When we in HR want to achieve a change in behaviour, we tend to resort to a training programme as the way to help deliver it. I’ve done it countless times … Let’s say we wanted to deliver a change in leadership behaviour? I’d put on a day’s training around the skills required. This would usually involve designing the programme, finding an expert to deliver the content, co-ordinating peoples’ diaries and then counting the ‘no-shows’ on the day. I’d probably even throw in a bit of ‘making it mandatory’ just to make sure I’d got to everyone.

Now there are clearly some issues with this. Aside from the time it takes to get the training put on and the time taken from busy people, we know that the human brain will forget 80% of what’s it learned on the programme within 30 days – not because the attendees are stupid, but just because that’s how the human brain works.

We also know that if the people who’ve been trained don’t put their new skill into practice soon after, and don’t have the opportunity to practice it over a few weeks, it’s unlikely to stick.

An alternative you can use to influence behaviour is to use so-called ‘nudges’. Now in the purest sense, a nudge is about influencing the choices people make at the point where they are about to make them, as opposed to trying to push people into doing things using threats or regulations. One of the most famous examples of an effective nudge was used in the men’s urinals at Amsterdam’s Schipol airport. Instead of exhorting users to aim into the urinal properly, they etched an image of a housefly onto the urinals in the area they wanted them to aim! Very simple and very effective.

We can use these nudges in HR to help influence the behaviour of our leaders and employees too – by subtlety encouraging a different choice of behaviour at the point when a choice is being made.

Let’s look at a couple of examples:

Nudges are being used a lot in approaches to Diversity and Inclusion. At Pinterest, they simply suggested that hiring managers be more aware of the amount of hires they were making from under-represented groups. Just this simple prompt or nudge just before they went into interviewing led to a more diverse group of hires.

There’s also the example from the Chief Fire Officer for East Sussex Fire Service – a woman called Dawn Whittaker. When one of her female team passes an exam or does something notable, she sends a congratulations email with a little drawing of a fire chief’s helmet in it! It’s just a nudge to subliminally tell her female staff that they are good enough to think about the top job.

Boston Consulting Group uses nudges to help prevent burn out amongst their staff. They created a macro in the company email application that causes a pop-up window to appear whenever leaders attempt to send a message after hours. The nudge appears at the exact moment leaders need a reminder that the action they’re taking may be putting extra stress onto their teams who might think they should reply to the email immediately, even though it’s late. It doesn’t block their ability to send the message. It simply offers the choice of marking as low priority or deferring the email to the next day.

And finally, Google, who use this nudge technique – or ‘Whispers’ as they call them – to help influence behaviours. They send Whisper emails to managers suggesting one small leadership skill they might want to practice – and they also send an automated nudge email to hiring managers on the Sunday night before their new hire starts. Because let’s be honest, the Sunday before they start is typically when managers actually think about what they’re going to do during onboarding! The email prompts them to introduce them to a buddy and to get a few 1-2-1’s booked in.

So instead of a laborious and costly training programme, maybe you could think about introducing nudges to help you change behaviours.  

We’ve spent a lot of time recently worrying about what our post Covid workplace will be like. We’ve wrestled with much flexibility we should offer, should we change our contracts, should we go for set days at home or offer personal choice and how our office layout might need to change. Just when we thought we were getting somewhere, there’s a new dilemma on the horizon, how do we reduce proximity bias?

Now, as anyone who doesn’t work in Head Office knows already, proximity bias is an actual THING. If you are someone who has frequent contact with the leaders and spends more time in the office being ‘seen’, chances are, you will receive preferential treatment when it comes to promotion and are likely to be seen as a higher performing employee.

If we are serious about continuing to offer genuine flexibility around where and when people work – and why wouldn’t we be – then we need to tackle proximity bias. If we don’t, then you know exactly what will happen. For all of our commitment statements about offering flexible working, our leaders in the office will become a kind of siren, gradually drawing people back there with them.

So how to tackle this issue of proximity bias. First up, the basics. It’s worth thinking about how you can create the same experience for your people, regardless of where they are based. One way of levelling the playing field is the approach that the company Coinbase take where they commit to there being no explicit or implicit disadvantages to working from any location and conduct all team meetings as if everyone were working remotely – including colleagues in the office who connect from their desks. Or have a think about how you reward and recognise your people and make sure that the celebrations aren’t always office based.

Next, help managers to manage through outcomes and results, rather than task supervision. One technique that might help is the so-called ‘tight-loose-tight’ management approach. This is where really tight and clear outcomes are identified up front – then the manager is encouraged to back off and loosen up around exactly HOW these outcomes are delivered – followed by getting tight again around accountability. The idea is to give managers the assurance they need that results will be delivered without them needing to observe the work being done.

Thirdly, we can challenge proximity bias at the point where a manager might be about to choose someone who they see everyday, over someone who works remotely. EY have implemented something they call ‘PTR’. This involves leaders checking with each other whether their choice is ‘a Preference, a Tradition or a Requirement’, ie: ‘did you pick this person because it’s your personal preference, or because the person traditionally in this role has always been based near to you, or because they genuinely meet the requirements for the role?’ It might not eliminate proximity bias, but it at least makes them pause and think.

And finally, the most significant thing you can do to reduce the bias of proximity – make sure your leaders are working flexibly too. If leaders are always in then we will continue to imply ‘BUT, THE IMPORTANT WORK HAPPENS IN THE OFFICE!’ then all of your brilliant flexible working plans will gradually fade away. Employees will know without being told that to be valued, to be recognised and to get on, then they have to be seen. You could adapt PepsiCo’s mantra of ‘Leaders Leave Loudly’. Leaders there make a point of letting their teams know that they are working from home or leaving the office early to pick up their kids or go to the gym. If our leaders role model the new hybrid, it will happen.

Lucy talks to Catherine Garrod (ex-Sky and founder of Compelling Culture) about how to take fresh approaches to diversity and inclusion.

Caoimhe and Alex talk about a range of innovative approaches at MoneySuperMarket including how they are doing onboarding in different ways such as experimenting with app based solutions.

On this podcast, Lucy is joined by Katee Van Horn. Katee is the Founder of Bar the Door, a consultancy specialising in Executive coaching and helping organisations build their Diversity strategy. Previously Katee led the Engagement team as VP, Global Engagement and Inclusion at GoDaddy

Katee shares with Lucy how GoDaddy underwent a cultural shift, how they introduced a number of measures to encourage Diversity and Inclusion in the workplace and how data played a big part in all of the initiatives. Listen to learn how even small changes can have big impacts.

Catherine Garrod, Head of Inclusion at Sky  talks to Lucy about how they are empowering their employees to influence their own world in order to make Sky an even better place for everyone.

From talking to us about their Inclusion Toolkit to the success of their Employee Networks, we get the deep dive into how Sky is getting their Diversity and Inclusion agenda right.

Download [MP3]