Forget Carrot Or Stick – Try Nudging



In any organisation there is always a variety of tools available to managers to influence staff towards desired behaviour. This has traditionally been seen as a choice between two general approaches: incentives and coercion, or, the carrot or stick approach.



Now there is a new alternative

This third method utilises the natural inertia of most people when confronted with the choice of accepting the status quo or changing things. Generally they accept the status quo unless the difference between the two in terms of their perception of their own welfare is very large.


By making the desired state of affairs the norm, but allowing employees the freedom to change this if individually they wish, organisations can gain the benefits of the majority of the workforce behaving in the easy ‘default’ way.  While at the same time, through providing choice, they avoid the resentment and active opposition of the few who summon the energy to choose an alternative.


Interestingly this approach, known as ‘choice architecture’, or more colloquially as ‘nudging’, is credited to an economist working at Schipol International Airport in Amsterdam who reduced ‘spillage’ by men in the airport’s urinals by having a picture of a black housefly etched onto the bowl. Spillage declined by 80% as most men are unable to resist aiming at the image, located in the centre of the bowl. Thus he achieved his objective without hectoring passengers with notices or fines or expensive material incentives.


A weightier concrete example of this kind of approach, which also illustrates the kind of situation where it is most appropriate, was the Turner Review’s recommendations on reform of the pensions system for the government. It recommended that the most cost-effective method for providing for old age was for people to save for their own retirement by enrolling in a government-sponsored scheme. In order to realise the economies of scale which would make this cost-effective, however, a large portion of the population would have to be involved. To avoid making this compulsory he recommended simply enrolling workers in the scheme automatically while leaving them the option to opt out if they wished.


Is nudging the right option for your desired behaviour change?

To answer this question you need to consider whether:

   The behaviour requires the participation of most, but not all, of the organisation to be effective

   If a significant number of people opt out, it will render the change invalid

This approach offers advantages over more traditional approaches. For examples dictates (stick) might seem petty to some, or cash incentives (carrot) crude and insensitive to others.


Considering these factors should give you an idea of whether choice architecture might be suitable for enabling a change of behaviour in your organisation.


with thanks to Jem Smith, BA., Msc.


Other Resources

More on using  positive psychology techniques to encourage change at work can be found in Sarah’s book Positive Psychology at Work.

Appreciating Change Can Help

Appreciating Change is skilled and experienced at supporting leaders in working in this challenging, exciting and productive way with their organizations. Find out more by looking at how we help with Leadership and Culture change.

For further information on these alternative approaches to change, please contact us or phone 07973 782 715