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Give a Nudge
CTDO Magazine

Give a Nudge

Monday, September 16, 2019

Use nudge theory for effective knowledge transfer.

Behavioral science offers talent development concepts and practices that organizations can use for efforts on knowledge transfer and cultural change. One such tool is nudge theory.


The 2008 book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein, named and popularized nudge theory. Broadly, the theory focuses on the design of choices, which influence the decisions individuals make and how they behave. Specifically, the theory contends that a nudge makes it more likely that an individual will make a particular choice or behave in a certain way by altering the environment so that automatic cognitive processes are triggered to favor the desired outcome.

So, how does this play out in the workplace?

One example is new manager training and coaching. Companies find that as many people move into management jobs, they lack basic supervisory skills such as delivering feedback and delegating work. And although businesses spend about $3.4 billion annually developing leaders, according to Gallup, research shows that 50-60 percent of executives fail to achieve the strategy they were hired to execute. A new crop of coaching apps and platforms aim to fill those gaps by using artificial intelligence (AI) to nudge managers in the right behaviors.

"You can use nudges with your managers to promote content related to personality, strengths, and engagement," says Kevin Kruse, founder of LEADx.org, an AI-powered leadership development platform that trains and nudges managers.

Vibhas Ratanjee, a senior practice expert for organizational and leadership development at Gallup, explains nudge theory as applied to leadership and management development. He says that instead of defining key competencies and scripting behaviors that can be misapplied in today's unpredictable market, leaders are more likely to succeed if they're prompted to remember to use their own innate abilities.

To that end, nudge engines use algorithms that combine AI and organizational data with a set of carefully developed rules, hints, tips, and suggestions to help employees change their behavior in small, meaningful ways.

Kruse explains that managers know they should have career conversations and say thank you more often to leverage team members' strengths and boost morale, but they still don't. "Despite your training and measuring, managers continue to be managers of tasks instead of leaders of people," he says.

Kruse offers some examples of development nudges that remind managers to use their strengths. For example, "Ethan, your engagement focus area is recognition and appreciation. Try to start your team meetings with a positive shout-out to someone who deserves it." Another nudge may look like, "Camila, your developmental area from your 360 is drives for results. How are you holding your team accountable this week for their deliverables?"

"A carefully orchestrated nudge toward a breakthrough experience—a job or task that the leader has limited or no skills for, a foreign assignment, or leading a cross-functional team on a mission-critical project—pushes the leaders out of their comfort zone," writes Ratanjee in the Gallup article "Why Leadership Development Needs a Nudge."

Some experts are betting that nudge theory can help boost employee engagement, change management, and overall productivity, too. That's the goal of Humu, a start-up that Laszlo Bock, the former Google chief human resources officer, founded. The firm's Nudge Engine app uses machine learning, behavioral science, and company-specific information to pinpoint an organization's business drivers.

"Humu measures what matters inside organizations to focus attention and action on the incremental—but dramatic—changes that lead to a stronger, happier, and more productive workplace," explains Bock in a written statement.


For broader application, Humu activates every employee, not just managers. Nudges are designed to be complementary between managers, leadership, and independent contributors.

"That means every single person in your organization can focus on the change that matters, when it matters most," Bock says.

To help employees feel valued as an individual, not just a worker, Humu's nudge for a leader may recommend a manager ask specific questions like "Do you have plans you're looking forward to this weekend?" or "What do you think we should do to make the project move faster?" A corresponding nudge for the employees may suggest they share a personal anecdote in a team setting or call out a team member publicly for her contribution.

Although an organization can apply nudge theory in multiple ways, there are some best practices to keep in mind. First, nudges need to be simple, easy to understand, and delivered in moderation. In addition, the nudge engine must be designed to get smarter. Timing and advice should be personalized, specific, and relevant to daily work. According to Kruse, "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."

Indeed, failing to follow these guidelines will make nudges "feel rote and robotic," says Ratanjee. Nudges have a better chance of changing behavior "as long as the approach is tailored to the individual's strengths, allows them to learn in a format that will have the greatest impact, and prompts them to think, reflect, and act," he adds.

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

Ryann K. Ellis is an editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD). She has been covering workplace learning and performance for ATD (formerly the American Society for Training & Development) since 1995. She currently sources and authors content for TD Magazine and CTDO, as well as manages ATD's Community of Practice blogs. Contact her at [email protected] 

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