How nudge theory can lead to better workplace learning

Have you heard the term ‘nudge theory’ but not sure what it is or how to apply it in an L&D setting? In the first of our new series of blogs from our in-house Learning Experience team, Ross Garner explains all.

Written by Ross Garner
Published 05 April 2022
How nudge theory can lead to better workplace learning
Have you ever launched a learning platform that no one visited? Developed a workshop that made no difference to performance? Or created an e-learning course that people clicked through as fast as they could?

You’re not alone. Many HR and L&D professionals have struggled with these challenges. At Mind Tools for Business, we believe that nudge theory can help.

(Nudge: If you’re in a hurry, skip to the ‘Applications’ part of this blog.)

Nudge theory? Isn’t that about sending reminder emails?

Not exactly. In the 14 years since behavioral economist Richard Thaler and legal scholar Cass Sunstein published Nudge, the book has become a phenomenon. Governments in the UK and US have set up departments specializing in applying nudge theory to public policy; ‘nudges’ have been trialed in business, tech, healthcare and charity settings; Thaler won a Nobel prize and appeared as himself in the film adaptation of The Big Short.

But to equate a nudge with a reminder email is to be reductive. Instead, nudge theory is about understanding people’s context and helping them make better decisions.

All workplace learning is ultimately about making decisions: Should I check in with an unusually quiet team member or focus on my own to-do list? Should I flag a suspicious email to IT or open the attachment? Should I intervene when I see bullying taking place or keep my head down?

You can probably look at each of those choices and select the options that your Heads of HR, IT and Legal would pick. So why, then, do people make bad decisions at work?

The answer, of course, is that real life is complicated. People are busy, and making the right choice isn’t always easy or expedient. All sorts of factors influence the decisions we make, and these factors could be described as the ‘choice architecture’.

Want to learn more about nudge theory? Listen to our podcast!

In a recent episode, the Mind Tools L&D Podcast team, Gemma, Ross G, Ross D and Sean looked at how nudge theory could be applied to workplace learning. 

Don't have time to listen to the podcast right now? Continue reading our article below.

What does choice architecture look like?

Let’s take a common workplace example: end-of-year performance reviews.

Most organizations ask managers to complete some type of such reviews. When that time of year comes, those managers have a decision to make: How much effort should I put into these?

If there’s no incentive to complete them, no one else seems to do so, the form is difficult to find, or it’s too long and complicated, then many managers will simply choose not to bother. In this scenario – we’ll call it Workplace A – the context, or choice architecture, discourages participation in the process.

By contrast, in Workplace B, the performance review process is seen as a chance to have meaningful conversations, something that everyone takes part in, where the form is easily accessible and is simple to complete. In Workplace B, many more managers are likely to buy into the process.

Hopefully it’s easy to see that any attempt to roll out the performance review process is going to be much easier in Workplace B, than in Workplace A.

But what can we do if we work in Workplace A?

Enter the hero of our story: The choice architect.

A choice architect is someone with the capability to make changes to how decisions are presented in order to nudge people towards a better outcome.

If you work in L&D or HR, you are probably a choice architect.

What makes a ‘nudge’?

For Thaler and Sunstein, a choice architect can nudge people to make the right decision in a variety of ways:
  • iNcentives
  • Understand mappings
  • Defaults
  • Give feedback
  • Expect error
  • Structure complex choices
Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that these six approaches are an anagram for nudges, sort of. Thaler and Sunstein's book, Nudge, goes into extensive detail on what each of these means. Here, we'll explore them through examples of how these nudges can be applied to workplace learning.

Let’s look at some of the applications of nudges to workplace learning.

Application 1: Designing workplace learning

Understanding the choice architecture is where the Mind Tools Learning Experience Team start every project. We ask questions like: What is it that you want people to do? And why aren’t they doing it already?

If people are incentivized to deliver projects, make sales, or close tickets, then we’d want to acknowledge this whenever we’re taking them away from those objectives. Right up front, tell them what’s in it for them.

Similarly, we might ask what the default behavior is in any context, what feedback people get if they do something right, and what happens when they make an error.

If we understand these factors, we can start to design learning interventions that acknowledge the context within which they’ll be used.

Application 2: Curating resources

When it comes to providing resources to learners, it’s tempting to keep adding more and more. More is better, right?

Not really. Faced with 20 resources on giving feedback, how is a person supposed to pick the most useful to them?
To maximize the value of content that already exists, without creating more, we need to carefully curate the best of what's available - then help our colleagues choose the right resource for them.

Our Toolkit product offers around 2,000 resources focused on management and personal effectiveness challenges. That’s a lot. We need to help our users select the best resources for them by structuring complex choices: spotlighting trends, grouping related content, offering filters, creating playlists, and making thoughtful decisions about where and when content should be added – or removed.

What can you do to structure how your learning resources are presented?

Application 3: Promoting learning platforms

While we’re on the topic of platforms, Nudge also offers some strategies to help you drive usage. You could make your platform the default home page for people. Or, if we assume that many people will forget your platform exists, fail to bookmark it, or lose the link, then we can expect these errors and design nudges that compensate for them. In this context, a nudge might be a weekly email of top content, prominent links on your intranet, or links to specific resources in the context where they’ll be used.

If you have many different platforms available, it can be difficult for people to remember what each is for. You can help them out by mapping that decision for them. By which, I mean make it clear that one is for mandatory training, another is for chat, and a third is for course booking, etc.

Application 4: The use of performance support

Finally, how can you create learning content that helps people in the moment? A process diagram or list of instructions helps structure complex choices. A checklist expects errors, like forgetting a step.

These are often far more useful than a lengthy course, because people don’t need to remember anything other than where to find support.

About the author

Ross Garner

Ross Garner

Head of Learning Experience
Ross has been working in L&D for nine years and heads up the learning experience team at Mind Tools for Business. In 2019 he completed a Masters in Digital Education and was named Learning Technologies’ Learning Designer of the Year. He is also one of the hosts of the Mind Tools L&D Podcast.

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