You know leadership is the critical success factor in your organization. Gallup research indicates that 70 percent of the variance in employee engagement is tied to the manager. And engagement is tied to higher levels of discretionary effort—which leads to higher levels of performance—as well as higher levels of retention. In fact, CEOs list leadership development as their top concern, right after attracting and retaining talent, according to the Conference Board’s C-Suite Challenge 2019 report.
So each year you invest thousands of dollars in training and tactics to turn managers into great leaders. You provide personality and communication assessments, develop strengths profiles, offer workshops and online learning catalogs and maybe even some mentoring. And let’s not forget about annual engagement surveys and multi-rater 360-feedback surveys.
And what happens? What changes?
Overall, your organization’s employee engagement scores don’t budge; your manager effectiveness scores don’t increase. (You are measuring manager effectiveness, aren’t you?) Your hard-charging, ambitious, get-it-done managers continue with their old ways. Because changing behaviors is hard (as we all realize every January 31 as we contemplate the gym membership we don’t use and the rotting healthy vegetables in the back of our refrigerator).
Your managers know they should use a coaching style with their team members, hold career conversations, say “thank you” more often, leverage everyone’s strengths. Yet they don’t. Despite your training and measuring, managers continue to be managers of tasks instead of leaders of people.
It’s been called the “knowing-doing gap”—the chasm between what we know and what we actually apply on the job. The solution to fixing this behavior gap isn’t more training or measuring; it’s a simple action called a behavioral nudge.
A nudge is simply an indirect suggestion or subtle reminder intended to influence behavior. The term “nudge” was defined and popularized by two professors of economics, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, in their 2009 book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness.
Practically speaking, nudges can take the form of a sign posted in a public place, a digital message reminder, or even just in the design of a process or placement of objects that are intended to result in positive choices. (For instance, move fruit cups to the front of the buffet line and fries farther back, and people will eat more fruit.)
You can use nudges with your managers to promote content related to personality, strengths, and engagement. Imagine your busy employee receiving a timely text message on their way into a meeting:
- “Kim, your high dominance personality gives you great self-confidence. Make sure to temper that with modesty or you may be viewed by some as arrogant.”
- “Ethan, your engagement focus area is Recognition & Appreciation. Try to start your team meetings with a positive shout-out to someone who deserves it.”
- “Camila, your developmental area from your 360 is Drives for Results. How are you holding your team accountable this week for their deliverables?”
A key point: nudges are effective when they are hyper-personalized. A generic nudge such as “Don’t forget to thank your team members today” will be ineffective because it will be viewed as more training. They key to effective nudges is to make them as personal and relevant as possible.
Leadership is about behaviors, and even highly motivated managers fall back into old habits and become task-focused in the face of too much stress and too much to do. More training is rarely the answer. We should perhaps spend less time and money on new management training programs and a bit more on the application of the knowledge they already have. With today’s digital technologies—from email to instant messaging to audio messages—it’s easier than ever for leadership development professionals to add behavioral nudge campaigns to their toolbox.
Want to learn more? Join me July 25 for the webcast Leadership Development and Behavioral Nudges: Beat the Knowing Doing Gap to Increase Employee Engagement.