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Lessons for COVID-19 – Part 2: Strategies to influence behaviour during a pandemic


Part 2: The ability of leaders to shift behaviour is crucial during challenging times, when your people need it most

As discussed in Part One of Isaac Baker‘s 7 part series on applying behavioural insights to drive behaviour change in response to COVID-19; pandemics pose a dangerously real and significant threat to businesses and their people.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding current events and the future, you have the ability to apply techniques grounded in behavioural science to influence people’s behaviour towards individual, business and societal good – a process broadly known behavioural insights.

What barriers can get in the way of effectively influencing the behaviour of our people?

Barriers: Disintegrated Social Identities

During the COVID-19 pandemic, a burden has been placed upon the shoulders of leaders to drive collective action of masses of people [1]. When people are not united under some shared social identity, it makes it much more difficult to create the ‘collective’, never mind the action [2-3].

When there is no shared social identity acting as the glue to unite a group of individuals, people are less likely to comply with necessary action [3].

Disintegrated social identities have individuals fending, and looking out, for themselves. This can lead to people carrying out counterproductive, conflicting and costly behaviour. Importantly, this is to the detriment of the group’s wellbeing, and ultimately, to the wellbeing of the individual.

Solutions: Creating a Shared Social Identity

Actions summary

  • Highlight the social norms of the group
  • Creating a shared, external common enemy
  • Highlight the key, defining features of the group
  • Use inclusive and collective language (e.g., to unite Australians: “we as Australians…”)
  • Create messages and take actions that align with the defining features of the group (e.g., specific core values)

Understanding actions

To unite people into a cohesive group and drive effective action, highlight the core, shared values of the group. If you are a leader, demonstrate how to embody these features by taking actions that are aligned with them [4]. Actions must be shown to be aligned with the interests and shared identities of the group. This may include using language that unites people, such as ‘we’, and to do so under an identity, such as ‘as Australians’. Explicitly reminding the group of their social norms also unites the group around the expectations for how to behave.

Finally, creating a shared, external common enemy can be useful in uniting people to rally against a threat. COVID-19 can play this role [5]. Alternatively, people who are not behaving in accordance with the group’s core identity can be framed as the ‘outgroup’. For instance, people not carrying out responsible physical distancing protocols could be framed as being ‘un-Australian’, such that they are going against the idea of mateship by putting other people at risk – particularly our most vulnerable.

As a leader, consider what barriers could be getting in the way of the behaviours you wish to see in your people. By applying these and other techniques grounded in behavioural science evidence, you give yourself the best opportunity to influence your desired target behaviours.

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This article is Part 2 in a 7 Part series applying behavioural insights to drive behaviour change in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

To learn more about the Behaviour Change Toolkit from which these insights are grounded, or if you would like to discuss the application of behavioural insights to your organisation during these challenging times, please reach out to Isaac Baker here.

Alternatively, contact us today and one of our Mapien workplace strategists will be in touch within 24 hours.

Written By
Isaac Baker
Isaac has a thorough understanding of the science of human behaviour and creates effective, specialised interventions to solve complex people problems.


[1] Donner, W. R., Rodriguez, H., & Diaz, W. (2007) Public Warning Response Following Tornadoes in New Orleans, LA, and Springfield, MO: A Sociological Analysis. Second Symposium on Policy and Socio-economic Research. San Antonio, Texas.

[2] Abrams, D., & Hogg, M. A. (2004). Metatheory: Lessons from social identity research. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8, 98–106.

[3] Hogg, M. A. (2006). Social identity theory. In P. J. Burke (Ed.), Contemporary social psychological theories (pp. 111–136). Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

[4] Hogg, M. A., Van Knippenberg, D., & Rast, D. E., III. (2012). The social identity theory of leadership: Theoretical origins, research findings, and conceptual developments. European Review of Social Psychology, 23, 258–304.

[5] La Macchia, S.T., & Louis, W.R. (2016). Crowd behaviour and collective action. In S. McKeown, R. Haji, & N. Ferguson (Eds.), Understanding peace and conflict through social identity theory: Theoretical, contemporary and worldwide perspectives. New York: Springer.