Skip to main content

Compliance elearning that works — A culture of compliance

Blog posts | 11.10.2021

Compliance elearning

Helping you find your North Star

It’s become a thing. Organizations are striving for a ‘culture of compliance’. But it’s the kind of slogan that is easy to say and hard to achieve. Not least because defining what that looks like in practice is difficult. It varies from organization to organization, and even within the organization itself. So, what’s to do?

Article no. 5 of 10 - The Kineo view on: Compliance elearning

We’ve spoken already about the fear and anxiety that can be generated in a workplace. The concern that you’re being watched, or what will happen if you’re caught doing something you shouldn’t be. We all know that kind of stress isn’t conducive to productivity, engagement, or loyalty. And it’s not the way to build a culture of compliance either. Or, as we prefer, a culture of positive conduct. 

Finding a better way

There are so many better ways to foster a culture of positive conduct. Encourage social connections; show empathy in a confusing, complex world; talk about the issues we’re facing; give your colleagues the confidence to share the problems they are experiencing. Using fear as a driving force will only provide – at best – short-term motivation and resentful compliance. Perhaps this is because (as the airline businessman Herb Kelleher said), culture is best defined as what people do when no one is looking. He believed that culture was built on stories that were shared every day and connected employees to a common purpose.


Transparency is key

Don’t rely on top-down communications; have it bottom-up too, and across departments. Share stories of failure, as well as success. If your employees feel they can speak up without fear of recrimination or retribution, it’s likely you are creating a growth-oriented culture of psychological and physical safety.

In her speech, ‘The culture of compliance’, Lori A. Richards, the former Director of SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE), explained that whether an organization has a culture of compliance relates to whether they have “a culture of doing not only what is within the strict parameters of the law, but also what is right — whether or not a regulator or anyone else is looking.” She states that “the overall culture within which compliance operates can serve to foster and enhance compliance efforts, or, at its worst, it can impede or render compliance efforts meaningless.” The answer doesn’t lie within policies:

“It's not enough to have policies. It's not enough to have procedures. It's not enough to have good intentions. All of these can help. But to be successful, compliance must be an embedded part of your firm's culture…. Is compliance a priority at the highest levels of the firm? Is compliance being provided with the tools it needs — enough staff, resources, and authority?”

We need to encourage a shared commitment and responsibility. Everyone plays a part in creating a safe working environment we’re all proud to be part of and belong to. You can try this on a small scale, perhaps within teams, to get employees used to the idea of expressing their ideas freely. And then build that out into wider conversations involving leadership that are focused on making the right actions in a place of trust and autonomy. 


Ingrained ways of thinking

One of the biggest issues we are faced with when attempting to build a culture of positive conduct is the way in which we are trained in the workplace through a series of “activities, such as customs, arts, ways of interacting with people and the use of technologies and the learning of beliefs and shared philosophies” (Professor Norman Doidge, “The Brain that Changes Itself”). But this can be negative as well as positive. All these things, over years and even decades of employment, change the brain in some way. There is a dark side to our neuroplasticity: companies can be unaware of how corporate values, rituals and ways of thinking and behaving create changes in the brains of their employees over time. The mindset that “it’s somebody else’s problem” is a classic example. This can make it difficult to change the culture of an organization and force the kind of neural changes needed to rewire the way your employees think and act.

“Learners must know the “what’s in it for me” factor of compliance training. Simply making training compulsory is not enough to generate engagement and success. Learners must not only know why the training matters to the business, but why it matters to them, their roles and their daily work.”

Brandon Hall Group


The good news?

New mental skills can be acquired, but it requires intentional effort and concentration. Hence why we recommend a sustained learning campaign for compliance which helps to motivate learners to pay attention, then provides plenty of opportunities to practice developing the responses you wish to see when certain stimulus is presented to them. By doing this, you will start to build new neural pathways, stamp out the embedded toxic behaviours, and forge the culture of positive conduct you wish to see. 


Building a shared concept of responsibility

We need to sharpen our focus, our level of sight. We don’t want to turn employees into automatons, who are blindly following guidance because they’re told to do so. Instead we want to encourage a shared concept of responsibility, of doing ‘good business’ and clean ‘sales’. That’s good for our reputations, our corporate pride, our personal motivations. Because, let’s put it out there: compliance-based learning isn’t really about changing behaviors. Did we just say that? Yes, we did! 

