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Kate Wadia

Phase 3 Consulting

Former Managing Director

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Behavioural science: joined-up brain dots for the joined-up HR professional


Didn’t get the chance to attend CIPD’s 2018 Behavioural Science at Work Conference and Workshop? We’ve got you covered – here’s a round up of the key themes, topics and takeaways from the event.

Behavioural Science is safely established on the business agenda and established too with its annual place on the CIPD events calendar.

I was kindly invited to come along to this month’s conference and glean some insight into how our profession can now establish new learning about neuroscience and behaviour on the HR agenda too.

The event’s chair, Jonny Gifford of the CIPD’s research arm, headlined by explaining that to use behavioural science in HR is about seeing apparently broad-ranging people missions “through a behavioural insights lens”.

And he is right. This is about joining the dots. As the scientists learn how our brain dots link up, we can learn to link up disparate concepts we already know about into a real and practical application.

Here is a tour of the day’s content – the topics, the themes and, in each case, one take-away tip you can apply right away.

“Principles-led, Evidence-based, Outcome-driven”

Gifford set the context for how insights from behavioural science entered into mainstream working. Beginning in 2010, the government led the progression to bring psychology as well as economics into the making of central government policy.

The Department for Work and Pensions offered a first conference case study. As the CIPD promotes an HR professional approach that is principles-led, evidence-based and outcome-driven (yes please!), this means using concepts of soft, behavioural sciences in a hard and focused way.

Tip: catch up on the two most influential publications that have helped the rise of neuroscience – Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ (2012) and Richard Thaler’s ‘Nudge’ (2009)

The DWP team gave us an obvious example of how insight into behaviours has been applied at work with pensions Auto Enrolment. Changing from opt-in to opt-out took a systemic approach to achieving wide-scale behaviour change to our savings habits.

More recently, the team have shaken up a guided performance distribution and moved entirely away from ratings-based performance management.

Be wary of assumptions about our motivations

Address questions in a scientific way – identify the problem statement, the business question.

Interestingly, this method used to take people performance forward is akin to the agile approach of (initially software development but now also) HR analytics: define problem statement, create hypotheses to test and use evidence to re-work by iterative design.

Tip: if you need to achieve a change, start by writing out the current problem statement(s). What is the issue? Define it as one or more factual statements describing the difficulty of the here and now.

Principles of persuasion

Goal-setting in the context of performance and people management is challenged to align the motivations of the individual and the organisation. Johnson Research has worked with the University of Oxford to address this question with behavioural insight.

Adopt a sales approach

We were shown how applying Dr Robert Cialdini’s Principles of Persuasion, developed for that sales context, results in individual motivation to act in the same direction to the business. Yes, perhaps do count out ‘scarcity’ as a guiding principle, but look for a humble use of authority, reciprocity, consistency, unity and liking.

Bonus and financial incentive can result in unethical or divisive behaviour – a clear case of the individual jarring with the collective.

Tip: you could use the adjectives Cialdini pinpoints in the latest edition of his book ‘Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion’ to structure a simple slot on your people management training or induction course. Show mini day-to-day examples of how to apply to a manager’s role.

Some of the dots to join for managers and for HR are not big ones. This is about tackling goal-setting and motivations by tapping into our innate psychological desires, which are often simple.

Control your grey matter before it controls you!

Hilary Scarlett of Scarlett & Grey (for ‘grey matter’) practised expertly that which she preaches with a brilliantly engaging session about our mental energy bank. We may have more control over how energised our performance is than we may think. The case is encouraging, important and convincingly made.

Understanding our attuning to threat and survival, as well as our quest for reward (the dopamine high), helps us to see that much about the workplace seems implicitly designed to put us into a continuing threat state.

Commuting to arrive to a crazy inbox and an open office of distraction floods our system with stress, strain and drain.

Some of the research points to the obvious – get more sleep, keep your blood sugar stable and encourage that emotion is not suppressed.

