Nudge Theory: How you can use it at work

Following the herd: people tend to act in sub-optimal ways if the group has done so traditionally

An opt-out system will help incline staff towards new ideas

Controversial though it may be, libertarian paternalism – or “nudging” – has become the soft power weapon of business leaders and policymakers alike. Coined by economist Richard Thaler and legal scholar Cass Sunstein, nudging is a kind of choice architecture which aims to push people into making more positive decisions, without coercion.
Up until last year, the government even had its own policy unit dedicated to nudging, discovering that personalised text alerts were as effective as bailiffs for getting people to pay fines, among other surprising efficiency savings techniques. But can nudging be harnessed for ethical use in the workplace?


Nudging largely consists of making imperceptible changes to somebody’s environment. “Ultimately, we are neither entirely rational nor entirely consistent,” explains Google’s Laszlo Bock in Work Rules. “We’re influenced by countless small signals that nudge us in one direction or another, often without any deep intent behind the nudges”.
If you want to encourage people to adopt a certain stance, you need to get them to a point where the option reveals itself to them. You may be able to achieve this through associative and semantic priming.
Indeed, an experiment by psychologists David Meyer and Roger Schvaneveldt in 1971 found that people were faster to respond with the word “nurse” when they had already heard “doctor” because of the semantic connection between these nouns.
Planting the seeds for more complex ideas may prove difficult, but studies have suggested that emotive vocabulary can be used to pacify those around you. Research by New York University found that using polite words like “respect”, “considerate” and “appreciate” made others less likely to interrupt than more neutral words like “exercising” and “flawlessly”, and much less than ruder terms such as “aggressively”, “brazenly” and “intrude”.


According to Thaler and Sunstein, our perspectives are often affected by herd behaviour and “the status quo bias”. People are likely to mindlessly follow a course of action simply because traditionally it has been done.
This can be frustrating if you’re a manager trying to reform your team’s sub-optimal habits. So consider enforcing your changes while offering an opt-out facility. Altering the status quo will force staff to face the comparison and, by choosing to opt-out, they are choosing a path that they can acknowledge is worse for them.


You can also use nudges to ward off your own temptation. Thaler and Sunstein divide the two sides of our personalities into “planners” and “doers”. The planner takes steps to prevent the doer’s bad behaviour – like placing your alarm clock away from your bed so you can’t hit the snooze button and go back to sleep.
Even if nudging yourself removes the unconscious aspect of choice architecture, gaming yourself allows you to develop good habits. Putting deadlines in your calendar a couple of days before the real deadline will give you a cushion, in case of an unforeseen delay.

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