Employee engagement | Changing the default behaviour

Changing the default behaviour

Many of our everyday choices are influenced by a 'default setting', which makes it easier to choose one thing over another. So how might we identify and switch default settings where we need to prompt a change in behaviour?

We’re constantly faced with tiny choices in life. Sometimes we know we ought to do one thing but it’s easier or more tempting to do the other – like picking up a donut instead of an apple. Sometimes the problem is we don’t quite get around to fulfilling our good intentions with actions.

So if your role involves trying to encourage colleagues to take particular actions (whether in compliance, health and safety, good well-being habits, team interactions, or anything else) it’s vital to understand the human fallibility which causes the gap between desirable and actual behaviour.

Would you like fries with that?

Encouraging people to make healthy food choices is notoriously difficult. If there’s one area where people really dislike being told what to do, it’s in their choice of food. So how would you go about encouraging healthier food choices without aggravating people?

The results of a recent experiment by the Copenhagen-based iNudgeyou team showed striking results from a simple intervention. The researchers designed an experiment to test the effect of a small nudge on people’s willingness to choose a vegetarian option.

They did this simply by changing the ‘default setting’. The ‘default’ is the option that is presented to you unless you actively choose an alternative.

At conference lunches Group 1 were presented with a non-vegetarian buffet as the default option, but allowing the active choice of a vegetarian option. Group 2 were instead presented with a vegetarian buffet as the default, allowing the active choice of a non-vegetarian option.

In Group 1, 6% actively chose the veggie option, but in Group 2 a whopping 87% stuck with their vegetarian default.

Even though the participants were only informed of the experiment afterwards, 90% of them said they approved of the nudge.
Switching the ‘default setting’ has been used in significant public policy changes recently in the UK. Notably, after many years of debate, England’s default for organ donation was changed to an ‘opt out’ system in 2020, with the hope that rates of donation will increase.

Identifying your opportunities

How could you think about using this behavioural insight at work?

Start by identify the problem you’re trying to address. Then work out if there is a default pattern of behaviour behind it, and how you could change the default setting.

Here are a few examples:

Social interactions:
Imagine if you have teams who don’t interact much with each other and you want to encourage more mixing. What makes it hard for them to mix? Perhaps they sit in different areas and don’t need to move physically between each other’s spaces. That’s the current default.

So could you change that default? Mixing up seating arrangements might be going too far, but perhaps there’s a simpler change… Could you place the water cooler in one team area and the stationery cupboard in another, so that everyone has to walk through the other team’s space sometimes?

How effectively does your organisation’s recruitment process promote diversity and inclusion? Are there some default settings you could change to improve it? To begin with, if you offer diversity training in recruitment, perhaps all recruiting managers could be automatically enrolled into that training module rather than choosing to take it?

There are endless places where default behaviours exist. Take a look around and see if there are some that could easily be switched to a more positive starting point.

Changing default settings is potentially a very effective way to influence behaviour change at low cost, without too much disruption, and with less effort required from busy colleagues. It still leaves people free to make a choice, but it becomes easier for them to follow the option that’s (hopefully) better for them and for your organisation.

Find out more about how to use behavioural interventions in Acteon’s upcoming webinar – ‘Speak to the Human’ on 5th November, with expert speaker Owen Rose. For more information and to save your place, visit: https://www.acteoncommunication.com/webinar-speak-to-the-human


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