Nudging leaders

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Written by Mario Weick, Becky Stephens and Hamdi Hamzah on 3 August 2022 in Features
Features

Mario Weick, Becky Stephens and Hamdi Hamzah explore using behavioural science to make leadership training stick

The value of leadership training can lead to contentious debates. Despite the massive annual spending amounting to more than USD350 billion globally, critics argue that leadership training “fails” as people go back to their old ways, and consider it the “least valued investment to develop leaders". This criticism stems from leaders’ inability to apply what was learnt from training in the workplace – a phenomenon known as the “transfer problem".
 
Is leadership training pointless then? As it turns out, the answer depends on one key ingredient: practice. In an authoritative meta-analysis of 335 leadership training evaluation studies, leadership training was almost certainly effective when it involved practice. Yet, the same data shows about one in four leadership courses does not have an element of practice. Without practice, training risks having very minimal or no effect on the transfer of skills. 
 
Nudges, one of many tools in behavioural science, can be used to encourage practice and overcome the “transfer problem.” 
 
How practice impacts performance
Professional musicians and athletes who undergo rigorous training spend hours practising drills, honing their techniques, and using data to optimise their performance. The end result: the ability to perform at the highest level in highly pressured situations. We recognise the importance of practice in sports and the arts to build habits and muscle memory but find it less obvious to apply the same principles to leadership skills development.
 
In reality, many of the qualities of high-performing leaders, such as excellent intrapersonal skills, such as building resilience and interpersonal skills like effective communication require similar practice. Through practice, familiarity with an action or thought is established to create new habits over time. The aim of leadership training is to help leaders develop habits so behaviours can be executed naturally and effortlessly. Thus, practice is the bridge between learning and developing new behaviours at work.
Empirical research suggests that exposing leaders to nudges can be an effective way to change leaders’ behaviours
 
The power of nudges
The struggle with practice is not only remembering to practise, but also overcoming psychological barriers that reduce the likelihood of practising. These barriers include being distracted or preferring to act on convenient behaviours. 
 
Nudges, as proposed by Thaler and Sunstein, are a powerful tool to overcome these barriers by reducing the mental effort required to instigate a behaviour that has yet to become a habit. Nudges are small interventions that sway people in an intended direction without restricting their freedom of choice. An example of a nudge is SMS text reminders to reduce missed doctor appointments. 
 
Empirical research suggests that exposing leaders to nudges can be an effective way to change leaders’ behaviours, rendering nudges a timely addition to leadership training.
One solution is to integrate with leaders’ online calendars to spot the optimal time to deliver personalised nudges to practise micro-skills, which are defined as tiny, actionable skills that make up leadership competencies. The solution transforms business meetings into training grounds where leadership behaviours are turned into habits. 
 
To illustrate, a marketing manager can receive a nudge that encourages her to practise “active listening” in an upcoming “one-to-one” meeting with a team member. The nudge encourages her to focus on her team member and be present. 
 
5 tips to make a good nudge
Not all nudges are equally effective. When developing nudges, it is important to bear in mind the following principles based on the EAST framework and insights from multiple studies:
 
1. Make it simple. The nudge should be concise and clear. The behaviours should also be actionable, use micro-skills where leadership skills are broken down into small, manageable actions that make practising easier. 
2. Make it attractive. Nudges should be engaging and able to attract a leader’s attention. Personalising them based on a leader’s training goals makes them attractive. Furthermore, a meta-analysis has shown that incentivisation can also be effective in encouraging behaviour change and increasing the appeal of a nudge.
3. Embed a social component. Social norming messages or commitments can help sway leaders to practise specific behaviours. Include information on what other managers are doing to encourage leaders to practise. As humans are inherently social beings, knowing that our peers, competitors, or idols exhibit certain behaviours can motivate action.
4. Find the perfect time. Timing is everything when delivering nudges. Tailoring nudges to specific meetings ensures that nudges are delivered in crucial moments when leaders can practise certain skills. Viewed in this way, a leader’s hectic schedule may increase the number of opportunities to practise.
5. Change the default environment. According to a recent meta-analysis, the most effective nudges are those that change the default environment to one that encourages the desired behaviour. Similar results were reported from two Nudge Units in the United States. Essentially, leaders would find it more convenient to change their behaviour when the environment requires this behaviour to be present in the first place. Examples include having committee members assigned to the role of devil’s advocate to encourage divergent thinking or asking managers to start promotion meetings from the position that ‘all are ready now’ to reduce bias in performance evaluations.
 
The era of “knowledge application”
Nudges are one of many tools in behavioural science that can help leaders apply the skills they have learnt at work  and overcome the “transfer problem.” Nudges have garnered a lot of attention over the past decade, but they were mainly applied in the public health, finance and environmental domains, and used to influence employees rather than change the behaviour of leaders (e.g., The Behaviour Business or Nudge Management). So much effort has been put into creating learning content on how to develop leadership skills; we should now work on finding other ways to put this into practice and shift our focus from knowledge consumption to knowledge application. 
 
Mario Weick is a Professor of Psychology at Durham University, Becky Stephens is the co-founder of Multiplii Limited and Hamdi Hamzah is a Research Assistant at Durham University.

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