WORKPLACE / DEC. 13, 2014
version 2, draft 2

How to Use Nudge Theory With Your Boss

Have you ever been nudged? In all likelihood, the answer is yes - even if you don’t know it!

Nudge theory is a stream of behavioural science which is widely used in everything from the design of government policy, to the way that supermarkets sell you branded baked beans. By subtly influencing decisions, organisations, businesses and government departments can ’nudge’ you towards one thing or another - but the good news is that you can use this as an individual when trying to influence your boss and colleagues, too.

The theory, credited to American academics Richard H Thaler and Cass R Sunstein, was popularised in the 2008 book, ’Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness’, although similar ideas had been around since the 1970s. It assumes that human behaviour is irrational - we make decisions based on a desire to fit into social norms, laziness, apathy, emotional connections and inertia - rather than a razor sharp and logical weighing up of options.

Whilst this might sound harsh, it is why newsagent stores offer you a giant bar of chocolate when you pay, and how the UK government hope to improve pension sign-ups by auto-enrolment. Nudge theory is all around you - why not harness it for your benefit too?

Number One - Think about ’Add on Sales’

Every wondered why you go into a shop to buy a newspaper and come out with a paper, a bottle of water and a giant chocolate bar? Once you have committed to one purchase, you are far more likely to stretch to further purchases. Retailers of all types know this and use it by selling you insurance with your new washing machine, or a laptop cover with your new laptop. In many cases the margin on the major purchase is negligible, and the company are actually reliant on you making the add-on buys to make enough money.

So use this same idea in work. If you’re after something from your boss, then wait until he has just agreed to another request. Perhaps start with something small and more obviously acceptable, before moving onto the bigger or more controversial questions. You are far more likely to get a positive response. Although don’t blame me if that fifteen percent pay rise still gets turned down.

Number Two - Leverage ’Status Quo Bias’

This is a well known way to get things done. People are far more likely to make the easiest choice. Inertia makes things happen. Or not - depending on how you ask the question.

So with your boss - if you are tired of asking if you can or should do something, and getting no answer back, then rephrase it to say that you will be going ahead with your proposed course, unless you hear to the contrary. Then the status quo bias works for you instead of against you, and your email should not get dropped to the bottom of the pile.

I even heard of one company who went so far as to say that any expenditure requests not refused within 24 hours should be assumed to be accepted - which would have surely sharpened the focus of the managers in change of the purse strings.

Number Three - Make it a limited edition

Finally, use the scarcity of resource to get things done. Have you ever wondered why special offers in stores are always ’limited edition’, or ’When it’s gone it’s gone’? This impression of urgency makes people far more likely to buy things, with far less time to think about the decision.

Use this in your favour with your boss. If you have something you need to get done, but need the go ahead, use the scarcity of your time to influence the decision - saying ’I can get this done, but only if I start by tomorrow morning’, makes the idea seem more appealing and could nudge your boss in the right way.

Although I have only used a few ideas of how nudge theory could be applied by individuals, it is an extremely useful approach when thinking about influencing decisions in work and at home. Simply by thinking about how you phrase your questions, or how you time your conversations, you put yourself in a far better position to get what you want - and with no investment other than a little thought, it is surely something that is worth a try.

Image: Nudge via Flickr

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