Leaders Need Nudges, Not More Management Training

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Leadership Nudge Strategy
Image Credit: shutterstock/fouroaks

“If only they would do what we trained them to do,” sighed Allison, a leadership development professional who I met at the 2018 Scaling Leadership conference. This is, of course, a sentiment shared by many.

In most organizations, training managers isn’t the problem. We provide training on management fundamentals, leading with strengths, communication styles and so much more.

Yet, nothing changes. And engagement scores remain the same. Why?

It’s been called the “Knowing-Doing Gap”—the massive chasm between what we know and what we actually apply back on the job.

There are many systemic causes for “the gap”: flawed reward systems, competing priorities, short-term goals and more. But other causes are simpler. Like, we’re all so crazy busy. We know what we’re supposed to do but forget about it in our daily grind. Do you know Pat?

Pat Cares, But Forgets

Pat is a front-line manager who wants to be a great leader. Pat caresabout team engagement scores. Pat knows that recognition drives engagement.

But day-to-day, Pat is “crazy busy” rushing from one meeting to the next, focused on tasks, and spreadsheets. Pat forgets to catch people doing great work, or doesn’t think there is the time.

But imagine if there was a tiny executive coach sitting on Pat’s shoulder throughout the day. (OK, that’s weird, I know.) And every now and then the coach whispers something like,

Psst! Hey, Pat. At your next weekly status meeting, try kicking it off by recognizing someone who did something great recently. It’s a good habit to get into.

That little reminder is an example of a behavioral nudge. And nudges can make a dramatic difference in human behavior, and can substantially close the Knowing-Doing Gap.

What the Heck Is a Nudge, Anyway?

A plain language definition of a nudge is:

A nudge is an indirect suggestion or subtle reminder intended to influence people’s behavior.

Officially, the term “nudge” was defined and popularized by two huge professors of economics, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. In their 2009 book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, they define a nudge as:

A nudge, as we will use the term, is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people's behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.

Practically speaking, nudges can take the form of a sign posted in a public place, a message sent in the mail or digitally, or even just in the design of a process, or placement of objects that are intended to result in positive choices (e.g., move fruit cups to the front of the buffet line and fries further back, and people will eat more fruit).

The power of nudges to positively influence behavior has proven to be so great that large companies, the military, and even countries have formed official “nudge units” to craft nudging strategies to accomplish organizational objectives.

Creating Your Nudge Strategy

If you think tactics from behavioral science may be a good supplement to the training and development programs you are already offering, it’s a good idea to start with a written plan.

Your plan doesn’t need to be deep on psychology! Think of it more as a memo or “pitch deck” that can win the support of senior leadership or get peers up to speed. Consider covering the following questions:

  • What is your goal? What are you trying to achieve? Will your nudge campaign be designed to increase employee engagement driving behaviors? Or perhaps you want to improve your next survey response rate? Do you want more managers to be more consistent with their weekly one-on-one meetings? Or do you want them to use strengths-based coaching?
  • Who is your target audience? Who should be nudged? All managers? New managers? Managers who have below average engagement scores?
  • What is the message cadence? Will you send out one nudge a week for 12 weeks? Or one message a day for a month? Or will your messages be triggered by specific events (e.g., the hiring or firing of an employee)? What time of day will you send each message, and why that time?
  • What form will the nudges take? Will the messages be sent via email? Will they display on the company Intranet or internal TV system? Will you use automated voice mail blasts? Signs in the conference room?
  • Who else do you need to coordinate with? Do you need to explain your program to second-line leaders? To IT? Should the nudges be reviewed by your legal department or HR?
  • How will you measure the impact of the nudge campaign? Will you survey the nudge recipients? Will you survey their direct reports? Will you use data analysis to look for a correlation between nudge recipients and higher engagement scores or performance reviews?

Less Training, More Reinforcement

Leadership is about behaviors, and even highly motivated managers fall back on old-habits and become task-focused in the face of too much stress and too much to do. Even easy, fundamental leadership practices—like giving effective feedback, showing appreciation, being mindful of another’s communication style—are ignored in the hustle and bustle of the modern workload.

While there is no silver bullet, we know that more training is rarely the answer. We should spend perhaps less time and money on new management training programs and a bit more on the application of the knowledge they already have. With today’s digital technologies—from email to messaging to audio messages—it’s easier than ever before for leadership development professionals to add behavioral nudge campaigns into their toolbox.

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Kevin Kruse
NY Times bestselling author, Inc 500 entrepreneur, and keynote speaker on Wholehearted Leadership and Extreme Productivity. Download 'How Millionaires Plan Their Day: A 1-Page Tool' at http://kevinkruse.leadpages.co/1page/