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Relying on a nudge to change behaviour?

Using Behavioural Insights to Inform our Practice

With nudge theory informing our government about how to fight Coronavirus, it’s interesting to reflect on how effective this approach is in changing our behaviour.


Nudge theory is about how our behaviour is influenced by external factors such as adverts and advice. We experience nudges everyday and living in the age of behavioural science, it is accepted that human beings are not entirely rational. We are driven by our emotional brain. Professor Cass Sunstein from Harvard Law School explains that this is the reason we focus on tomorrow rather than the next decade; we’re unrealistically optimistic, and we’re not great at handling risk.


Cass uses the example of seeing a big dog; our emotional brain might react first with worries about being bitten despite the fact our prefrontal cortex knows it is more likely to be friendly. Cigarette packaging is another great example; pictures of lung cancer appeal to emotional brain whereas figures about the likelihood of getting lung cancer appeals to our cortex.


The World of Wellbeing at Work

Nudges include famous figures talking about mental health, business stats around the impact of not getting wellbeing right, workplace awards, appeals tapping into moral values, and events where like-minded people share insights and aim to educate. One problem with working out the best approach is the fact we’re motivated by different things, depending on our values, and so we need to be exposed to a range of messages with the intention that at least one will impact on us.


Now back to the nudge strategy that has been in place to delay the Coronavirus. Instead of closing schools, the government has used nudges to wash hands and avoid touching faces and shaking others’ hands. The reason for the nudges to date is that people may get bored or not see the value of isolating themselves if the directive happens too soon. In other words, ‘fatigue’ can set in.


We can draw parallels with the emphasis on wellbeing in the workplace. I think people are getting bored and tuning out to the constant nudges around wellbeing and mental health. I’ve had many conversations with people who are ‘over it’ and wanting to move on to the next thing in the business world. So, do we need a different, more radical approach?


A compliance culture where we’re forced to do things is certainly not the answer but an approach based on conversion is likely to have more success; tweaking the environment in which we make choices and explaining to people why they should do something so that they act for the right reasons. Nudges act like a GPS, according to Cass; we’re still in control but we have choices. To achieve real change that is understood and sticks long term, we need making the right choices to be as easy as possible. Action needs to replace rhetoric.


What might the right approach be?

Strategies should have human behaviour at their heart. How radical should we be? Below are some ideas about how we could turn the nudges we’re now becoming blasé about into action to have a great impact:

  • National recognition awards that companies can choose to opt out of instead of opting in. Choosing not to participate in a process that demonstrates how you make wellbeing a priority would speak volumes.
  • Leaders expected to communicate their implementation intention. In other words, prompting them to think about what they are going to do, so that they are more likely to do it.
  • A checklist for people who are considering which organisation to work for, that includes specific questions to ask and knowledge about who and how to ask them. This is a powerful tool to help potential employees see through the marketing and interview ‘sell’ and gain a clearer picture of the reality of working in that company.
  • A wellbeing strategy in every company that is openly available to all to see. Information about why, what and how wellbeing is promoted and nurtured should be available on the company website, detailing real examples.
  • Evidence of outcomes for companies should be openly reported, based on employee feedback and employee statistics (turnover, absence etc), as well as profit.
  • A cooling off period for employees to leave the company without any negative consequences, should the reality of working there not be in line with what was communicated; a twist on mis-selling that favours employees.  
  • A process that is explicit in asking employees what they want. Deliberative forums such as that I use in my Workplace Insights process, strengthen the power people have to shape their reality and drive a strategy that is meaningful.  


To develop your intention and strategy around wellbeing in the workplace and to put the nudges into practice, get in touch.


Ref: Professor Cass Sunstein, Harvard Law School interview in Nudge theory; the psychology and ethics of persuasion. Science Weekly Podcast. 22 Feb 2017.