When Friedrich Nietzsche said, “To do great things is difficult, but to command great things is more difficult.”, he was probably asking HR leaders to get more innovative with driving change.
Driving change in the workplace is like walking a tightrope. Be it introducing a new process, adopting new technology, or shifting the company culture—change management requires careful planning to execute.
Even with the best of intentions and the most rigorous planning, organizations often encounter obstacles that can make it difficult to drive change. And one of the most obvious challenges in this regard is resistance from employees. Resistance needn’t always be direct either—unintentional resistance can still impede progress when working towards implementing a business outcome.
But why do people resist mandated change? And how can you, as a people & culture leader, gently guide your people towards embracing change rather than resisting it? To answer these questions, let’s first understand a concept known as ‘Nudge Theory.’
The subtle art of nudging people in the right direction
Nudge theory is a concept in behavioral economics that suggests that small, subtle nudges can influence people's decisions and actions in a positive way. The idea is that by creating an environment that makes it easier for people to make the right choices instead of mandating them to do so, behavior can be changed in a way that benefits the individual and society.
The concept of nudges was first introduced by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their book, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness.
The relevance of nudge theory in the workplace lies in the fact that organizations can use nudges to influence employee behavior and drive positive change without impeding the individual’s freedom. By nudging employees towards desired actions, such as increased productivity or more environmentally consciuous behavior, organizations can achieve their goals while still allowing employees to maintain their autonomy.
Here are some interesting examples of the application of nudge theory:
Another interesting example of nudge theory in action was when Google used it to get their employees to consume less meat and lead a healthier lifestyle. For this, they used various creative nudges in their cafeteria, like replacing 50% of the beef in hamburgers with mushrooms, creating plant-based versions of popular dishes, positioning vegetarian dishes more prominently on menus, and even giving healthier dishes more indulgent names.
The results? Google employees are now 71% more likely to eat healthy at work!
Google used several nudges to meet its purpose. And these nudges can be categorized into different types. Overall, there are six primary kinds of nudges, as illustrated below:
Nudges work by leveraging our biases and mental shortcuts, known as heuristics, to guide our behavior in a desired direction. For example, humans have a tendency to follow the default option, which is why default nudges can be effective in shaping behavior. Similarly, social norm nudges leverage our desire to conform to the behavior of those around us.
“First, never underestimate the power of inertia. Second, that power can be harnessed. If private companies or public officials think that one policy produces better outcomes, they can greatly influence the outcome by choosing it as the default.”
— Richard H. Thaler
Overall, nudges are designed to make it easier for us to choose the right action without having to put in much effort or thought. By tapping into our inherent biases and emotions, nudges can effectively shape our behavior for the best outcome.
Will it, don’t force it
Change, when perceived as a personal choice, is much more influential than a top-down order. That’s why nudges are an important tool for HR leaders, enabling them to motivate and encourage employee behavior change in ways that are not coercive.
By utilizing small, non-intrusive cues, such as prominently displayed posters, strategically placed reminders, and even simple emails, HR leaders can subtly encourage employees to make positive decisions on their own accord without resorting to direct commands.
Let’s take the concept of public praise, for example.
Praise can have a massive impact on an employee’s motivation, which is why some HR leaders may choose to make it an org-wide mandate. However, aside from the obvious fact that you can’t force praise, mandating it may even backfire because of a concept known as reactance. Basically, commanding people to take actions might be perceived as an infringement of their freedom, causing them to react by taking no action, if not counter-productive action.
For example, people may praise a colleague once and refrain from doing so again unless they are explicitly requested to.
Can we implement nudge theory here? Let’s explore.
What if you created an environment of public praise by creating a Slack channel where people praise each other regularly? Making the channel available to the entire company and cultivating an atmosphere of high activity can spark a chain reaction of praise from other employees—this kind of nudge is known as a “social norm” nudge. In fact, if you’re using an automated tool like Mesh for giving praise, you can even ensure that every praise goes out with a button that stimulates others to easily give their own praise.
“Recall that people like to do what most people think it is right to do; recall too that people like to do what most people actually do.”
— Richard Thaler
By using nudges, HR leaders can nudge employees in the right direction without impeding their personal autonomy or making them feel their decisions are being forced upon them. This creates an environment where employees can take ownership over their decisions and take responsibility for their actions, empowering them to take charge of their own development.
