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Nudge Coaching: Using Nudges in Your Leadership Development Programs

March 18, 2022

Nudge coaching

When it comes to developing leaders, the problem for many organizations isn’t necessarily around training these managers – many provide exceptional leadership training sessions. 

The problem is that all too often nothing changes afterwards. In other words, the information doesn’t get retained and applied, and learning just doesn’t stick.

But why is this? 

Isn't it in the attendees' best interests to become better leaders? After all, they may benefit from more responsibility, a promotion, or higher pay. Then there's the fact that for organizations, leadership training is often a high priority - collectively they spend more than $50 billion on it annually. 

So why is leadership development failing to work? More importantly, how might we address the problem? 

Well, some solutions might lie in the field of behavioural science and "nudges" - or nudge coaching. 

In this article, we'll explore how nudge coaching works, while providing guidance on how you can use these nudges to improve the performance of your own leadership development programs. 

Nudge Coaching

Behavioral science and nudging

Behavioral science is a broad field generally concerned with understanding how and why people behave the way they do.

Many of the most well known headlines from this research explore why we often fail to behave rationally and act in our own best interest. In fact, as humans, we often make decisions that actually undermine our long-term happiness and opportunities. We overeat, we don’t exercise enough, we don’t save properly for retirement, and so on.

The bottom line is, we are not perfect and rational, we are flawed and human.

Perhaps the same is true when we return from a leadership course. It’s not that we don’t want to become better leaders, it’s just that we are busy and the whirlwind of the day job takes over.

The good ideas we learned about just don’t get put into action and so we struggle to develop new behaviors or good habits. But one suggested way to help develop new habits is via nudges. 

Nudge theory was named and popularized by the 2008 book, 'Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness', written by American academics Richard H Thaler and Cass R Sunstein. The book builds on the Nobel prize-winning work of the Israeli-American psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.

A few principles from nudge theory may well have application to our budding leaders: 

  • When we, as HR or L&D, design a learning program, we can design environments that make it easier or harder for someone to become a great leader. This is what behavioral scientists call becoming a “choice architect”. We should design an environment that makes it easier for our leaders to make good choices - especially when they are back at work. 
  • We should use “nudges” as an intervention that maintains freedom of choice but steers people in a particular, positive direction. The most basic definition of a nudge is the act of "encouraging or persuading someone to do something in a way that is gentle, rather than forceful or direct". It's not a mandate, it's an encouragement to make choices that are in your best interest.

Let’s look a little deeper at some choices we could make.

The environment matters

The first thing is that the environment that we operate in matters.

Experiments show that if we want to get people to eat healthier it makes sense to make the healthy food easy to grab in the cafeteria. We can design the environment to make the fruit easier to access than the donuts. As mentioned, this is called “choice architecture”. When we design an environment we need to think about whether we’re making it easier or more difficult to make good decisions. 

In the case of the leadership programs, the problem is that learning design is often limited to a training intervention. There is a huge focus on designing the course, but next to no consideration of what happens when people return to the office. 

This means that leaders simply do not put what they learn into practice. Which subsequently leads to almost 70% of what they get taught being forgotten in the first 24 hours.

So, what's the solution?

In short, ensuring that the leadership program design includes choice architecture on what happens after the course. This means considering new questions. 

Questions such as:

  • What behaviors from this course do we want people to apply when they return to the office? 
  • Can the leader make the change without the support and engagement of the team they lead? 
  • What resources or environments would make it easier to put the theory into practice?

Ultimately, we need to design an experience that will last beyond the course. 

The role of nudge coaching in leadership development

There’s a lot of demands on leaders in today’s fast-paced world. They need to be resilient, empathetic, and emotionally intelligent. But they also need to be able to inspire, communicate with, and actively listen to their direct reports.

It’s all very well learning about these skills in theory, but ultimately they need to be developing the habits to apply them in practice.

To make this happen, it needs to be easy for them to choose to put it into practice. In other words they may well need a nudge.

The reality is that for almost all of us – managers included – time is scarce, and leaders are often stifled by busy workloads. As a result, even the most motivated of managers can easily forget to recognize team members, provide constructive feedback, or follow up on team meetings – all simple tasks that are crucial for both employee and team development.

This is where nudge coaching comes in.

When applied to leadership development programs, nudges are used to encourage (or prompt, without forcing) managers into taking the positive actions that are needed to develop their teams. This means reinforcing learning and closing the gap between learning and doing. 

So, how can you incorporate nudge coaching into your organization’s L&D programs?

