Emily Marsh November 5 2019

How nudge theory supports positive and lasting behaviour change

Nudge theory works on the principle that small actions can have a substantial impact on the way people behave, and it has powerful implications for how we develop our employees in the workplace.

Nudge theory is the science behind subtly leading people to the ‘right’ decision. It works on the principle that small actions can have a substantial impact on the way people behave.

For organisations wanting to drive positive behaviour change, it’s a handy concept to know about.

Some people find it easy to adapt to change and some find it really very hard. No matter your natural setting, change doesn’t happen overnight – we all need a little (or a lot) of help. This article looks at how we can apply nudge theory to our employee development programmes (and you can try our personal behaviour disrupter for yourself here).

Nudge theory in the real world

Nudge theory was popularised by behavioural economics researchers Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in the 2008 book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness.

Here’s how they defined a nudge:

“A nudge, as we will use the term, is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.”

So what does this really mean? It means that nudges are any small part of what makes up our day and our behaviour that can encourage us to do something differently. When you think about it, these ‘nudges’ are everywhere.

They’re the calorie information on menus prompting you to make healthier choices, and the shocking imagery on cigarette packaging urging you not to smoke.

In the retail environment, they’re the warning that a product you are interested in is low in stock, convincing you to buy now. It’s why companies make a big deal of markdown prices - showing new ‘sale’ prices against a higher price point to make you think you’re getting a steal.

Nudging in the workplace

Nudges happen in the workplace too. Take the change in pensions to a standard opt-out rather than opt-in scheme - a ploy by the UK government to encourage people to plan for retirement.

The thinking behind this is that most people want to put money aside for their retirement but setting up a pension is seen as too much time and effort. By capitalising on people’s inertia, the government have ‘nudged’ people into making better choices about their future. In fact, the Government even have a Behavioural Insights Team, also known as the Nudge Unit.

The idea of nudging might sound intrusive or conniving, but by moving people towards better choices it’s possible to bring about positive change. For example, figures from earlier this year revealed 10 million workers have auto-enrolled into pension schemes, and fewer than 10 per cent have opted back out.

In the workplace, nudging can create positive and lasting change in everything from pension take-up to wellbeing and safety, as well as developing and empowering employees. With small actions, we can nudge people to adopt behaviours that will make them better at what they do.

Driving real behaviour change with regular nudges

Of course, any behaviour change in your business needs to start by clearly establishing what behaviour you want to change. However, we know that getting people to adopt new behaviours takes a lot more than just telling them to do so.

Nudge one: provide a reason to change

To drive behaviour change, people need a compelling reason to change. Help people to understand the organisation’s goals and how they can play a part in achieving those goals. Research by Gallup shows that when development opportunities are framed in ways that excite, inspire and motivate leaders, they tend to make choices that offer the greatest impact for their organisation.

Sometimes we just need to provoke people to want to be better at what they do. Feedback and personality profiling tools, like Truth Teller and Facet5, can play a valuable role in helping people to see how their behaviour might be holding them back, or how utilising their strengths could make them more effective. This heightened self-awareness gives them a compelling reason to personally want to make a change.

Now you’ve nudged people into wanting to change...

Nudge two: plant alternative behaviours

The next ‘nudge’ comes with planting highly effective alternatives to what they are currently doing. Teach people about the new behaviour or skill, why it’s valuable to them and the organisation, how they personally measure up against it, e.g. through a self-assessment, and how the skill should be applied in the workplace. The context needs to be uniquely created for the individual and positioned against their context and reality in order to nudge them to take it up.

Nudge three: provide opportunities to practice new behaviours

Now we need to ensure people have the opportunities to practice the new behaviours; first in a safe and supported environment, e.g. a training workshop, and then in the ‘real world’ back in the workplace.

For new behaviours to become habits, they need to be practiced over and over. Neuroscience tells us that each time an individual practices a new behaviour, neurons in the brain fire and create new pathways. The more they practice, the stronger the neural pathway becomes and the easier it is for it become the default behaviour.

Every time a person practices the new behaviour, they strengthen the new strand in their choice architecture and it becomes stronger and stronger, until the person comes to always choose it.

Nudge four: give regular feedback

When people are making even the smallest changes to their behaviour, they need to be supported with regular nudges in the form of small suggestions and positive reinforcements around the behavioural goals they’re looking to achieve. By supporting and encouraging people to behave in the new way, they’ll be far more likely to adopt and exhibit the behaviour.

To drive real behaviour change, we need to provide people with ‘nudges’ that push them towards adopting and exhibiting the new behaviour in the long-term.

So what are you waiting for?

  • Establish the behaviour you want to change
  • Give people a reason to change
  • Plant alternative behaviours
  • Encourage people to practice new behaviours
  • Support adoption of new behaviours with regular feedback

Transform behaviours in your organisation with these five steps.

New call-to-action

Subscribe to insights from our blog here:

Would you like to know more?

How would you like to start a conversation?