Behavioral Sciences Communication behaviors Influence Nudges Workplace Workplace Communication

Is Your Organization Tapping the Power of ‘Nudges’​ in Communication at the Workplace and Beyond?

This article first appeared on the Thought Leadership Essays segment of the IPRA International Public Relations Association website:

Effective employee communications: investing in a behavioural science-led, insights-based approach

Governments have used ‘nudge’ thinking to achieve some powerful interventions, so why haven’t more organizations established nudge units?

Have you often wondered how key communication decisions are made? Also, why some of them seem scatter-gun rather than a thoughtful and confident intervention? Consider these situations and reflect on potentially others you may have experienced.

  • Your team plans to hire a new member. The decision to add a new person is based on a ‘need’ perceived by the leader. Is the need worth investing in now, or can it be managed within the current team? Is the hiring process messaging created to avoid biases that prevent the best candidates from applying?
  • The company rolls out a benefits program for staff, which to leadership sounds like a great offer. However, the response is lukewarm and leaders blame the timing, the ‘disengaged’ workforce and managers for not doing a good job of convincing staff. Did the firm check if the language used ‘talked with’ or ‘talked to’ staff? Was it framed as a loss aversion or a gain-oriented approach – which of them were most appealing to employees?
  • Training initiatives are run by the dozens to seemingly ‘raise’ the capabilities and competencies of staff with a company investing huge funds. Leaders are puzzled why there are very few takers for the initiatives and are changing tactics from coaxes to threats to get staff to put ‘butts on seats’. Employees reluctantly attend to avoid ‘looking’ bad to their managers. What does it do for the company’s culture? How can staff be directed towards the goal of participating without it looking like coercion?
  • A company decides to sponsor big industry events because a ‘consensus-led’ approach creates pressure to spend funds on external ‘visibility’ for attracting talent and becoming an employer of choice. Months later, no one is able to justify the ROI, nor are people stomping their way to get into the firm! A lot of finger-pointing happens and it isn’t helping business focus on performance.
  • With a low turnout in the office, leaders in an organization go with the ‘impression’ that people will show up if you serve ‘food and beverages’ gratis. It creates unintended consequences because staff begin to think that if the company can splurge on food and drinks, they must be doing really well. There are instead requests for salaries to be raised!

Key aspects at play

When we look at the above situations, there are key aspects at play.

The belief that leaders know it best and therefore, decisions made at the top may be ideal for most scenarios. Telling managers after a decision is made isn’t the best way to gain trust and take people along the journey.

Secondly, if we don’t get it right, there may be another chance – and yet another and thus continues the trial-and-error approach to management by muddling around.

Third, the lack of application of behavioral science and in most cases, common sense, prevents organizations from taking this subject seriously and making good business decisions.

Unfortunately, forward looking businesses can’t afford such issues and get bogged down by egos, group-think and cultural chaos.

The value of nudges

No amount of engagement surveys can surface the need for insight-led decision making and behavior science driven interventions. Globally, the ‘nudge’ movement has taken over governments with the United States, under former President Obama and Britain, under the leadership of David Cameron demonstrating the power of understanding human behavior and driving long lasting positive change. From improving tax collections to enhancing citizen responsiveness; from reducing crime to educating people on health – the impact is visible and proven. The value of these interventions has been so influential that today not just governments but even corporations and not-for-profits are leveraging this art of the possible.

I remember watching a video of a shopping mall that designed their staircase into a musical instrument that allowed people to enjoy music and stay fit at the same time, instead of using the elevator. The fact that the video went viral also helped market the mall! That hit the right notes with human psyche, literally!

Why nudges are not popular yet

Why then haven’t organizations invested in ‘nudge’ units within their teams? What prevents firms from drawing from best practices and lessons conducted globally?

There are potentially a few reasons:

  • Lack of awareness among communicators and leaders on why nudges help
  • Lack of clarity on how and where the communications function can intervene and make a difference
  • There is reluctance to experiment and test newer approaches
  • The lack of time and limited resources to make changes at work hinder progress
  • Inertia to make decisions due to a risk-averse culture
  • Nudges are perceived as manipulative and quasi-scientific

Nudges decoded

The use of nudges in communication as responsible practice is known to bring about substantial change and at minimal to zero cost. Situated at the intersection of behavioral economics, psychology and marketing, we have all been exposed to many such ‘nudges’ in our daily life – from the ‘one’ click option of ordering groceries online to the gentle reminders to pay taxes; from the way retail shops are designed for faster (or even touchless) checkouts to the traffic signs that moderate speeding. Understanding how we think, act and feel as humans can allow messages to be crafted to influence and enhance experiences and outcomes positively.

