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Nudge, don’t nag

With such a fine line between a nudge and a nag, it’s important to acknowledge and understand the subtle differences between the two.
Bill Schaninger

Designs and manages large-scale organizational transformations, strengthening business performance through enhanced culture, values, leadership, and talent systems.

In recent years, nudging has been hailed as the latest trend in HR and a novel, new scientific management approach. And for good reason: using nudges has improved everything from customer retention and employee safety to organizational commitment and innovation. When nudges are executed with care, they have remarkable results. However, in many cases there is a misconception about what a nudge actually is – organizations often launch initiatives that either miss the mark or are just reminders in disguise. When that happens, the nudge is actually a nag, and it risks losing its impact and becoming downright annoying. What can you do to ensure you’re using nudges and not nags? If your nudges check the three boxes below, you’re well on your way.

What is a nudge?

Before we dive into what makes a good nudge, it’s important to note what a nudge is. According to Harvard professor Cass Sunstein and Nobel prize winner Richard Thaler, a nudge guides choice without removing options or changing incentives. It’s like leading a horse to the water and framing its options such that the horse is empowered to and actively chooses to drink it – rather than eat the grass or lay in the sunshine.

It’s also just as important to highlight what a nudge is not. A nudge is not a reminder to do something, nor is it a call to action. Nudges aren’t mandatory and they don’t have consequences. If you’re constantly reminding or commanding the horse to drink, it’s not a nudge. It’s also not a nudge if the horse isn’t brought to the water the next day for forgoing the water the day before.

Three criteria of a good nudge

A good nudge is all about choice. At its core, nudging is all about choice. The reason why nudging is so impactful is that it gives people control over their destiny: They can choose whether or not they proceed with the “desirable” option. Beyond giving individuals choice, a good nudge requires that the choice is easy to make and can be avoided with little harm. In organizations, enrolling all employees into an optional learning course that they may opt out of at no cost is a nudge; reminding employees to sign up for a learning course is a nag.

A good nudge is easy to follow. Good nudges are easy to understand and empower people to be well-informed. Providing irrelevant, complex or confusing information is difficult to process and can make people feel like they were hoodwinked into making the choice. It can eliminate the feeling of agency and empowerment. Using the optional learning course example, if it’s clearly stated how individuals can opt out if they choose to, that’s a nudge; if the instructions are inaccurate and unclear, it’s a nag.

A good nudge is personal. By far, the best nudges are those that use technology and analytics to tailor them to the audience. Nudges that take into account individuals’ mindsets, preferences and behaviors ensure that the most desirable option overall is also the most desirable option for that specific individual – a true win-win. Going back to the learning course example from above, if individuals are automatically enrolled in the learning course that is most relevant for their professional development, you hit a nudging homerun. Another great example is a global technology company that found there were three archetypes of salespeople, and created tailored nudges for each of the three groups. The impact? A 30% increase in additional revenue within the first year of using personalized nudges.

With such a fine line between a nudge and a nag, it is important to acknowledge the subtle but critical differences between the two before using a nudge in practice. By using the criteria listed above, you can be sure you’re delivering the intended sentiment and having the desired impact.

The authors would like to thank Taylor Lauricella for her contribution to this blog post.

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