Why every I/O should care about “nudges”

08/26/2023 8:13 AM | Anonymous

Author: Kira Foley, Perceptyx

Industrial and organizational psychologists are experts in measuring, diagnosing, and explaining human problems in the workplace. As a collective, we’ve helped build thousands (maybe millions?) of selection tests, performance assessments, and employee listening surveys. Our work has undoubtedly improved not only business performance but also the well-being of workers across the globe, all by bringing sound psychological theories and principles, psychometrics, and statistics to organizational decision-making. However, the true potential of the people analytics and Human Resources (HR) technology industry is stifled by one critical weakness: our products explain but don’t necessarily change behavior. In this blog post, I will explain why I am convinced that the behavioral economist’s idea of “nudges” offers a promising, scalable solution to our collective problem. 

What are nudges?

Nudges are behavioral interventions that require minimal action but help individuals act in their own best interest. Nudge theory assumes that we make many small decisions throughout our day and that the environment around us influences each of those decisions, for better or for worse. Nudges are environmental influences that make better decisions easier and more likely, whereas “sludge” is something in the decision-making environment that creates friction and makes good decisions more difficult. Because nudge theory is so focused on influencing decisions, much of the work in this area seeks to prevent common cognitive biases and heuristics in decision-making like “anchoring bias” or “the halo effect.” One important tenet of nudge theory is that nudges should be optional. For example, “putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge; banning junk food does not” (Thaler & Sunstein, 2008). 

There are many examples of successful nudging in practice. One notable example is the Amsterdam Schiphol Airport’s effort to reduce restroom cleaning costs back in the 1990s. They added pictures of flies to urinals and effectively nudged patrons to reduce spillage by 80%. In another example, Volkswagen used nudge theory to encourage more people to take the stairs rather than the escalator in a Stockholm metro station. They installed a working piano to the stairs that played a note with every step, nudging 66% more commuters than normal to opt for the stairs

Around ten years ago, nudges started making their way into the workplace. Nudge theory has been adopted by HR and business leaders to encourage a variety of employee behaviors. However, it’s important to note that not all nudges are created equal and some nudge products on the market are not nudges in the scientific sense. For example, arranging desks to encourage socialization among coworkers is a nudge, but sending weekly email reminders to schedule more “heads down” focused work time is a notification not a nudge. The former intervention changes the environment to make a behavior (socializing) easier, whereas the latter intervention serves as an informative message or a request. What makes an effective workplace nudge can depend on the medium used to communicate nudges to employees, the timing of the nudge, and the extent to which the nudge is deployed ethically.  

A 3-step recipe to creating your own nudge

Now that you know a bit about what a nudge is, I’ve provided a simple framework below for developing an effective nudge with an example that is carried throughout the process to demonstrate how to apply the technique.

1. Identify the decision you want to influence. 
Example: I’m a project manager who’s about to start a new project and I want to get my team’s input on the project scope and goals. I plan to hold a live brainstorming session with my team, but I’m worried that the louder voices will dominate the discussion. To encourage dissenting opinions, I want to nudge team members who disagree to speak up.
2. Try to really understand the decision-making environment. Ask yourself:
a. What in the decision-making environment is fueling the desired behavior? Fuel is anything that makes the target behavior more appealing or likely.
b. Is there friction in the decision-making environment preventing the desired behavior? Friction is anything that gets in the way of people performing the target behavior. 
Example: The decision I want to nudge on is going to happen in a team meeting via a video conference call. One thing I know that fuels people speaking up is silence. Most people on my team are uncomfortable with silence and someone always speaks up to fill it. One thing that is likely to create friction that prevents those with different opinions speaking up is when many like-minded members publicly agree with each other. 
3. Pick one small behavior you can perform to change the environment in a way that encourages (but doesn’t force) the decision you want others to make. Your behavior is the nudge so ask yourself what does an effective nudge look like, quantitatively and qualitatively?
Example: Given how many unknown variables there are in the project team meeting itself, I will try to nudge my team before the meeting. To nudge members towards sharing their diverse opinions during the meeting, I will email the team the meeting agenda ahead of time so that everyone can choose to develop their own opinion before being influenced by the group discussion. My email with the meeting agenda acts as the nudge. A successful nudge will lead to at least one person voicing a contrasting opinion during the meeting and everyone feeling like it’s safe to speak up even when it seems like some of the team will disagree. 

How could nudges solve our behavior change problem?

Nudges, if both science-backed and applied ethically, can help us close the gap between just understanding workplace challenges and actually taking action to address them. Nudges do something unique from the behavior change interventions we’re used to. Unlike more targeted (and expensive) interventions like training or coaching, nudges are scalable. They don’t take too much of the employee’s time, and they can be used consistently over time to inspire lasting behavior change. In this way, nudges can help us change, not just explain workplace behavior at scale. 

However, the truth is that your average I/O knows very little about nudge theory and probably even less about the science of behavior change (at least the way it’s been done by behavioral economists and social psychologists). To be successful, we need to collaborate with others in the behavioral and social sciences, both in research and practice. We as I/Os deeply understand the human experience at work. Nudge experts like behavioral economists deeply understand human decision-making. Together, we could tackle the most pressing issues like manager burnout, bad bosses, and layoff anxiety

Author Bio: Kira Foley is a behavioral and social scientist passionate about the power of applied research to solve real-world problems. She earned her PhD in Industrial-Organizational Psychology from The George Washington University, where she published research on a variety of workplace challenges that affect leadership and teams in a variety of organizational contexts (U.S. Army Soldiers, women leaders, desk-less workforce). In her current role as a Behavioral Scientist at Perceptyx, she sits on the product team and plays a first-hand role in baking behavioral science into HR technology Software as a Service (SaaS) products.

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