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Workplace nudging
Bobby Melloy headshot

Bobby Melloy

Regional Director, People Science, Culture Amp

Perhaps you've heard the term "nudge" or "workplace nudge" come up in a conversation about how to influence behavior at work recently. Nudges can help people make better decisions more quickly, which creates positive change faster.  

In this article, we're exploring the definition of a nudge, some common examples of nudges at work, avoiding pitfalls and answering questions about nudging at work, and how Culture Amp can help you effectively use nudges to create positive workplace change.

What is a nudge?

A nudge, like a reminder, is an aid or signal that provides information to help people make good decisions. To stay efficient, our brains rely on these mental shortcuts to help us make fast decisions with little information. 

Although the term may be new, the concept of nudging is not. Nudges are aids we experience all the time without thinking much about them. Some nudges are designed to initiate new behaviors, such as reminders and alerts used to spur action. Other nudges can be designed to shape existing behaviors, like checklists, used to provide information or guide thinking. Since nudges are generally inexpensive and can boost employee productivity and wellbeing, organizations are rapidly embracing nudge research to guide people to make better decisions.

What are some examples of nudges at work?

Effectively implemented nudges have been successfully used in the workplace to accomplish many things. Here are four examples.

  1. Help invest for retirement
    Organizations auto-enroll employees in default investment funds known to perform well while giving them the option to opt out (rather than requiring them to do the initial work of opting in).
  2. Increase manager effectiveness
    Tap into "micro-learning" to help your managers develop the skills they need to succeed in the modern workplace. Tools like Skills Coach offer bite-sized, highly actionable daily lessons on topics like coaching, feedback, 1-on-1s, strategic thinking, and more.
  3. Reduce workplace littering
    A Chinese manufacturing plant reduced floor waste by placing coin decals on the floor that the local culture perceived as lucky. Unwilling to "disrespect" the luck brought by the coins on the floor, employees used the trash cans more often and reduced floor waste by 20%.
  4. Spur employee survey participation and action 
    Culture Amp embeds principles of motivation science into all points of the employee feedback journey. This includes pre-survey and post-survey communications, results reporting, and action planning. For example, platform administrators can notify all managers when their reports are ready to be viewed. Those managers who have not opened their results reports within one week of being notified are automatically reminded of their report access.

What should I watch out for when using nudges?

Though nudges can be simple to implement, they may prove ineffective or backfire under certain conditions. When crafting specific nudges, two general principles should guide their creation:

1. Nudges should guide helpful behaviors

2. Nudges should protect freedom of choice

It is important to remember that nudges should not incentivize or punish behavior, as this can ultimately restrict freedom of choice. Also, consider any unintended side-effects they may have on employee behavior.

For example, publicly displaying work performance (e.g., employee sales progress) may nudge competitive spirit to increase effort but could foster unwanted behaviors from low-performing employees who cannot keep up.

How to answer common questions about nudges at work

If you're thinking of rolling out a deliberate nudging strategy, some people may be curious about what that will mean. Here are some common questions about nudges at work and how you might answer them.

  1. "Are nudges manipulative?"
    Nudges are only considered manipulative if designed as overly suggestive, emotionally evocative, or disguised (i.e., described as being created for other reasons). It is essential to convey that nudges are used as guideposts for navigating toward good decisions, helping get us to our "preferred destinations." Interventions designed to push people towards behaviors they ultimately do not want or disagree with would not be considered nudges.
  2. "How do I make sure nudges work?"
    Consider the problem and the motivations behind behavior by asking, "Why are employees already behaving in this way?" Nudges are most effective when tailored to these motivations. For example, signs used to direct employees toward a recycling bin may be more effective when people are already on their way to dispose of their bottles, but signs may not be effective at getting them up in the first place. In other words, nudges used to shape behavior may not effectively create behavior, and vice versa.
  3. "Won't nudges annoy my employees?"
    Nudges are, by definition, designed to be helpful, but they could frustrate employees if not implemented properly. If you nudge employees to do something, make sure they are enabled to do it. For example, sending reminders for employees to complete surveys may cause frustration if employees do not have the access required (e.g., credentials, hardware). Nudges may also cause frustration if they guide employees toward goals they do not want or are too hard to achieve.
  4. "Are nudges too subtle to work?"
    Some can be subtle, but some are not, like reminders, warnings, and labels. Nudges are known to work even when people are told about them but keep in mind that employees can differ in their receptiveness to nudges. Think about how nudges might be construed differently by region or culture. For example, lucky coin decals are stuck on the floor to deter littering work because they have cultural meaning in China, but the same decals may not be meaningful in other countries.

Using nudges to improve the employee feedback process

Nudges are built into Culture Amp's platform to support organizations in collecting, understanding, and acting on employee feedback. Here are some examples:

Collecting data

Culture Amp includes email templates specifically designed for communicating information in a way that primes employees to participate. To do this, the templates motivate the survey-taking experience early by making it clear and accessible, with messaging including:

  • What is an engagement survey?
  • Expected timelines
  • Confidentiality of response
  • Reminders to participate

Understanding data

Engagement benchmarks

All engagement survey reports provide benchmark values for overall engagement and each of our drivers. Benchmarking allows organizations to compare themselves to relevant peers and their past performance. Juxtaposing scores helps managers understand in real-time where their teams are lagging so managers can motivate direct reports to take action on something they might have otherwise ignored.

Focus Agent

One of the biggest roadblocks to action is not knowing where to start. So embedded within all Culture Amp survey analytics is our automated Focus Agent, which considers key feedback metrics to help managers easily identify where to invest their time and resources. This nudge is a great example of sending a signal to make a good decision quickly.

Acting on data

Once your priorities have been identified, Culture Amp leverages our community's Collective Intelligence to make solution ideation easy! The platform nudges users toward actions already proven to improve cultures in similar organizations. These examples help inspire managers' creativity in designing programs and initiatives for their workplace.

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