New Brunswick·World of Work

Nudge theory @ work

Nudge theory attempts to give people little cues and prompts to nudge them into making the best choices for all concerned in areas of public policy, marketing and communications.

Management technique gives people cues and prompts to make the best decisions

People do not always make the best decisions at work. Nudge theory attempts to give people little cues and prompts to nudge them into making the best choices for all concerned in areas of public policy, marketing and communications. It can also work on the job in any number of interesting ways.

Nudging was brought to prominence in Thaler and Sustein's 2008 book Nudge which provided numerous examples of how minor changes can bring striking results when choices are framed is such a way to help people choose what is truly best for them and others. The work comes from the emerging field of behavioral economics where "a marriage of economics and psychology … blends the economists view of incentives with the psychologists view that most people do not always respond rationally" as stated by author and broadcaster Stephen Dubner in a recent Freakonomics podcast entitled "When Willpower isn't Enough."

The Nudge book's numerous examples clearly illustrate how mindful choice architecture enables people to make better choices by simply presenting options so that people behave in a beneficial and foreseeable way without restricting choice by forbidding certain options.  This does not mean policies, rules or procedures do not exist. They are enhanced through nudging.

While travelling in upstate New York recently, I noticed a series of "It Can Wait - Text Stop Ahead" highway signs that encouraged drivers to pull off at renamed rest stops to discourage texting while driving. New York State still has distracted driving laws but they supplement those efforts with nudges to encourage drivers to do the right thing.

Similarly many performance management software applications will gently remind you that you need to be completing your online performance review forms and these subtle and gentle reminders have, in many instances, proven more effective than HR departments hounding delinquent managers of their duty to complete the forms. The prompts are even more powerful when the systems tell you how many of your colleague managers have already completed their forms within the gentle reminder. The additional nudge of simplifying the forms rather than calling out offending managers also works marvelously well according to one VP HR who is nudging her way to compliance in her performance management program.

Coaching as a management technique is ripe with nudging as it often works on the basis of a supervisor facilitating options for an employee. The employee is then left to make the best choice while enabling the supervisor to gently nudge the employee towards the decisions that will produce the best outcome. As long as the supervisor uses nudges as opposed to actively steering or directing the individual, freedom of choice (a hallmark of nudging) is respected.

Another workplace example includes suggesting certain key items be placed at the top of a meeting agenda to ensure the item gets the importance it deserves. One of my favourites is to nudge two workplace departments to improve collaborate though office layout. One approach is to direct the two department heads to make their units work better together while the nudge would be to locate the two departments as neighbours sharing amenities, bumping into each other and over time developing better relationships  and opportunities to collaborate.

Nudging works in hiring as well. Symphony orchestras were, like many employers, attempting to get more women into key roles but rather than imposing quotas removing the choice from hiring committees, the process was nudged along by instituting "blind" auditions where selection committees could not determine the age, race or gender of the applicants as they were placed behind a curtain, only their playing was evaluated and a numbered resume. The number of women and visible minorities has been on the rise ever since. 

Nudging works at the individual level on the job as well. A colleague who admits she despises her weekly budgeting tasks nudges herself to complete the tasks by what Wharton professor Katherine Milkman calls "temptation bundling" which is combining a guilty pleasure with something you should do but struggle to do. My colleague can only enjoy her favourite overpriced high calorie coffee from the coffee shop next door after the budgeting work is done.

What part of your work could use a little nudge?

About the Author

Pierre Battah

Human resource management consultant

Pierre Battah is Information Morning's Workplace Specialist. Battah & Associates is a management consulting firm specializing in Human Resource Management.


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