Does HR and L&D need a good ‘nudge’?

Richard Thaler won the Noble prize in economics for his work on ‘nudge theory’ this week. Is nudge theory something we should be applying in HR and L&D? Maybe you already are?

Nudge theory involves affecting a person’s behaviour and choices based on subtle and indirect prompts rather than through instructions or the threat of punishment. It is a change-management tool that minimises resistance and confrontation and suggests humans are more easily affected by peer pressure than logical thought.

Here are some examples of nudges:

  • Opt out instead of opt in schemes for pensions and organ donation.
  • Babies’ faces have been painted on shop shutters in areas of South-East London as people are less likely to damage something if it has a baby’s face on it.
  • The sign on the motorway roadworks that says ‘My Mummy works here’ encourages drivers to slow down.
  • Reducing the number of lifts in new buildings to encourage people (that can) to take the stairs.
  • The fly etched on the bottom of the urinal that helps to focus the user’s aim.

Entertaining examples of the use of nudge theory can be found on

Examples that are more relevant to the HR world include:

  • Having ‘email free days’ in the office which result in people getting up from their seat and going to speak to colleagues.
  • Downsized packets of paper for printers and photocopiers, thereby increasing the number of times one must fill the machine. With the aim being that people use less paper.
  • Bike-to-work, making healthy food more accessible than unhealthy food, and activity days can all help affect employee well-being.
  • Sharing information about the cost of not following Health and Safety procedure and how that cost must be recouped by the organisation can encourage compliance.

As HR professionals, I’m sure we all agree that positive reinforcement is the way to affect behavioural change for the better. I think nudges can give us a ‘quick-win’ on some key issues and help us steer the ship away from those situations where people entrench themselves into arbitrary disagreement.

I’d love to hear about any examples of nudges in your organisations. Likewise, please share any behaviours you’d like to see changed and maybe the Community can suggest the nudge.


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  • Yeah the piano escalator got me humming the tune that Tom Hanks plays in that scene from 'Big'. 

    I'm really pleased that you've highlighted motivation. Harnessing intrinstic motivation is crucial and nudges provide a little push in the right direction for being able to foster more internal motivators rather than relying on external factors.

    A good example of the kind of nudges we use on the Level 5 Online Programme is when a participant asks me if their assignment is on the right track prior to submission. I don't check their drafts (it's actually against CIPD protocol for me to feed back on drafts), instead I ask the participant to tell me how they have met the assessment criteria.

    What I'm aiming to do is get the participant to compare what they have done with the criteria. The idea is that this will empower them to assess their own work and develop a sense of competence, rather than their motivation to improve coming from an external source: my feedback. 

    In our blended workshops, there are plenty of tried and tested approaches that we could say are nudges of sorts. Take the seating arrangements in a classroom: setting up the chairs in a U shape or in small groups can encourage much more interaction than having them set up in rows as in a theatre.

    Theories about motivation are fascinating and useful for L&D professionals. I'll be chewing over the idea of nudges for a while. After that I'll spend some time re-evaluating my choice of public park as I'm definitely missing out.

    • Hi Gary,  I love this concept and it really does provoke thought around how we could harness this so much better in our L&D practice. One of the ideas is around 'if you want to people to do something then make it easy' - really resonates with me as in L&D we are definitely guilty of over complicating our systems and delivery models at times!

      I just came across this article which also has a link out to a TED radio hour with Richard Thaler so well worth worth a look :)

      How To Improve Student Outcomes By Adopting Nudges
      Want to know how to help students improve their outcomes by Adopting Nudges? Check how Adopting Nudges helps students improve their outcomes.
  • Thanks for sharing Gary - it really is a fascinating subject and one that is really important in an online Community setting - close to my heart.

    LOVE the escalator vs piano is a stoke of genius.

    The governments efforts around Nudge Theory can be seen in many many parks across the country

    Lots of this is rooted in motivation and it's always worth checking out Self-Determination Theory as a key to unlocking action.

    As a training provider Gary, what sort of nudges can we give to learners to help them along their learning adventure?

    The rise of the adult playground
    Glossy exercise machines are cropping up in parks. It's the latest bit of government "nudge theory", writes Sophie Robehmed.
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