What bananas teach us about behavior change

If, at your workplace, you put out oranges and bananas for your team, can you guess which would be eaten most? It would be the bananas. They are cleaner and faster to eat. A psychologist might say it’s human nature; a designer might say it’s usability. This habit of choosing bananas over any other fruit is so widespread, that it has evolved into a behavior change theory, called ‘the banana principle’.

What do bananas have to do with behavior change? More than 120 years ago, philosopher Guillaume Ferrero noted that humans work on the Principle of Least Effort: given several paths, we pick the easiest. Just like choosing bananas. More recently, Harvard psychologist Shawn Anchor echoed the same, suggesting that the new behavior we choose is one that’s 20 seconds easier to start than our old behavior.

Many companies have adopted this principle to slow down the occurrence of negative behavior, and remove obstacles in the path of positive or desirable employee behavior.  Here are success stories:

  1. Reduce multitasking during trainings. The leaders at Squarespace noted that employees often multitasked on their phones, during training sessions. This impacted their capacity to focus. A no-phone policy was out of question. So, the HR team kept a box of small toys in every conference room – spinners, Slinkys, etc. This gave people something to fidget with, and thus made it easier to stay away from phones. Their trainings turned more productive!
  2. Integrate new hires into the team with ease. Due to a sharp growth spike and scale, the new hires at 1stdibs, an online marketplace for art, felt isolated from the team and its culture. They almost went unnoticed. Reason – fast work pace, less spaciousness for support. So, all new hires were given a balloon that said “1st Day at 1stdibs,” which hovered above their desk, silently inviting everyone to introduce themselves and offer support. The new team members also received free café coupons to invite their immediate team for coffee.
  3. Improve customer satisfaction. Rackspace, a cloud computing company, consistently received poor customer service ratings. The reason: the tele-calling menu lasted over 4 mins, and customers hung up frustrated. Leaders of Rackspace decided to add a line of representatives who would answer as soon as someone called, and found out their need. This with a commitment of progress in under 10 mins. Within 30 days, Rackspace recorded zero call drops, and a spike in success by over 60%.

The power of the banana principle lies in its non-invasiveness, and its simplicity. It does not need much persuasion. The solutions seem obvious! What workplace challenges can you address through this lens?

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