compliance. But communicating the pleasure that comes from compliance is equally important. 

“Unless they can also illustrate – and encourage employees to associate pleasure with – the path to resolving the compliance issue at hand, employees will continue to want to avoid or hide from them,” Rogers says. 

Employees are much more likely to be compliant when they both associate pleasure with compliant behavior and see compliance officers and their teams as a positive, ever-present resource. Rogers says Compliance Wave Training incorporates this point of view by balancing materials that stir up anxiety and tensions with those that convey a sense of a “brighter future,” an approach that he recommends compliance officers include in their own program.


In Conclusion 

Rogers includes five more principles of behavior change in his white paper, but he recommends that compliance officers begin with these first five. Once you start to incorporate behavior science into your compliance training, you will be well on your way to a stronger culture of compliance. Employees will be both more engaged with and more fulfilled by the compliance program within your organization.

Build behavior science into your own training or utilize the Compliance Wave Training Library, which includes more than 4,000 assets covering 100 different compliance topics. Each of these assets weaves the principles of behavior science into a diverse array of educational formats, allowing you to keep compliance communications consistent without boring your employees with the same videos and codes of conduct. 

Download the white paper Behavior Change Science and Compliance to learn more.

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Kezia Farnham Diligent
Kezia Farnham
Kezia Farnham, a Senior Manager at Diligent, has spent several years working in the B2B SaaS sector. Her expertise in equipping governance, risk, audit, compliance and ESG professionals with key insights into sustainability, cybersecurity and the regulatory landscape helps them stay ahead of an increasingly challenging business environment.