Big Behavior Shifts Start with Small Nudges

Regardless of role, work can suck sometimes. Laszlo Bock, CEO and Co-Founder of Humu, a company that aims to make work better by encouraging people towards better habits and unlocking their potential, is focused on changing that. He’s dedicated the last decade of his career to bridging the gap between what we wish work was and what it actually is. In this episode of the Creative Confidence Podcast, he shares insights and tips on how we can make work better by sending small behavioral nudges to cultivate more empathy, equity, and resilience in the office.



Small Shifts, Big Outcomes

According to Laszlo, the disconnect at work comes down to leadership training and some built-in human shortcomings. Managerial training has traditionally focused on coaching individual employees. “That’s the wrong unit of analysis, you actually need to look at the team,” says Laszlo. When managers aren’t prepared to develop a strong, healthy team it can have serious consequences for organizations and individuals. Under bad management employees suffer emotionally and their performance declines. Even worse, says Laszlo, “is that performance hit and lack of happiness persist.” Laszlo has seen the impact of a bad manager staying with individuals through their next two positions, translating to 2-5 years of sub-optimal performance.

This isn’t intentional. Managers and team members aren’t trying to create negative environments, most people are trying to do their best. “We just get it wrong because our instincts aren’t always correct,” says Laszlo. Rather than continuing to rely on hunches, Laszlo wanted to find a smarter way to improve the quality of work life.

At Humu, Laszlo and others have combined data analytics, machine learning, and insights about human emotions and motivations into a system of auto-generated “nudges” that are designed to shift behaviors at the individual and collective level simultaneously. Nudges aren’t training and they are more than a notification, “what we actually want to do is identify small behaviors that people can change in real time, day to day, and those things add up to transformation,” says Laszlo.


“If you want people to behave differently, the environment needs to change.”
Laszlo Bock


Nudges work when they are sent to everyone, not just an individual. As Laszlo puts it, “if you want people to behave differently, the environment needs to change.” The key is to make the nudge salient, meaning that it applies to that person specifically and the moment they’re in, and complementary, meaning that the nudge an individual gets is reinforced by a related nudge sent to someone else.

Though small, nudges are proving to have an outsized impact on productivity and workplace happiness. Humu recently worked with a food services company that was experiencing high turnover rates with their staff. After digging into the underlying reasons for the low retention rate, they found that employees felt managers were being unfair when it came to scheduling. It came down to an issue many teams face—trust and transparency.

To remedy the issue, nudges went out to managers encouraging them to explain scheduling decisions before posting the upcoming shifts while employees simultaneously received nudges to be inquisitive with management about how decisions were being made. After two months of nudging behaviors for increased transparency and openness, retention improved by 5 percentage points. Laszlo estimated that “each percentage point is worth $2 to $10M in profit.”


The Business Case for Empathy

This begs the question, how can leaders know what behaviors to nudge or where to even begin? Without all the technology that Humu has put into nudges, Laszlo says there’s a really easy place to begin—empathy. It turns out that empathy is a prerequisite for driving productivity and it will also increase the overall wellbeing of the team.


“Empathy is a prerequisite for driving productivity.”
Laszlo Bock


Laszlo says that when you look at human performance, “there’s a baseline level of effort people need to put out, and then there’s something called discretionary effort.” Discretionary effort is what employees put in to go above and beyond the required task . When employees exercise more of their discretionary effort, you get truly exceptional output, but the trick is motivating them to do so.

Skeptical about the relationship between empathy and productivity? It turns out that simply checking in with people to see how they’re doing can drive performance significantly. When Humu was called in to work with a financial services company, the productivity in their call centers was average. A call center, as you can imagine, can be very rigid and regimented. Employees felt a lack of autonomy and freedom which was impacting their desire to kick into that reserve of discretionary effort.

Nudges were sent to employees to rethink their roles and focus on aspects that they enjoyed over those they didn’t. Meanwhile, managers received nudges to ask people how they were doing such as, “how are you feeling” or “how can I be helpful.” Employees began to feel better about their jobs and felt cared for by management. Performance spiked to a level previously unseen for the company. “So, that’s where you start,” says Laszlo, “if you’re a leader it’s as simple as checking in, asking people what you can do, and building from there.”


Quick Tips for Making Work More Human

Even though business stakes feel high and the bottom line isn’t going anywhere, if you focus on productivity alone people will burn out and leave. The more sustainable approach is to address core human needs and emotions—to encourage more empathy, equity, and resilience. For Laszlo this means, “forgetting productivity entirely and focusing on the human being.”

Here are some options for getting started.

1. Assume Good

It’s important to remember that everyone, for the most part, really is trying to do the best they can. It’s about cultivating an assumption of good, “if you can start from there, you can understand their perspective, and you can work better with them,” says Laszlo.

2. Ditch Your Agenda

“As a leader, if you ask and understand what others need they’ll be more open to what you need,” according to Laszlo. So before diving into the topics you need to cover, ask people what’s on their mind first. People may come into the room with all sorts of questions and concerns that aren’t on your agenda, but that are important to address.

3. Plan for Inclusion

In addition to checking in with the team at the beginning of meetings, you also need to build a habit of inviting people to participate. He suggests designating someone in the meeting to be aware of whether or not people are participating and asking questions of the quieter voices to bring their perspectives into the conversation.

4. Do for Others

Send a note, grab an extra glass of water for someone as you walk into a meeting, make time to help a co-worker plan or set-up for a big presentation. Small acts of kindness build resilience across the team. As Laszlo puts it, “resilience is another form of strength, and one of the ways you feel stronger is by knowing you made somebody else better and stronger.” These actions not only lift others but can buoy you when you feel down. This is how resilient teams weather the storm together.


Ask and Act

When it comes to thinking about how you can nudge your team towards new behaviors, remember it starts with the human and with the heart. If you’re going to get insight from your team into how you can improve things, Laszlo has one piece of advice for you, “don’t ask how to make things better unless you’re actually going to take concerted action to make things better.” Asking without following up will cause people to pull away even more, making things worse.

Once you choose to act, be transparent about the changes you’re making, why you’re making them, and then follow up later on to see how things are shifting or not as a result of your decisions. Also, it’s important to allow people to opt out of behavioral suggestions. You don’t want anyone to feel manipulated or controlled, which will work against you in the long run. Approaching change this way makes people “more likely to improve and be more honest and start getting better,” says Laszlo. Try it today with your team and watch as small shifts build, accumulate, and grow to major transformations over time.

Learn an accessible and actionable process to cultivate the ideal conditions for your team to work creatively and innovate, no matter your role or industry, with our Collaborative Leadership Certificate.

Starting Soon

Business Innovation - IDEO U Certificate
Human-Centered Strategy Certificate