Can you use ‘nudging’ in HR to drive innovation? | 10 nudges and what HR leaders can learn from them

Charlotte Nicol
Published on 7th August 2019
4 min read

What would make you sign up to become an organ donor? Sitting face-to-face with a doctor who could explain the process? Receiving a cash incentive?

According to a study by the NHS in England and Wales, it could be far simpler than that. It could just take a well-timed nudge.

In behavior economics, nudges are used to influence behavior in subtle, low-cost ways and without explicitly asking someone to make a decision. A nudge in the right place at the right time can do anything from improve productivity to lower costs.

In the case of the NHS, they added a simple message to the UK government’s website, asking people to sign up to become organ donors halfway through renewing or updating their driving licenses.

They tested several different messages and image choices and found them all to be effective in getting around 2–3% of people to sign up for the first time.

HR and People teams can benefit from using nudges too, when it comes to incentivizing certain actions across the company without distracting employees from doing what they do best.

The top 10 types of nudges, and what HR and People leaders can learn from them

There are 10 main types of ‘nudges’, according to Harvard University.

1. Default rules

Giving someone the option to ‘opt-in’ implies that they must make a conscious decision. However, you could also auto-enroll everyone, then give them the option to ‘opt-out’ instead.

This is commonly used in the case of pensions and health insurance plans.

It’s one of the most effective nudges – as often people find it too burdensome and time-consuming to explicitly choose something.

2. Simplifications

Many programs fail, or succeed less than they might, because of undue complexity.

Complexities are one of the most common barriers to entry. They cause confusion and can increase expense. By simplifying information and choices, people are more likely to say yes.

One of the things we say time and time again, particularly around HR technology, is: what is the business problem you are trying to solve? Keep this in mind with programs, initiatives and technology, and it’s harder to go wrong.

3. Use of social norms

By making something seem normal or common, or by emphasizing that other people do something, people are more likely to want to do it themselves.

If you’re trying to get everyone to update their passwords, try a nudge like “over 60% of the company have already ticked this off their to-do list”.

It doesn’t necessarily need to be a firm and decisive action. Sometimes, just highlighting what people think can be equally as impactful. For instance, “90% of people in our company think trialing this would be a good idea.”

4. Increases in ease and convenience

People instinctively take the path of least resistance. Therefore, putting an easier choice in front of them can improve uptake.

If you give someone the choice between RSVP to the event online (2 minutes) or wait in line on the night to get signed in (up to 30 minutes) which one do you think they’ll choose?

Also, if the easier choice seems to be the more fun option, this can improve the effectiveness of this nudge even further.

5. Disclosure

Writing out the full cost of something can make people feel more secure, so they don’t feel like they’re being tricked.

If you’re looking to improve uptake in your pension scheme, try providing a calculator that will let people know exactly what they’ll save in a year.

Remember, simplicity is still the key here. There’s no point disclosing something that won’t resonate with your audience.

6. Warnings

A well-timed warning can motivate quick and decisive action and prevent procrastination.

For instance, think about receiving this email: “Please complete the two outstanding salary reviews by the end of the week.” Now compare it with this one: “Warning, you have two salary reviews due at the end of this week.”

Don’t be too aggressive, though. Remember, you’re not trying to scare someone into doing something – rather, you’re trying to grab their attention and influence their behavior.

7. Pre-commitment strategies

People often have personal goals, but their behavior often falls short of meeting these goals. If, however, they engage with a pre-made decision or course, they are more likely to achieve them.

Someone who attempts to train themselves to improve their Microsoft Excel skills might learn a few formulas from free resources online. But they are likely to be much more successful if they are partnered with a mentor and given objectives to fulfil.

8. Reminders

Your employees probably have a number of responsibilities, and the last thing they need is one more.

Therefore, you must be strategic with your reminders – a well-timed email or text message to remind someone to fill in their life insurance details (perhaps first thing in the morning) is a simple but effective way to motivate behavior.

A closely related approach is prompted choice, in which people are not told to do something, but instead asked if they want to choose.

For example, “do you want to finish your life insurance application, or do you no longer wish to receive life insurance?”

9. Implementation intentions

By emphasizing someone’s identity or making suggestions about their future, you can call upon their implementation intentions.

For instance, saying: “As an employee who has passed their probation, you must fill in this form” is more effective than simply asking them to “Fill in this form.”

Framing questions in the future tense is also an effective strategy. For instance, “Do you plan to nominate or recognize a colleague for something they’ve done? Submit your recognition before tomorrow to get a shout-put for it in the monthly all-hands at the end of the week.”

10. Recalling past experiences, or ‘smart disclosure’

People are motivated by the things they have done in the past.

For instance, saying: “Last year, you approved all paid time off requests within two days. You currently have three paid time off requests outstanding”, will elicit a strong response.

Nudges in action

The retailer Theisen’s successfully used nudging by implementing reminders that encouraged managers to complete appraisals on time.

Using Sage People, they set alerts for managers that also showed the completion rates from other departments.

So, not only did they effectively use the reminder nudge, they also brought in social norms and smart disclosures, to brilliant effect.

How could you use nudging in your organization?

Want to learn more about what really makes your people productive? Download our report Why your workforce isn’t working to discover more.


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