Behavioural Science for the Workplace
To say I was excited about BX2019 which exploded in London on the 5th & 6th of September is something of an understatement. Hosted by The Behavioural Insights Team, 1,200 delegates from 65 countries convened at the Queen Elizabeth II centre in Westminster, and the 2019 line up was eye-watering; David Halpern & the great and the good from BIT, Cass Sunstein, Dan Ariely, Robert Shiller, Katy Milkman, Tali Sharot, Nick Chater, Laszlo Bock… the list went on.
In addition to unparalleled networking, there was a never-ending stream of spellbinding sessions, on topics as diverse as ’Have we learnt the lessons of the replication crisis’, ‘Can sustainable diets ever be palatable’ and ‘Beyond unconscious bias training’.
It’s impossible to synthesise all the themes from these powerful two days into a single article, so I have taken the lens of the work I do at Development Beyond Learning, and have picked out 4 insights for applying behavioural science in the workplace. I hope you enjoy:
The power of social norms
Changing behaviour to change minds
Add fuel, remove friction
The importance of evaluation
1. The Power of Social Norms
From Betsy Paluck speaking about reducing violence in schools through social norms, to Cass Sunstein on the role of social interdependencies in driving change, the idea that leveraging social norms is a powerful way to influence behaviour, was everywhere.
Sunstein made the particularly striking observation that even nascent, emerging social norms have the power to change behaviour. If you tell people that a norm is emerging, they want to be on the ‘right side of history’ and they get behind it.
The implication for practitioners using behavioural science in businesses is to pay attention to established and emerging social norms if we wish to influence organisational change. At DBL, we see this all the time with our early career development programmes. Whatever behaviour new hires see (e.g. tardiness or prompt time-keeping), they emulate.
In a very real sense, actions speak louder than words, and whether your people are seen to be supporting or eschewing a new initiative, matters far more than what your carefully crafted employee engagement messaging says.
2. Changing Behaviour to Change Minds
It is a core tenant of the behavioural science movement that small changes in the environment can profoundly drive behavioural change. At this conference, I heard more about the role of cognitive dissonance in this. From adjusted HR processes leading to fairer, more inclusive practices to using incentives to nudge people to be more environmentally conscious when travelling, our desire to avoid inconsistencies between our behaviour & our beliefs is a very powerful way to nudge our behaviours, and subsequently beliefs in a desired direction.
The implication for organisational behavioural scientists is that we need wherever possible to take a holistic approach to driving change, rather than taking a piecemeal approach. Specifically, we cannot expect to create lasting behavioural shifts through development programmes or change initiatives without considering the day to day context in which our employees are operating.
So how to change organisational context effectively? Well that brings me onto:
3. Add Fuel, Remove Friction.
My favourite behavioural science principle is that if you want someone to do something, make it easy. Dan Ariely’s suggestion that to drive change, we need to add fuel and remove friction is perhaps one of the simplest and most powerful takeaways from the conference. From complex competency frameworks to arduous performance management processes, organisations are littered with well-intended systems that make it very hard for people to do what we want and need them to do.
There are a plethora of ways in which organisations can seek to add fuel and remove friction. And the uptick for doing so can be enormous. For instance, Ariely found that companies that treat their employees well outperform the S&P 500 by fully 12%. Which brings me nicely onto my final point:
4. The Importance of Evaluation
Three insights emerged on the importance of evaluation regarding L&D interventions
We need more of it
The global training industry is big business. Large organisations spend approximately $372 billion on training globally each year. Astonishingly, that represents half the sum companies spend on marketing worldwide with, according to Laszlo Bock, very little evidence that this training works. In discussion with Katy Milkman, Bock emphasised the need for scientific experimentation demonstrating that these programmes have long term behavioural impact, rather than leaving their efficacy in question.
We need more than self-report
In ‘How well do we really know ourselves and each other – and what does this mean for practitioners’, Nick Chater & Seth Stephens-Davidowitz suggested that caution is required when extrapolating from self-reported data. Chater, speaking about his book ‘The mind is flat’, suggests that the level of self-deception can be quite astonishing (e.g. half the people who say they are going to vote, do not) pointing to the fact that we simply don’t know ourselves that well due to perceptual limitations. Stephens-Davidowitz’s research in ‘Everybody Lies’ demonstrates that what people tell us and what the data shows, are often two very different things.
Given that self-report data predominates evidence collected on training programmes efficacy, the recurrent theme through the conference that we need to take what people say to others and themselves about their motives and actions needs to be taken very seriously.
We need to expect failure
A recurrent message throughout the conference was the need to accept and welcome failure. The avoidance of negative or nil-results at the heart of the replication crisis, is equally the root-cause of the prolific measurement-avoidance that L&D practitioners experience and exhibit.
In discussion with Frank Douglas, he made the opposite observation that when L&D and HR practitioners evaluate their programmes they are in effect ‘marking their own homework’. The incentive to reveal that their work isn’t working, simply isn’t there. We need to re-align incentives and encourage organisations to welcome a test-and-learn approach, and to celebrate failure, if we are really to expect evaluation to be celebrated.
This becomes even more important when one considers how common failure is. According to David Halpern, we should only expect about ¼ projects to succeed, and in organisational context specifically, Frank Douglas, Laszlo Bock and Katy Milkman all pointed to the prevalence of false positives.
If you want to learn more about the conference, you can read David Halpern’s summary here, where you can also sign up for the BIT newsletter which will announce when recordings from the conference are released for your personal viewing pleasure. And you can sign up for BX2020 Toronto here.
Hope to see you there.