How to use nudge coaching in your L&D program

Identify the leadership behaviors you want to nudge

The performance of a team is heavily influenced by the manager that leads them. It’s dependent on the mindset and behaviors the manager develops. 

But the effectiveness of a team is also dependent on the habits and routines that the team adopts and embeds into everyday practice. The team must buy into the approach. After all, what’s a leader without a team? 

It’s therefore important to be specific about the habits and routines that your managers and the team need to develop. This is crucial to the success of a leadership program. 

Identify the right levers to nudge

Once you are clear on the actions that you want to nudge, how might you deliver an effective nudge?

This could be anything from a simple cheat sheet covering key points from the course, through to technology that integrates into where people are working. 

In fact, technology is an important consideration. All too often we see training courses encourage certain mindsets and practices, but then when the leader goes back to work, this new approach is not consistent with the technology and tools that are being used. 

It’s also important to note the difference between a nudge and a notification.

A notification is something that demands your attention in order to provide you with information. A nudge, on the other hand, is something that encourages you to make a particular choice or perform a particular action by making it easier to do.

That said, a nudge can be a notification, but only if it’s well designed. Otherwise they can be distracting and conversely make it less likely for the desired behavior to occur. 

Regardless of which approach you use to deliver nudges, the important thing is that they’re simple, accessible, timely, and that your managers have some control over them.

Measure the impact and iterate

Nudges help with habit formation, but they often need to be adjusted along the way.

If you can gather data regarding the nudges and the impact that they are having, that’s very valuable. It enables you to be more experimental and learn and adapt. In fact, it’s better to learn and adapt than it is to try and design the perfect solution from the outset.

When it comes to proving the ROI of this type of L&D initiative, it helps to be backed by the numbers. 

If you need help proving the ROI of your other L&D programs, here’s what you should be measuring

Tips for nudge coaching

Below, we have included some additional tips for using nudging effectively, in order to make your leadership programs more impactful. 

Make it easy

The harder it is to do, the less likely the nudge is going to work. So make it as easy as possible for the leader to act on the new behaviors they have learned. Give them access to resources that make it easy to implement.

Have a default start point 

It often helps to have a strong default start point. The question is, what would a good start point be for developing the habits and routines needed to improve performance?

Well, in the book check-list manifesto, Atul Gewande shared how a simple checklist can be a powerful tool (even for a surgeon).

Ensure pre-commitments

Have people commit to certain actions. These pre-commitments are best when they are specific. For example, a manager might agree to do something periodically, like provide feedback on a monthly basis. 

Use reminders and notifications

Notifications can be helpful, particularly if the leaders and teams feel in control of how they will be notified. An appropriate notification might be: 

“You said you wanted to provide feedback on a monthly basis. To hit your target, you will need to give feedback in the next five days”.

Remove the "sludge"

Sludge is, in effect, the opposite of a nudge. Where nudges try to push people to make better decisions by making certain choices easier than others, sludges make a process more difficult by creating friction and hassle.

In the leadership world, an example of a sludge might be useless meetings. If we could reduce the time spent in pointless meetings, we could free up the time for important leadership actions. 

Use social norms to encourage action

Use norms that encourage leaders into the right actions. For example, you might remind managers that “Leaders that rate highest for engagement tend to maintain regular one to ones with all their team members.”

Smart disclosure

Smart disclosure means there would be simple, easily accessible, machine-readable information about agreed data related to leadership activities. In the context of a leadership program, it could be just highlighting which leaders are using which resources to support practices they have learned.

Link nudges to specific activities

Look for ways to link the nudge to the appropriate activity. For example: “As you are about to have a one-to-one with [direct report], now would be a great time to give them some feedback”.

Leadership development is expensive but important. Which means that the way we do it needs a rethink. It also needs to be considered alongside the new ways of working, including hybrid and remote working.

Ultimately, as we rethink our leadership development programs, it's imperative that we not only learn but apply these lessons from behavioral science and nudging. 

How Saberr applies nudge thinking

Saberr not only works with you to develop bespoke leadership programs, using a combination of experiential and digital coaching, but we also use nudges to reinforce this learning and prompt your managers into developing the habits and routines needed to lead highly effective teams.

What’s more, we also help you track just how successful they are at adopting these habits.

That’s not all we do at Saberr though.

Using a combination of behavioral science and machine-learning, we’re able to deliver contextually relevant learning content, exercises, conversation guides, and techniques at the moments your managers need them most, helping them to become better leaders.

You can learn more about how Saberr supports nudge coaching and leadership development here.

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