But did you know that small-talk in the office is really not the way to get the best out of people? We may be better to close those office doors again, where folks will firstly focus and secondly fidget – both of which do us good.

Tip: A quick win is to offer your colleagues their own quick top-up to mental energy. Break longer-term projects or plans into the next and very immediate goal. Create the quest to achieve the short-term high.

Insightful provocations to reward and recruitment

Bonus and financial incentive can result in unethical or divisive behaviour – a clear case of the individual jarring with the collective. The CIPD put to an industry panel how HR should address this.

We noted the unfortunate market expectations to maintain direct financial incentives. We also noted the typical reward scheme’s lack of agility and the particular case of unforeseen bad behaviour coming after and what to do.

Combine this experience with Scarlett’s concern that goals should offer short-term wins and we’ve a useful HR clue. One of the pragmatic answers to making the best of a reward or bonus scheme is to break it down into staggered reward.

Tip: If you wish to dilute the undesired effects of money as an incentive, play with the notion that it is the proximity of cash itself that is most powerful. Consider the nearly-cash-but-not-quite-cash options to ‘pay’ people for success, such as share-based incentives or voucher rewards


I was glad that the ill-defined question of neurodiversity was posed as a provocation for HR, rather than as a problem solved.

Because we do not have the answers about how to get the best out of the talent pool affected by diverse ways of thinking and being, which we categorise into ‘conditions’ such as ASD, dyslexia or dyspraxia.

Behavioural science is achieving greater prominence within HR.

Spot the immediate conflict between the earlier panel conclusion that a way to set ethical goals is to include certain, often standard, behaviours and an understanding that (high functioning) contributors on the Autistic Spectrum may well just not behave that way.

Tip: Achieve a double-whammy win with behavioural insight by pacing a selection day with natural ups and downs of energy and environment. You’ll give greater scope to spot the diversity and top up the whole cohort’s get-up-and-go!

Wellbeing beyond the fruit and fitness

Juice is more than the offer of a healthy smoothie or a free massage. Co-founder Gary Butterfield  and his presentation partner, Robert Baker, showed that the seduction of the ‘high viz’ efforts to support wellbeing at work (the ‘fruit and fitness’) are not the way to take a holistic approach.

Address wellbeing strategy with a two-tiered approachHigh-performing teams are buoyant not just on apples and massage mats, but on positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment.

We know this. But what we may not wish to linger on is that, yes, the fruit bowl is so deliberately seducing that it masks the fact that this superficial approach to doing something to promote our health is responsible for a small minority of the potential effects and may detract us from doing more important stuff.

Tip: Create a clear, employee-centric definition of what wellbeing means in your workplace, perhaps even with a ‘brand’ name like Juice. This is about consumerisation of your employer vision.

Joining the HR brain dots

Joining up the dots within the workings of our brain, and bringing those dots to the HR table, offers fruit from each discrete topical turn taken with it – from how we source talent, to how we reward, drive productivity and support fairness and wellbeing.

Even as separate questions, problem statements and insights, these make for a fascinating conference day.

Behavioural science is achieving greater prominence within HR. I leave the CIPD to be concerned with moving on from, as Gifford wryly put it, the “n=1” (survey sample size of 1 and that’s us!) into a truly evidence-based approach to getting the most about what we increasingly know about how our brains work.

The need is to join up the HR brain dots. To relate other concepts, such as analytics, engagement, diversity and inclusion, productivity and performance, and look at these systemically through that behavioural “lens”.

This truly is the stuff of old-fashioned positive psychology. So I conclude with some feel-good factor:

Tip: The adage ‘Random acts of kindness’ was snuck into conference scripts quite a few times – try one or two! At work the small kindnesses may be less random but they’ll be lovely ways to draw on the better sides of human behavioural instinct. Use yours.

Author Profile Picture
Kate Wadia

Former Managing Director

Read more from Kate Wadia

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