Nudging in the Workplace – Positive Invitations for Change

by Bill Swift on May 13, 2019

in Communication,Leadership


[Please understand that nudging in this context is a figurative term for positive encouragement toward healthier behavior. No employees were physically pushed or shoved in the making of this article.]

Nudges are a small feature in the environment that attracts our attention and influences our behavior. Nudges are everywhere.

We were conducting a Leadership Development program for one of our members last month. Their lunchroom doubled as a training room. Prominently displayed in this lunchroom/training room was a video monitor that had a rotating display about their benefits (Employee Assistance Program, 401k, Walk for Wellness, Open Enrollment). Turns out their Walk for Wellness program “pays” workers to chalk up Fitbit miles and adds medical discount dollars for routine procedures according to the number of miles walked.

Hmmm. Somebody is nudging.

So I had to ask the group, how many employees are participating in this Walk for Wellness program? The supervisors suggested that somewhere close to 35% of employees are part of this program. This is a pretty effective nudge.

Some call this Benevolent Paternalism: a nice term for nudging us in a positive direction.

Benevolent Paternalism. At best it sounds like a kind and generous grandfatherly type who wants the best for us. At worst it sounds like a euphemism for Big Brother telling us how to behave and getting up in our personal business. Workplaces have struggled for decades on how, when and why to nudge employees. Once you start looking for nudges, you see them everywhere. Stuff that ranges from how to set up your retirement to what to eat for lunch or even how to spend your free time. Social media has been running with personal (invasive?) nudging for some time. What kind of advertising shows up on your newsfeed after you searched for a new car yesterday? Sometimes the discussion (debate?) parallels political divides regarding our role (the workplace establishment) in promoting healthier behavior. Just who do we think we are? Is workplace nudging OK?

Probably, when done following a few principles.

Here are a few best practices for nudging that can keep us honest and focused:

  • Make It Public
  • Make It Respectful
  • Make It Easy
  • Make It Evidenced-Based
  • Nudge for Good!

Making nudging public means we are transparent about our intent and methods. Encouraging you to walk more is driven by a hope that you will be healthier and happier. No subliminal messages here.

Making nudging respectful eliminates any judgement about “good” or “bad” behaviors. Everyone could find a way to improve their health. We don’t want to target “high-risk” behaviors by shaming our employees.

Making nudging easy is perhaps the most important principal here for improving effectiveness. When we make enrollment simpler, set up clear first steps in a wellness program or map out, with clarity, a desired path, we set up our employees for success in following through with challenging changes.

Outcomes for positive change in treatment programs are consistently tied to the participant’s belief that the program will work. Show evidence of how a smoking cessation program has had success. Give us research outcomes of how this exercise program improves energy and focus. Make your programs evidenced-based.

And finally, make sure you are nudging for good. You may have been reflecting on all the advertising nudges we get every day. Asking your Doctor if a Prescription for SOMA is “right for you” may not always be a positive nudge. Beware of selling something that does not truly benefit the folks you are nudging. We are constantly nudged by self-interested groups. Good nudging is other-interested.

Going from workplace to workplace (one of the joys of training and consulting), I have always been fascinated by the Wellness initiatives or gentle nudging that businesses do to improve the health and well-being of their work group. Even more interesting is finding nudges like this that actually work. Most workplaces are motivated by improving the energy and vitality of their employees to get them to engage in high quality work and have a satisfying home/personal life. Sometimes workplaces and their health plans have a financial incentive to nudge as they are “at risk” for medical claims in their health plans. Nudges then become focused on getting high-risk employees to the right programs and keeping lower-risk employees, well, lower-risk.

Nudges range from avoiding addictions to lowering blood pressure, from managing stress to saving for retirement, from quitting smoking to taking up racquetball. For a more detailed exploration of nudging you might (nudge, nudge) want to have a look at Nudge, Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness, by Thaler and Sunstein.

We would love to hear about your workplace nudging, why you do it and what you find effective. Please send us your feedback at

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