Justin Hughes writes on issues relating to team and organisational performance. A former Red Arrows pilot, he is now Managing Director of Mission Excellence, a consultancy focused on improving clients' execution – their ability to close the gap between what gets talked about and planned, and what gets done. Justin previously spent 12 years as an RAF fighter pilot and is a renowned speaker on performance and risk and has presented alongside Richard Branson and Kofi Annan. He can be found on Twitter at @JustinMissionEx.

One of the great cultural changes in society in the last year has attracted amazingly little comment: most people now take their own bags to the supermarket and/or carry small purchases without a bag. 

It’s interesting to ask why this has happened.  Is it for environmental reasons? Well both the plastic shopping bag story and the wider environmental context had a fair bit of press over a long period and supermarkets were offering variations on ‘stronger’ bags and ‘bags for life’ before the recent change, but the impact was self-evidently insufficient; the government identified a need to do more.

Would most people even notice a change of 25p in a £50 bill?

So, it wasn’t environmental awareness alone. 

The next step was a punitive measure. Shoppers would be charged 5p per bag. This seems to have done the trick. But why?

On a £50 shop (possibly conservative in a large supermarket), 5 bags would 25p or 0.5% to the shopping bill.  Seriously, would most people even notice a change of 25p in a £50 bill?

However, look around. A significant majority of shoppers now bring their own bags or don’t bother for a few items.

Maybe it's the embarassment…

My hypothesis is that it’s neither the environment nor the money; it’s the embarrassment.

There is now a small but subtle aspect of public shaming associated with the environmental issue.  I have no idea if this was by accident or by design.

The government does have a unit dedicated to exactly this sort of stuff: the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), whose work is based on Cass R Sunstein’s and Richard H Thaler’s book ‘Nudge’. Successes have included increased commitments to organ donation and fewer people filing tax returns late, simply due to the ways these issues were positioned… 

So how do you influence behavioural change?

The interesting aspect in this context is the lesson for others trying to influence behavioural change.

There are two primary levers one can pull: heart and mind, or to put another way: belief that it’s the right thing to do or rational logic that it’s in my best interests.

You need to address both although in many scenarios, one or the other will be dominant factor. In this case, I suggest that it’s a reverse play on ‘mind’:  the embarrassment in now being seen not doing the right thing.

The charge was simply enough to produce a shift in momentum.

In the final reckoning, you will always get what you reward. You just need to be very careful to understand what you are actually rewarding. Choose your weapon carefully.

Mission Excellence will be running a showcase seminar on operational excellence and the high-performance organisation in London on 11 Apr.  For more details, please contact [email protected]