Using Nudges” to Your Advantage in the Workplace”

Elephants nudging each other alongNeed a nudge in the right direction? You’re not alone. People don’t always make their best decisions at work. But the “nudge theory” is a clever way to give people little cues and prompts to “nudge” them into making the right choices. It is also a useful tool that you can use on the job in a number of interesting ways!

History of “nudging”
Nudging was brought into prominence in Thaler and Sustein’s book “Nudge” which outlined numerous examples of how minor changes in approach can have striking results. The key is to frame choices in a way that helps people choose what is truly best for themselves and others. This theory 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” according to author and broadcaster Stephen Dubner in a Freakonomics podcast entitled “When Willpower isn’t Enough.”

Examples of “nudging”
The book “Nudge” outlines a number of examples that clearly illustrate how mindful choice architecture enables people to make better choices. All you do is simply present options so that people behave in a beneficial and foreseeable way without restricting their choices by forbidding certain options. This does not mean policies, rules or procedures should not exist. Rather they are enhanced by nudging.

While travelling in upstate New York a few months ago, I noticed a series of “It Can Wait – Text Stop Ahead” highway signs that encouraged drivers to pull off the road at renamed rest stops in an effort to discourage texting while driving. New York State still has distracted driving laws in place but they complement those efforts with nudges, in this case the signs, to further encourage drivers to do the right thing.

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

Using coaching as a management technique is similar to 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.

Make “nudging” work for you

An example of how managers could use nudging to their advantage is suggesting certain key items be placed at the top of a meeting agenda to ensure the items get the importance they deserve. One of my favorite “nudging techniques” is to nudge two workplace departments to improve collaboration throughout the office layout. A traditional approach would be to tell the two department heads to make their units work better together. The nudging approach would be to relocate the two departments as office neighbors who share amenities. They will inevitably bump into each other and over time develop better relationships and more opportunities to collaborate.

Nudging works as a hiring technique as well. Symphony orchestras were, like many employers, attempting to get more women into key roles. Rather than imposing quotas and 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 who were placed behind a curtain. They only had access to the blind performance and a numbered resume. The number of women and visible minorities has been on the rise ever since.

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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.” This is when you attach a guilty pleasure reward to something you should do but struggle to do. Consequently, my colleague can only enjoy her favorite overpriced, high-calorie coffee from the coffee shop next door once the budgeting work is done.

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