The key principles of influence as defined by Dr. Robert Cialdini are reciprocity (acts of kindness have a payback, even if the effort is minimal), consistency (allowing people to commit to act and making actions visible), social proof (we follow the crowd and need buy-in), liking (finding common ground and honestly recognizing people), authority (belief in experts and their credibility), and scarcity (we value what is in short supply). In Inside the Nudge Unit, David Halpern shares a simplified approach to remembering key aspects of nudges – Easy (reducing or increasing friction), Attract (using multisensory options to engage), Social (following what others do) and Timely (when matters for interventions). Every intervention viewed through this lens can provide communicators a better shot at improving outcomes.

Nudges in practice

Firms have taken cues from marketing and other fields to bring in practices that enhance employee experience and engagement. One of the areas where organizations have invested is HR analytics with insights and interventions driving key decisions. From analyzing sentiments to tailoring solutions for targeted audiences; from predicting attrition and driving manager engagement. While it looks at data, it this falls short in terms of truly understanding human behavior and leveraging the power of ‘nudges’.

Where can organizations and communicators apply these principles and put them into practice?

There are potentially numerous avenues to implement nudges at work and beyond in our current context and new world order. Here are some.

  • Encouraging staff to return to work even as remote and hybrid work has become more attractive and prevalent. Delving deeper into the reasons for staff preferring to work from home rather than show up to office can help address the ‘frictions’ and get more buy-in.
  • While the employee referral program is a popular way to attract talent and offer an attractive bonus, often staff feel their referrals enter a ‘black box’ and the reasons for rejections don’t seem to justify the profiles submitted. In turn creating distrust in the system and lower engagement. Can the messaging and the process be tweaked to bring in transparency and accountability to hiring?
  • With employee wellbeing becoming central to engagement and business performance, can there be a way to encourage staff to invest more in their personal wellness and fitness by gamifying the ‘social proof’ aspect of human behavior?

Get started

The challenges for communicators are to build a case, get leadership buy-in for using ‘nudges’ at work and find the mind space and collaborators to put ideas into practice. Begin small and invest in showing demonstrable proof of what you hope to achieve and with concrete research and value.

You can begin with the basics of auditing the kind of communication currently done within and where minor adjustments can make significant impact. Pick up the engagement survey, for example, and review if they need to be adjusted to the current environment at the workplace. Find out what prevents staff from hoarding or sharing information and ideas at work. Tacit knowledge lost when employees leave is a huge disadvantage to the organization, an issue which can be addressed. Rather than wait for the exit interview, can the intervention be done earlier?

At a large, global retail firm, I offered to run a session on ‘influence’ using communications. It was pitched for power users of communications, especially, the human resources, the administration, business unit communicators and the information technology unit. There was interest in the session because many noticed that ‘more’ communication was not the solution to the issues of low turnout, disengagement, poor compliance to policies among others.

They came in with healthy skepticism about the subject because participants were already ‘used’ to communicating in a certain way and always believing that the ‘fault’ lay elsewhere! After introducing the group to the fundamentals of influencing, I shared examples of current communication practices and how tweaking the subject line, the copy, the tone of voice, the visual elements and the call to action switched how audiences would receive the message. The ‘aha’ moments were there to be seen and I noticed a shift in how these power users also perceived the communications team – not as ‘providers’ of material but as ‘change agents’ who could be trusted as partners.

The usage of nudges has been with us for ages. It is only recently that scholars and organizations have realized the clout of such interventions boosting business outcomes. Recognizing and learning the power of nudges for everyday communication, can give communicators another reason to get a seat at the table because decisions made are strategic and business aligned.

In case you wondered why I highlighted some parts of the text above in bold, it’s because I took cues from behavioral science. Apart from making it easy for you to scan this essay and understand some key elements, bolding text also makes readers perceive those words are important.

Give nudging a shot – it will always give your communication the high it deserves.

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