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Behavioral science interventions: Diagnosing and treating ‘bad apple vs bad barrel’ problems

In my previous post, I looked into how you can start with behavioral interventions, what are the key things to consider upfront, and why having a senior-level sponsor is paramount. Today, we will continue to delve into the fascinating world of behavioral science and discuss the types of interventions currently used by some organizations.

All of us have heard about a nudge, a concept popularized by the Nobel laureate Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein in their 2008 book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. A nudge is any aspect of choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way. Making the desired behavior a default is probably the most frequently used nudge.

In the last two decades, there has been a growing enthusiasm among academics and governments for using nudges to solve society’s most pressing problems, including climate change, obesity, healthcare, crime, and waste. However, the results of such interventions have been relatively modest, which raised concerns regarding the effectiveness of nudges.

Earlier this year, two A-list behavioral scientists, Nick Chater and George Loewenstein, published an important paper on the topic. To summarize, however cheap, quick, politically uncontroversial, and, therefore, tempting the individual-level (i-frame) solutions are, they won’t solve systemic problems.

Is it the end of behavioral science? Of course not. But it is probably the end of a nudge fad. Focusing on human failings (aka cognitive biases, excessive self-interest, and so on) won’t substitute structural system-level changes, which are, from time to time, necessary for human progress. s-frame and i-frame interventions should go hand in hand, reinforcing each other to push the needle forward.

Translating this into ethics and compliance language, we again come to the well-known “bad apple vs bad barrel” argument. Workplace culture is key in shaping employee behavior; therefore, you need to focus on interventions that work on the level of systemic rules, processes, groups in which employees work, and the more extended environment. Once a structural change is in place, nudges are helpful to make sure new behaviors stick.

To illustrate the point, let’s look at the two examples of s-frame interventions:

Interventions that change the process design

Suppose you’re looking at a specific process. How easy or difficult is it to make decisions for anyone following that process? How much friction is there?

Interestingly, friction works both ways. You can reduce friction and make wanted behaviors a default or at least easier than others. This is a classic nudge. Or you can add friction to discourage unwanted behaviors and make them difficult. A well-intentioned red tape, essentially. Behavioral scientists call it sludge, the opposite of a nudge.

Sludge audits are used to scan processes for friction, which is a great starting point. Further interventions, whether a nudge or a sludge, are about creating the right choice architecture for the process to be followed.

Interventions that change the design of the environment

How is your company’s environment structured regarding the behavior you are targeting? Does it encourage or discourage it? Does it make it easy, difficult, or even impossible?

In the corporate world, we often talk about what constitutes productive teamwork. How well the team members collaborate within the team and with other departments is one of the key indicators of a positive group dynamic. On the contrary, a dynamic of competition “us-against-them” can lead to unwanted behaviors and be detrimental to an organization’s performance.

To foster collaboration, look at the physical environment where the team(s) operate. Places are loaded with cultural meaning and can dictate how to behave. Are there any architectural barriers like walls, screens, corridors, or stairs? However small, these can become symbolic borders affecting how employees work together and share information.

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There is a rich variety of other behavioral interventions, and selecting the right ones, as opposed to the most popular ones, can be challenging. The key here is to have a very good insight into the drivers of the targeted behavior. Some drivers will matter more than others – focusing on these is your optimal path to behavioral change.

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