What is the COM-B model and how could you use it?

Published by Elaine Gallagher on

What is the COM-B model and how could you use it?

The use of behavioural science methods to bring about workplace behaviour change has been rapidly increasing in popularity in recent years. Unfortunately, many of these attempts have been unsuccessful. This is partly due to a lack of understanding of how to use behavioural science tools, and partly due to poor formulation of the problem at hand. The COM-B model offers a solution that, when applied properly, is easy to apply, intuitive, and gives an in-depth account of what is standing in the way of positive behaviour change.

The COM-B model was designed and developed in the UK in 2011 by Michie, van Stralen and West in response to the emergence of a number of unsuccessful behaviour change frameworks. The COM-B model of behaviour is widely used to identify what barriers need to be removed for a behaviour change intervention to be effective.

The COM-B model sits in the inner section of the wider Behaviour Change Wheel, a useful resource for understanding and addressing behaviours.   

The model identifies three factors that need to be present for any behaviour to occur: capability – our ability to carry out the behaviour; opportunity – outside influences and resources; and motivation – our internal drive to engage, or not engage, in particular actions. These three broad categories encompass a wide range of possible influences on behaviour. Each of the three categories has two sub-categories that we’ll walk through.

Components of COM-B

Capability is subcategorised into Psychological Capability and Physical Capability. These relate to our capacity to carry out the target behaviour from a knowledge and skills perspective. Physical Capability relates to our physique and musculoskeletal functioning, stamina, and strength, e.g. do we have the dexterity to carry out the action? Psychological Capability refers to our psychological stamina and strength, and our mental functioning, e.g. is there sufficient ability to understand and remember complex processes within the role?

Opportunity covers both Physical Opportunity and Social Opportunity, and broadly relates to the external factors that might hinder or help us to carry out a behaviour. Physical Opportunity describes inanimate aspects of our environment and can include time, location, and the availability of necessary resources, e.g. can the behaviour be carried out within the allocated time? Social Opportunity refers to the influence of other people or organisations via cultural norms and social cues, e.g. are workplace peers visible to demonstrate workplace norms?

Motivation refers to Reflective Motivation and Automatic Motivation and is linked to the internal processes that impact our decision-making and behaviours. Reflective Motivation describes reflective thought processes such as planning and evaluations, e.g. do we plan to do the behaviour? Automatic Motivation relates to automatic processes such as our desires, impulses, inhibitions, and habits, e.g. is there an anticipated pleasurable feeling associated with completing the task?

What are the benefits of the COM-B model?

The COM-B model offers a number of benefits to anyone undertaking a behaviour change project in the workplace:

  • When applied appropriately, the model provides a clear understanding of the barriers and facilitators of the target behaviour.
  • Using the COM-B model can save substantial resources, as it reduces the likelihood that time and money will be wasted on a behaviour change intervention that is not suitable because the barriers to behaviour change are not properly understood or are overlooked.
  • The model allows the researcher to anticipate any potential bottlenecks, or issues, that may arise before any intervention is implemented.

How do I use the COM-B model?

The COM-B model is relatively simple to use. For it to be effective, at least one of its components must be changed. The three components of capability, opportunity, and motivation are interlinked, so changing one can have an impact on the others. For example, facilitating opportunity, say, by allocating sufficient time to complete the task, can have a positive impact on motivation, as the task may now be seen as achievable.

One of the great things about the COM-B model, is that you don’t have to be an experienced researcher to use this research tool effectively and get results. There are a few steps to follow:

  • Take some time to think clearly and figure out what your behavioural problem is. This might be an overarching problem with smaller components to it, or it may be a specific problem.
  • Define distinct behaviours that can contribute to your solution. You’ll need to think about who might be able to contribute to these behaviours. Thinking beyond the obvious actors will give you more to work with (we recommend using the PAT model to do this).
  • Once you are happy that you have compiled a list of behaviours that can contribute to your solution, it’s a good idea to rank these behaviours based on the likelihood that they can be implemented, based on difficulty, cost, time etc. This can help you narrow down to a smaller selection of behaviours that are potentially more achievable. It’s also important to keep in mind that you want those behaviours to be significant enough to make a difference.
  • Using the six components of the COM-B model, think about whether each of these may pose a challenge to carrying out the behaviours you have defined in the previous step.
  • We recommend not simply relying on assumptions and perceptions, but to get out there and speak to your employees, colleagues, and any other target groups as they will likely have the knowledge around why an intervention hasn’t worked in the past.
  • Once you have collected the data on what barriers are most prevalent, you can move on to formulating an intervention that circumvents these.

If the prospect of conducting your own research is daunting, don’t worry, we are developing a tool that will take you through the process from start to finish. Once you know what it is you would like to change, we can help with everything else and walk you through problem definition, barrier identification, and behavioural insights.

Will COM-B always work?

The COM-B model is a really robust approach to understanding barriers to behaviour change in the workplace. When used correctly, the model will identify what needs to be changed for your intervention to work. Getting the most out of this model relies on you having a clear understanding of the problem, what a solution might look like, and how the problem relates to your target group for behaviour change. Once you’ve gone through the steps above, you will have gathered the necessary insight about how to tackle your problem effectively.

It’s also important to remember that behaviour change doesn’t happen overnight and will take time to become the status quo. Using the COM-B model helps to ensure that all possible barriers to implementing that change are understood and can be appropriately addressed.

To find out more about how we can help you apply the COM-B model to your behaviour change programme you’re conceiving please do get in touch.

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