Nudge, Nudge, Wink, Wink
The government’s so called ‘nudge unit’ (sorry, the Cabinet Office Behavioural Insights Team) has been much in the news of late as it moves from being a shadowy government department to a privatised joint venture. Media debate has been centred on whether their ideas have any effect (see here) and whether there are ethical issues with this kind of suggestion/coercion (delete depending on your own viewpoint).
Based on the 2008 book ‘Nudge’ by Thaler and Sunstein, the Prime Minister has taken a keen interest in whether there are new ways of changing citizen’s behaviour. The use of psychology away from the therapeutic couch is, of course, nothing new. The advertising industry has been using it for years and, one would hope, skilled educators and trainers have also employed a number of proven psychological techniques over the years. But still the debate rages about the ethics involved.
In some respects, this is all relative to the power relationship. So, when these techniques are used in Job Centres – where the powerless (jobseekers) are divided into control groups and different techniques used, we find – perhaps unsurprisingly - that those experiencing a less bureaucratic approach and a more person centred one find work more quickly. Although, with the reports on under employment reaching a new high, (see here) there must be some doubt about whether these individuals are making the most positive future career choices or just taking a job - any job - in order to avoid more exposure to psychometric tests!
The issue here is the perception of manipulation – the powerful state bureaucracy using the unemployed as guinea pigs in some national laboratory. I appreciate the anxieties, but I’m not sure that I entirely accept the thin end of the wedge argument or the fact that trying different methods as a route to determining the most appropriate interventions is necessarily a bad thing.
In other areas, where the responses and perceptions are not bound into an uneven power relationship such as that which inevitably exists in the benefits system, there seems to be much less concern. When trying to encourage people to insulate their lofts, the nudge unit found out that the main barrier to taking positive action to reduce wasted energy and heating bills was not a resistance to the idea or even a swivel eyed antipathy to concerns about global warming. It was the simple issue that householders couldn’t face clearing out the years of accumulated junk which had somehow found its way under the eaves. When the government teamed up with B&Q to offer loft clearance services, insulation take up went through the roof (so to speak).
There are a number of insights for trainers here. Identifying barriers to behaviour change and addressing those barriers seems eminently sensible. Whether the change in behaviour we are seeking is hampered by team culture, competing priorities or confused messages from elsewhere, as trainers we need to ensure that we are looking at the environment in which our participants work as a whole. We’ve all been in training sessions where the plaintive cry comes back to us: “I can see the sense in what you propose, but try telling that to my boss/colleagues/customers”. If we are about enabling people to do things differently and do different things, as we should be, then we need to address all the barriers not just the ones about knowledge and skills.
There is also a lesson in the concern about ethics and the issues of power. When training people who feel under threat or just under pressure, our well-meaning suggestions may well face a disproportionately negative response. The powerless have a habit of being curmudgeonly, maybe with justification.
The other issue around nudge-type interventions is that it is only effective in very specific situations. The loft insulation example is one in which people were generally wanting to do something about the environment and their household bills, but faced a barrier – which when removed resulted in them happily taking the path they already wanted to head down. Where there is no existing desire to move in a particular direction, these softly, softly approaches are much less successful and may be counter-productive. In other words, you need to convince people through hearts and minds type activities – whether in the training room or in the wider organisational culture – to want to do something. Thereafter your actions to make it easier, to remind people of what they wanted all along and ensuring it is a natural course of action will deliver results. We still need to explain, inspire, enthuse, educate and motivate before a nudge and wink will deliver real behaviour change.
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Robin Hoyle is a writer and consultant working with organisations large and small to implement change through people development. He has a long track record of strategic L&D leadership and materials development and design - working for a wide range of organisations in private, public and voluntary sectors in the UK and throughout the world...