Managing Change using “The Nudge” Technique


It has been said that change is the only constant, and all of us will experience changes, both large and small, in our lives. In today’s fast-moving world, we are confronted with changes daily whether we are “ready or not,” leaving many of us feeling overwhelmed, confused, or uncertain about the future. More often than not, we ourselves are the change initiators, be it at the work front, family front or personal front. Managing change using the Nudge technique will help you understand your reactions to change while suggesting ways you can respond more positively and productively through transition periods.

There are 3 core beliefs that help people make positive changes in their lives.

Belief #1: Something must change : In order to make a lasting change you must be convinced that the time has come. Something MUST change.

Belief #2: I must change it : It’s vital that you take full responsibility in making the change. Sure, others may assist you, but in the end you’re the one who has to make it happen. You have to want this change enough to make it your personal mission – no-one else will do it for you.

Belief #3: I can change it : It’s important not to let past failures get in your way. The truth is that you can do amazing things when you put your mind to it.

At first glance, the above three core beliefs looks simple and easy to apply. So why do most people fail to make lasting change? Because they leave it up to willpower. Willpower works for a while, but without the 3 beliefs above, you’ll always revert back to what’s easy.

The solution : Change what you’re comfortable with 🙂

Another helpful idea – switch around your pain / pleasure motivations. You’ve probably heard that humans are motivated by two things, a) To avoid pain and b) To gain pleasure. So when you want to change a behavior pattern the key is to associate your pain with the behavior you don’t want and connect pleasure with the behavior you do want. For example, let us consider you want to lose weight. You know you need to quit eating comfort food late at night and that you need to start exercising on a regular basis. Up until this point your brain is trained to associate pleasure with eating comfort food late at night and to associate pain with exercise. It’s time to retrain your brain to feel good about exercise and to feel bad about eating late at night. How? Think about all of the negative things about being overweight and connect these unpleasant thoughts to your late night snack. Now think about all of the wonderful things about being in shape and connect these pleasant thoughts to exercise. Switching around your pain/pleasure motivations combined with the 3 beliefs is going to make a huge difference when people want to make changes in their lives.

More often than not, people already know what action is required for a desired outcome, they are often overwhelmed by a huge inertia to act despite having the three core beliefs and the pleasure / pain equation re-framed as mentioned above. It is in times like these that the Nudge technique can be used to overcome the inertia and move forward. I came across the concept of Nudge Technique from the book ” Nudge : Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness” by Richard H Thaler and Cass R Sunstein. The book defines Nudge as any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. In simpler terms, a nudge makes it more likely that an individual will make a particular choice, or behave in a particular way by altering the environment so that automatic cognitive processes are triggered to favor the desired outcome. The book explains how the concept of Nudge is used at various levels by the different governments and the marketing industry to influence the behavior of the masses without infringing their freedom of choice. For example, when we sign up for a cellphone contract, most people are happy to live with the default options which almost always include some freebies like news subscription, magazines for the first 1 – 3 months. It may be noted that these options are not forced on people, all that is required is just to un-check the options. However, these marketing companies capitalize on the inertia of the people to make choices and hence set these as default in the name of freebies. Most people only realize they have been paying for added services at the end of a year or two while the monthly subscription fees have already kicked in at the end of the promotion period. Another example would be how a food stall owner influences the choices people make for the food they buy by altering the display of the various food items. He can choose to display the food items he wants to sell more visibly at the front. By doing this he is capitalizing on people’s behavior to order the food that is immediately visible upfront instead of searching all through the place. Of course, there will still be some people who are particular about their choice of food and will take the effort to scan through all the food items available but they are only a handful.

Similarly, concept of Nudge can also be applied when managing personal change to overcome the inertia for action. Human behavior like water will always gravitate towards the path of least resistance. This means if we are able to architect our actions for change such that it is the path of least resistance, we will be able to successfully implement the change with little effort.

In our work environment, for example, coming up or co-developing a work-list with our reportees and having regular discussions (fortnightly or monthly) can serve as a good nudge for staying on track for meeting the goals. Another example of nudging at workplace is the use of visual mapping; for example visuals of live unit energy consumption estimates, showing in the red zone, will nudge the behavior of the technicians to monitor and identify means to operate the unit processes more energy efficiently.

A personal example would be giving up over-eating to manage your weight goal. One possible nudge could be to replace your dish size. This would require you to make multiple trips and pose a natural restraint to avoid over eating. Another possible nudge you can try is to limit the cash you carry when you go to the canteen. Often the willpower gets unduly challenged when we have that extra dollar in our pocket :-). But we are naturally more restrained to borrow money from colleagues to buy that additional dish.

Coming up with nudges that will work for you requires heightened awareness of your motivations and behaviors. It is not something you can read from a book and start applying immediately. This is where engaging a professional coach can add value in terms up of speeding up your awareness level and discovering your unique nudges.

I believe each person holds so much power within themselves that needs to be let out. Sometimes they just need a little nudge, a little direction, a little support, a little coaching, and the greatest things can happen.

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