Giving it a nudge may be best way to effect change

I unconsciously revert to schoolgirl behaviour in certain meetings or environments. It is usually in response to someone being particularly autocratic. I will either start whispering and sniggering or actively challenge that person.

The weird thing is I will behave this way even when I agree with what the person is saying.

Essentially, I am reacting to how something is said, rather than what is said. I have noticed other people in the same situation will react quite differently, seemingly behaving compliantly by not saying anything but from their body language, I can tell they are mentally withdrawing.

The outcome for the autocrat will be the same: non-engagement and perhaps non-compliance by both types of people.

I went to a leadership seminar recently, run by Wayne Goldsmith, where he introduced us to the ''Nudge theory''. The premise of the seminar was that leadership in the style of a one-person authoritarian is out and leadership behaviours, when successful in a team or an organisation are more subtle and can be widely implemented by many team members.

The Nudge theory was coined by economics Nobel prize winner, Richard Thaler. He defines the nudge as ''any aspect of the choice architecture that steers people's behaviour in a predictable way, without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives''.

Here are some practical examples of Nudge theory in action. The first one is a goodie, speaking as someone who lives with teenage boys. Nudge theory hit mainstream media in 2009 when Amsterdam authorities placed small fly-shaped stickers in airport urinals. ''Spillage'' was reduced by 50%. I wonder what the effect might have been if there was an authoritarian demand to aim straight, I suspect spillage might have increased by 50%.

Here's another example, when eating out, there is often one item on the menu that makes you blanch price-wise. Restaurants don't expect you to buy this item, but it does make the second most expensive item seem a lot more attractive - known as the decoy effect.

I think parents often work out how to nudge intuitively. Think about how you've teased a toddler out of a tantrum, or quietly incentivised a teenager to behave responsibly. The problems occur when we are stressed, tired or short of time and we don't think about how to approach a situation, instead we revert to demands.

My children are always surprised when I get home after a big day at work and completely lose the plot when I see them on the couch surrounded with a ring of dirty dishes.

''Oh man, calm the farm Mum'' is a phrase that is guaranteed to send me into orbit. I'm always stunned when they exhibit exactly the same behaviour the next day - any insights on how I might ''nudge'' improvements will be gladly received!

As companies and organisations, more and more we are expected to be nimble and react to change readily. This means insightful and effective leadership at multiple layers in an organisation is paramount. Leadership needs to be demonstrated at the top, absolutely, but genuine leadership should be displayed everywhere.

When I think about some of the people in our company who have quietly championed change around project management, mentoring some of us who are more stuck in our ways, it's a reminder to me that change usually occurs in a series of ripples rather than a big wave and finding the right people to drive change requires a bit more thought than going for the most senior person and having them bore people to death with Powerpoint.

If you are thinking about doing or encouraging a bit of nudging, at home or in the workplace, remember this: ''nudges are voluntary''.

They preserve freedom of choice. Knowing what is in other people's best interests can be a tricky business. Therefore, nudges must not remove alternative options from the table and be easy and cheap to avoid or opt out of. Anything that is coercive - mandates, commands, requirements, prohibitions, bans, incentives, subsidies, fees, taxes, or penalties - is not a nudge.

For the same reason, ''nudges must be transparent rather than deceptive'' (from Carsten Tams, a contributor to Forbes).

We all know people who are very fine nudgers. I need go no further than my own mother. During my teenage years, I distinctly remember her saying to me ''we trust you to be responsible and make the right decisions as to what time to come home from this party''.

Needless to say, I would be sober and home by midnight - did I really have a choice?

-Anna Campbell is managing director of AbacusBio Ltd, a Dunedin based agri-technology company.


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