Engineering effective nudges in the workplace
There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to designing great nudges in the workplace. However, as an HR professional, here are four steps you can follow in coming up with the most effective nudges for your organization:
#1 Identify the outcome you want to drive
There may be several aspect of your organization that you may need to reevaluate in order for smoother functioning. Identify areas in which employee behavior can be influenced by small changes in their environment or how information is presented to them.
Let’s assume that employee well-being is one such area of concern in your organization. What can you do as an HR leader to ensure that your people aren’t just doing well at work but actively thriving?
#2 Actively work on eliminating mandates to drive the outcome
There are several ways HR leaders can improve employee well-being—company-wide wellness programs, mandatory breaks, banning junk in the workplace cafeteria, etc. While these may be great initiatives, some of them may be perceived as unnecessary involvement by your organization in your people’s lifestyle, diminishing their effectiveness.
However, you can easily turn your mandates into nudges for better results. Here’s how you can effectively convert your employee well-being mandates into nudges by slightly tweaking their execution:
#3 Experiment with nudges
Some nudges work better than others. And the better ones may not always be apparent immediately. In such cases, trial and error is the only way to distill the best nudges for your organization. Use data and surveys to understand which nudge (or combination of nudges) works best for your purpose.
Here are some more examples of nudges for employee well-being that you can experiment with to find out what works best in your organization:
- Reminders to block time off in employee calendars for focused time, training, mindfulness, or lunch
- Surveys gauging the emotional well-being of individual employees by simply asking, “How are you feeling today?” with a selection of icons for employees to choose from (These can be timed dynamically to maintain the surprise element)
- An always-open Zoom call for employees to enjoy quick water cooler/cofee chats virtually (A notification can be sent to a dedicated Slack channel nudging others to join whenever someone joins the Zoom link)
- Setting default working hours on Slack for each team based on their working hours. People can choose to default that if they feel the need to, and people writing to them can choose to notify them outside of working hour.
- Making sure you have an IM app that defaults to a schedule message feature from the sender’s end instead of the standard “send” icon when the receiver’s working hours end for the day.
#4 Document your success
Lastly, document the impact of your nudges. Not only can these nudges drive specific outcomes, but they can also be stacked to achieve even greater success in the future.
Once you've identified a successful nudge mechanism, explore its versatility and use it to drive multiple outcomes simultaneously. For example, if introducing no-meeting days turned out to be a successful nudge, you could additionally reduce the default duration of meetings in your organization’s G Suite as an admin to 45 minutes instead of 60, or 20 minutes instead of 30. Not only does it improve your overall employee well-being, it also serves as a means of driving productivity by implementing better time management and keeping meeting fatigue in check.
With a bit of creativity, nudges can become a powerful tool to improve your overall people strategy.
Nudge theory: To believe or not to believe?
Despite its growing popularity, nudge theory has its fair share of detractors. Some critics argue that nudging may not be as effective as previously thought. Others argue that nudging is too simplistic and fails to take into account the complexity of human behavior and motivation.
However, nudging is not a panacea for all workplace issues, and never claimed to be. It is one tool among many that can help organizations promote positive behavior change and improve performance. Moreover, the effectiveness of nudges is also determined by experimentation and its use in conjunction with other nudges or even interventions, such as training, incentives, and feedback. For instance, a study found that nudging employees to take breaks and engage in physical activity, combined with education and feedback, led to a significant improvement in well-being and productivity.
While nudging may not be a magic bullet for workplace improvement, it is a valuable and evidence-based approach that can complement other interventions. By using subtle and non-intrusive cues, organizations can encourage employees to make better decisions for themselves and the organization. However, nudging should be used judiciously and in conjunction with other approaches to achieve maximum impact.
Overcoming barriers and unlocking the true potential of nudges
Ethical concerns, resistance to change, and lack of understanding are some common barriers you may encounter when executing nudges. If your nudges themselves are too forceful, you might go against their purpose and may end up being perceived as manipulative or invasive by your employees. It is essential to consider these potential barriers and address them in time in order to successfully implement nudge theory.
As we continue to face new challenges, especially in modern remote and hybrid work environments, nudge theory can effectively be used to drive creative solutions in shaping the future of work. Introducing nudges to drive change in a WFH setup may be difficult because of the absence of tangible cues. But with the right amount of creativity, thoughtfulness, and strategy, organizations can harness the power of nudges to create a better, more productive, and more fulfilling work experience for everyone involved.