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Lessons for COVID-19: Strategies to Influence Behaviour During a Pandemic


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

Pandemics pose a dangerously real and significant threat to businesses and its people.

Business leaders have been thrust into implementing, and in many cases creating, emergency management plans in response to COVID-19.

Compounding this effect, COVID-19 has triggered what will likely be a recession in Australia and many countries worldwide.

Despite the uncertainty with unfolding events and potential 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.

Appreciating how and why people behave and make decisions is critical to increasing the effectiveness of business leaders’ actions during prolonged periods of change and volatility.

Creating and implementing plans that assume your employees are completely rational robots, does not consider the reality of human judgement and decision-making, and will likely fail.

As a leader, it is critical to appreciate the factors that are actually driving behavior, and design changes, initiatives and processes with the end user in mind.

For your business, there will be a suite of behaviours you wish to influence in your people. These may include behaviours that contribute to engagement, wellbeing, ownership, accountability and performance.

What can get in the way?

During these complex and uncertain times, there are a number of barriers to effectively influencing the behaviour of our people.

Barriers: Uncertainty and Trust

During the COVID-19 pandemic, people are looking to others for certainty, reassurance and guidance.

Particularly in the case of COVID-19, when we have very little knowledge of the virus and appropriate measures, we tend to rely upon experts and authority to inform us and guide our behaviour.

In emergency situations, people will be more willing to comply to influence attempts from a legitimate authority [1]. We will only seek out and follow the recommendations from sources we trust and believe are relevant sources of authority for a given situation. For COVID-19, the specific medical knowledge of the source is crucial in lending authority to the messenger.

Solutions: Authority and Experts

Actions summary

  • Highlight relevant expertise
  • Include recommendations from key authorities
  • Identify who people trust for a domain of behaviour and have these trusted authorities and experts communicate your message
  • Include appropriate authoritative logos and emblems in your communications
  • Target behaviours should be endorsed by the relevant authorities and experts

Understanding actions

Highlighting the authority of the source that recommends a desired action can be a useful approach to influencing behaviour [2].

Importantly, the authority should be relevant to the behaviour you wish to influence [3-4]. For instance, if target behaviour relates to COVID-19 protocols, including calls-to-actions that are communicated from the highest medical authority would be ideal. This may emphasise the source of the recommendation as being conveyed from the Australian Government Department of Health or World Health Organisation. Even the use of “Doctor” can pique the attention of people, increasing compliance to requests where such expertise is relevant. Whereas using the “Doctor” moniker in advising how to effectively scale a mountain is likely to have less sway.

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 of grounded behavioural science, you give yourself the best leverage to influence your desired target behaviours.

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This article is Part 1 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] Cialdini, R., & Goldstein, N. (2004). Social Influence: Compliance and Conformity, Annual review of psychology, 55(1): 591-621

[3] Aghion, P., Tirole, J. 1997. Formal and real authority in organizations. Journal of Political Economy, 105, 1–29.

[4] Darley, J.M. (2001). The dynamics of authority in organization. In: Darley, J.M., Messick, D.M., Tyler, T.R. (Eds.), Social Influences on Ethical Behaviour in Organizations. Erlbaum, Mahwah, NJ/London, pp. 37–52.