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Management Ideas that Can Help Defeat the Coronavirus

Ray Friedman

Brownlee O. Currey Professor of Management, Vanderbilt University, USA

President, International Association for Chinese Management Research

Last week, I was teaching my “Leading Change” course at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville Tennessee.  But, as I was teaching in the U.S., I was thinking of my friends and colleagues in China, who faced the challenges of a novel coronavirus.  The case I was teaching was about Unilever, a multinational company with a goal to improve the health and well-being of 1 billion people around the world.  They realized that just by changing some simple habits of their customers, they could save millions of lives.  But habits are very hard to change.

One habit they focused on was handwashing with soap.  Too often people just rinse their hands, and then handle food, transferring bacteria and causing diarrhea.  This might seem like a minor issue, but for babies and young children, it can be life threatening.  What could Unilever do?  They developed a campaign in India, and elsewhere, to “Help a Child Reach 5 Years Old.”

They had a model to guide their efforts, which focused on three things.  First, helping people overcome barriers to change – the things that stop them from adopting the new behaviors.  Second, they look at triggers of change – how to get people to start a new behavior.  Third, they look at motivators for change – how to help people stick to new behaviors.


Unilever Model of Change 

The campaign for handwashing following this strategy.  It began with helping people to understand the problem.  Lack of understanding is the first barrier to overcome. They used ultraviolet light to show children and adults how much bacteria was on their hands if they did not wash with soap.  It was very easy to see the problem!

The next step was to make the new behavior easy.  If it was not easy to do, people would just skip it.  That is another barrier.  One clever strategy Unilever developed was to create an app that reminded people when it was time to wash hands, just before meal times.  They even made sure the app that did not require expensive smartphones, which were rare in many parts of world.  With these phone reminders, it was much easier for people to build a new habit to wash hands with soap.

Then, they worked on making the new behavior desirable.  They helped encourage communities to change behaviors, so that any one person could see that others around them were washing hands with soap.  And, they made using soap rewarding, by recognizing people who have adopted the new behavior.  These steps helped to trigger new behaviors and motivate people to persist with the new behaviors.  Lastly, Unilever worked to make handwashing with soap a habit, by supplying charts to document how often people washed throughout each day.

On top of that, Unilever understood that one of the best ways to reach people was through children.  They knew that people cared deeply about the health of their children, so learning that new habits could protect their children helped motivate change.  And, if a child brought a new habit home from school, they could inspire adults to change their habits too.

It is not yet clear exactly what the source is of the novel coronavirus in China, nor how it is transmitted between people.  But, as health officials in China learn more, there will likely be a need to change some habits, both to ensure that a new virus does not cross from animals into humans, and to ensure that it does not transmit between humans.  As those areas are identified, it may be helpful to know a simple model that helps encourage change.

I believe that management research, and managerial practices, can provide helpful insights in the face of the coronavirus.  In the coming weeks, IACMR will post ideas from our members, in the hope that we might contribute to China at this difficult time.