What we mean is this. Whilst ultimately, we want to change behaviors – that is, help people to do the right thing at the right time – we can’t train people on every single situation they might encounter and expect they will behave in the way we would want to see in each case. That’s because we can’t predict every situation employees may find themselves in, and risks to the organization might present in ways we haven’t imagined. We can only prepare them to think critically and understand risk in a deeper way and prepare them to behave in the way we would like when a given event occurs. But even that sounds wrong.

In the field of psychology, compliance means to change your behavior in some way because someone else has asked you to. You choose to comply. So, you could say ‘compliance’ is completely the wrong term to describe our mandatory learning. We want people to make the right decision because they want to, not because they are told to.

There is much to be learnt from psychology and behavioral economics in relation to compliance. Take three examples (find out more in Nef’s paper: Behavioural economics for policymakers).  

Group affiliation

People are more likely to comply when others are also doing it (even if it is against what they might naturally do). This says to us that we should be doing much more about compliance in a social space. Bringing it all out into the open and agreeing a collective mission and shared values as a team. Perhaps there are also success stories that can be shared too. 

The liking principle

People are more likely to comply when they like, or feel they have something in common with, the person making the request. We are led by example. If we admire and respect our leaders, we are likely to follow suit. So that reinforces why it’s so important for an organization to speak the same language as employees like Dave (see The people paradox ); to show they have the same ethics and values as they do. But that only works if the culture connects the employees with each other and the higher strata of the organization. If they’re not trusted or respected, it doesn’t matter if a CEO or someone on the board mails or speaks to everyone about compliance on a regular basis: it will not have the desired impact. It must ring true and be demonstrated at every turn.

We can’t change our leaders, of course, but they can drive compliance by positively connecting with their audience (we’re reminded of Kelleher’s stories again). It can only be pushed by peer ‘champions’, likeable role models, or regional leaders over global leads. You need to know your employees and understand what will most resonate with them.

Nudge theory

This was initially developed by Kahneman and Tversky but popularized by Thaler and Sunstein in their book, ‘'Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness’. It promotes a kind of libertarian paternalism, which suggests that you can preserve someone’s right to choose whilst simultaneously guiding (rather than forcing) them to make the right decisions. The theory tells us that our historical approach to compliance was wrong. There are better ways of ensuring compliance than education, legislation, and enforcement. Think instead about positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions which can influence a person’s behavior and decision-making.

So, what does this mean for compliance-based learning?

We need to take onboard what all this is telling us. We can all be led astray, take a calculated risk, or do the wrong thing for the right reasons. Think about tailgating for example: it feels unnatural not to allow someone to follow you into a building because we’ve been brought up on the premise that it is polite to hold doors open for people. Perhaps there is some cultural rewiring that needs to be done to ensure people won’t get offended if they’re challenged to show their ID.

We need to design solutions which play to a person’s innate strengths as well as weaknesses and give them the tools they need to make good choices. For example, you might develop authentic, nuanced scenarios that can be used to help employees overcome certain behaviors and make the right decisions. These scenarios can be supported by just-in-time, focused resources that can be drawn upon when needed, thus better preparing our learners for those different eventualities. These resources can be kept simple, with things like checklists and templates. No-one wants to mess up in front of their peers; they just want to know how to keep themselves and their colleagues safe without social embarrassment or fear of being a pain.  

Room to do the right thing

People want to feel that cautiousness or reaction to a compliance risk won't be seen as naivety or over-reaction if they're mistaken. The right thing to do isn't always the accommodating, efficient or cleverest - it's the safest. So you can also encourage learners to deliberately make mistakes in a scenario or challenge – that’s where we want them to do it, of course – not in the workplace.

So often we treat compliance topics in silo, instead of joining them up and focusing more on just doing the right thing. Encouraging a sense of unease, being vigilant and using your critical thinking skills. Creating a culture in which employees have a shared accountability for ethically sound behavior and where root causes for misconduct can be discussed openly and collectively addressed.   

Compliance is everywhere. It is varied, complex, disparate. But it can appear less so when we align all the issues with our overall strategy, purpose, and values. This makes the path to doing the right thing clearer, more intuitive, and builds trust and loyalty among employees, and ultimately with our customers too.

Check out the next article in this series: Methodologies for innovation, to continue exploring The Kineo view on: Compliance elearning.

If you want to know more about how we create better learning experiences for compliance-based learning, drop us a line to book a free consultation with one of our learning experts.

Compliance elearning

Helping you find your North Star

In this suite of articles on compliance elearning, we take a helicopter view of the compliance landscape, talk you through our latest thinking and research, and share our recommendations for transforming your mandatory training – helping you find your North Star. We hope you find it useful and we welcome your feedback. Please get in touch if you'd like to discuss your own compliance training challenges with one of our team.