Lucy Adams
April 6, 2022
Reading time: 8 minutes
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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.  

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