Cultural transformation

A new way of generating commitment – the nudge

Patterns on the floor to encourage people not to use escalators in South Korea, a fly in the toilets used to emphasise cleanliness in Amsterdam and a thank-you letter sent to tax payers in the United States, praising them for being good citizens are all behaviours that share a common source of inspiration: the nudge.

The nudge was first popularised by Richard Thaler, an economist at the University of Chicago, and by Cass R. Sunstein, a professor at Harvard Law School. It can be described as a “soft” method for leading people to make the right decisions and display the right behaviours. The method is based on a simple observation: when people are faced with having to take a decision and then act upon it they often do not employ a system of rational and reflective thought, but rather resort to an intuitive, automatic system. In this state they can be influenced by numerous forms of cognitive bias which do not always lead them in the right direction, nor, generally speaking, to act for the right reasons. Through understanding this bias, you can “take advantage” and direct people in a non-coercive way, ultimately letting them retain the ability to choose and not allowing themselves to be directed.

The study of cognitive bias and nudge theory has opened up many new prospects for everyone working on the issues raised by change. To take a simple example: it has been proved that our fear of losing what we have already acquired is far greater than our wish to gain more. This aversion to possible loss is a factor in inertia and stifles initiative and mobility. Nudge theory therefore points out that it is better to emphasise what employees may lose if they don’t buy into their company’s change programme than stress what they stand to gain by taking part in it. Or at least try to balance the two aspects. There are numerous other applications, such as:

  • To encourage employees to take part in an event, enrolling them to take part as a default while giving them the choice of withdrawing makes it possible to overcome a status quo bias.
  • To push employees into taking part in a team effort (workshop, brainstorming session, etc.), spotlighting early contributors so as to play on social influence may well prove very efficient.

Some people will find this approach very shrewd, others will see in it a dangerous form of manipulation (I can already imagine a certain number of remarks). Be that as it may, as with all forms of influence that are not based solely on rational elements to convince people – as is the case with communication in its more global aspect, which frequently takes on the form of the “creative nudge” – the uses to which nudging could be put are indeed cause for concern.

A number of safeguards should be maintained when a company decides to get involved in nudging. These companies need to buy in to both one of the fundamentals of nudging, which is leave the final choice up to the individual, and above all, to stick to the technique’s original purpose of inspiring good decisions and good behaviours – for the good of the individual as much as for the good of the company.

It’s high time. I have great difficulty in believing that in 2016 the long-term good of a company can really come about to the detriment of its employees, especially as human resources are increasingly seen as valuable assets to be protected and even developed, just like financial assets. It is this concept of commitment and sustainable change that we have signed up to.