Last September, spurred by the coverage it was getting as a text and the impact it was being credited with having on government thinking, I reviewed Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge for this blog. If you don’t have time to read the review again, I was largely unimpressed and unconvinced – an opinion that seemed to swim against the tide. Sitting inside an organisation that takes a behaviouralist rather than educationalist view of personal development, nudging people seemed a bit inadequate.

Behavourial change surely starts with self-knowledge, an assessment of areas where behaviours would benefit from modification, and leads into a period of application where encouragement and support are available to those attempting to change our own behaviours. (Again, we’ve made the point before, but very few of us can change our behaviours without effective support from others. I can see that a ‘nudge’ – non-regulatory hint dropping, setting of default options that smack of ‘social engineering’ but don’t have the courage to say so for political reasons – might point someone in the right direction to start with, but I can’t see how the approach can them keep on the new path.

So I was surprised to open last week’s Sunday papers and find Baroness Neuberger being interviewed to explain that the House of Lords Science & Technology sub-committee was about to publish a report, Behaviour Change (which you can read online), that seemed to agree. As moments of validation to accompany the croissants go, I was frankly both very encouraged and hugely flattered. (That’s a flippant aside, but flattery and encouragement are both potentially more powerful than nudging. And rather less condescending – something I found a huge failing of the original book. And if you want to know how the urinal got into the title of this article, see our earlier review.)

Of course, our work in behavioural change is in a specific context: improving organisational performance by identifying behavioural changes that individuals can make to improve the effectiveness of their individual contribution and interactions with others. These changes are also in a specific context: a learning and development programme, often around leadership development, performance management or change management. But our approach is informed by clinical research in tackling problematic behaviours in other areas of human life (for more of an explanation, read an earlier article): although it might not always feel that way, we don’t actually stop being human beings when we walk through the office door. And while our work is with people, our outcome is guided by a concern for the larger whole – our clients don’t benefit unless the organisation is improved too.

What struck as one failing of the Nudge argument was the implication of its condescending approach: we cannot be expected to know better, therefore we have to be ‘nudged’ to the decision by someone who knows better. (Being a polite chap, I’ve tactfully left the implied ‘than us’ off the end of that sentence.) But knowledge – either instilling it in us (which Nudge thinks is a lost cause), or providing it to compensate – is not actually the answer. There are two answers that are far more pertinent: self-knowledge and support. Self-knowledge engages us directly in the behaviourial change: self-knowledge is only the start, but it is the point of acceptance that change is required that enables to then address actually implementing it. Support is necessary, as self-knowledge is generally not enough: with any process of change – and behavioural change is notoriously difficult and slow – there are inevitable slips, failures and retreats. Support mechanisms are how we maintain – or regain – our momentum.

Our concern with learning transfer – and learning is not just knowledge or skills, but behaviours too – reinforces our concern to identify and implement approaches that support learning that actually makes a difference. Learning does not end when we leave the training programme: in reality, it’s only just begun. Our interventions have an “afterlife” that provides that support: we know that if we want to make a lasting difference we can’t just ‘nudge and run’.

So I was delighted to read about the Lords’ committee’s report, which drew that conclusion not that a nudge-based approach was wrong, but that it was very unlikely to provide the whole answer. (Indeed, that there was precious little evidence that it could ever be the answer of and in itself, and a fair bit of evidence that it wasn’t.) Moreover – just as we’ve expressed our concerns about the ‘hit and run’ nature of too much training, and the academic awareness of effective learning transfer  approaches that are only fitfully being put into practice, and mostly by trainers – the Committee was concerned that such a superficial approach did the behavioural sciences a disservice.

On the surface, potential interest in their application was encouraging and to be applauded, but the approach to them carried its own whiff of ‘hit and run’. As the Baroness has commented herself in an article at the BBC website today:

The government cannot wait and see if “nudging” us, or “nudging” businesses, is going to pay off. They must act now in the light of what science tells us about how to change behaviour. And, for the most important problems facing us at the moment, the science says that “nudging” won’t be enough.”

Both governments and L&D professionals face problems in trying to implement lasting behavioural change. In the case of the former, ASK’s Chairman, has previously written an article – The Great Leadership and Management Development Conspiracy – that argues that many parties have vested interests in maintaining an ineffective status quo, although it is worth noting that the Learning  Transfer Survey 2010 (request a copy of the Summary Report) showed that trainers, at least, are seemingly striving to support learning transfer where they have the power or authority to do so. The greater difficulties come from line managers neglecting or remaining ignorant of the role that they could play, and organisational managements that expect instant results from long-term approaches.

Yet surely governments actually want to achieve lasting behavioural change: otherwise, why bother with policies at all. To choose nudging over other options – or to choosing nudging as the only option – is either to misunderstand behaviourial change or to adopt approaches that fulfil political expedience but are likely to fail as initiatives?

Ultimately, this blog is not really in the business of offering political comment. But we should be grateful to the Lords Science & Technology sub-committee this week for reminding us that single-strategy quick fixes are not the solution to behavioural problems, and that behaviourial science is a reputable discipline that we disrespect not just at our own cost, but at a real cost to those that we might better serve by acquainting ourselves more deeply with.

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