2 min read

How to use nudges in leadership development

July 5, 2022


We are huge believers in the power of the nudge to support behavior change. First made popular by the bestselling book by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, nudging is the idea that by careful design of a “choice architecture” we can affect behavior. At work, the choice architecture includes the technology we use.

At Saberr we leverage choice architecture when we design features for our leadership and team development platform. Specifically to encourage leaders and teams into good habits and routines. There is a strong evidence base that practicing these routines and habits enhances team performance but, just like eating healthily or exercising regularly, it’s sometimes hard to make the right choices without help… a nudge in the right direction.

But nudges must be seen in their broader context.

Two leading behavioral scientists and academic advisers to the UK’s behavioral insight group, Nick Chater and George Loewenstein, recently published an academic working paper highlighting how important the broader context is for change. 

They distinguish two types of challenge: 

  • If individuals are making simple choices, behavioral science and nudges might be an excellent solution. 
  • If the real problem is not individual but systemic, then the impact of nudges will be much more limited. 

As an example. Let’s take the problem of the climate emergency. The thought that behavioral nudges will solve that problem is fanciful. Nudges to encourage you to install a smart meter or reformatting your energy bill to encourage you to save costs can have an effect. But it has to be seen in the light of a range of measures including carbon taxes and incentives. 

We believe the same is true for how technology and nudges can play a role in changing behavior and culture in an organization. On their own they will likely have some impact. But as part of a coherent range of measures you are likely to see more significant change. 

How might this look like if we are thinking about developing our leaders and teams? 

First, it means that the organization has to consider systemic factors and be intentional about the change it hopes to see. This includes defining aspects of it’s culture in terms of how it expects people to lead and the values and behaviors it would like to encourage. 

Second, it means carefully considering how to motivate and engage people about the changes in behaviors, attitudes, routines and habits that you’d like to see. This might involve deep work to explore and help examine their current mindsets. We need to consider how to get people into the right mindset at crucial moments in the development journey. This means prompting moments of reflection and stimulating employees to be active, aware and engaged. Getting employees into the right mindset at the right moment is crucial to creating lasting impact on behavior change.

It’s only based upon this foundation that nudges are likely to work, and remember there are different types of nudges as well. 

  • Educational nudges to guide decision making and make relevant information available at key times. Good for raising knowledge and awareness levels. For example using social proof to highlight that leaders who hold regular one-to-ones tend to be more admired by their teams. 
  • Architectural nudges that encourage the desired behaviors. Good for making it easy to take action and reduce procrastination. For example, making it really easy to automatically book in time for reflection as a team on a regular basis. 
  • Behavioral nudges that develop skills and competencies. Good for developing capability. For example, micro-tips and techniques that help build the leadership presence of a manager to run better meetings. 


None of this should be surprising. Strategy consultancies have long highlighted that transformations based on a single-initiative "magic pills" do not work. It’s when a range of programs work coherently together that change happens. This includes top down, bottom up and peer group initiatives. 

The nudge is a powerful tool in the toolbox of leadership and team development. But it’s not a magic pill and should be integrated into a broader programme of change.

For more on this topic, check out our article on how to use nudges in your leadership programs.

We'd love to hear your view - drop us an email to share your examples of when nudging has or hasn't worked.

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