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  • 1st Feb 2024

How behavioural science can make you a better leader

Behavioural science can be applied to many areas of leadership, from strategy to people management, organisational transformation to compliance. In this article we’ll share four insights into behavioural science to enhance your leadership practice, drive engagement and remove barriers to success in your organisation. 

At BIT we work with business leaders and organisations to design better systems, policies, products and services. We have decades of experience solving business challenges globally and have developed a dedicated one-day UK based executive training in behavioural science for business leaders to bring our learning into your workplace. 

Here are four ways that applying behavioural insights can make you a better leader:

#1: Design initiatives that account for “fast thinking” 

We all use mental shortcuts or rules of thumb  to simplify problems, help make decisions, and reduce cognitive load. These shortcuts – or heuristics – allow us to quickly navigate the thousands of daily decisions we make, from taking our daily commute to what brand of toothpaste we reach for in the shop. 

Consider how decisions made by your colleagues could be affected by their heuristic-driven “fast brain”. Defaults are a great example: we tend to go with an option that has been pre-selected for us, rather than meticulously considering a variety of different available options. For instance, automatic pension enrolment, where workplaces have to enrol their employees into a pension plan by default, rather than relying on people to set up a pension themselves, has resulted in around 90% of eligible workers becoming enrolled in a workplace pension.

We can’t always get around heuristics – or using our “fast brain” – but we can design initiatives (like auto enrolment) with them in mind. We can also learn to be more cognisant of the times when it would be helpful to slow our thinking. This could mean bringing someone else in to offer a new perspective on a problem, or making space to look at it a different way. The key is understanding and accounting for the factors that influence your colleagues’ behaviours. 

#2: To get staff to take action, make internal communications “EAST”  

We use the EAST model as a way to simplify huge amounts of evidence on what affects human behaviour. Simply put, in order to encourage a behaviour, we should aim to make it Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely. 

Imagine you’d like staff to engage with an annual survey, and you need at least 80% to take part. Here’s how you could apply the EAST model to encourage that behaviour: 

Easy – make the survey accessible through an app that staff already use, and reduce the time commitment by simplifying the survey to only the most crucial questions. Use open-ended questions sparingly.   

Attractive – choose a channel that will attract attention. Will more people see the survey link in their email or on Slack?  If you can, consider offering a low-cost incentive like a gift card to a local business, with a lottery entry for everyone who completes the survey.

Social – if you’re trying to reach a final few, let staff know how many of their colleagues have already completed the survey. Make it specific to them by citing numbers from their individual department or site. 

Timely – make sure to send the request at a suitable time. Are Monday mornings usually slammed? Consider sending the request at a better time.  Even better, hold some time during a staff meeting and ask everyone to complete the survey then.

The EAST model helps us to reduce pain points or friction and encourage behaviours.

#3: People are more likely to commit to a goal if they share it publicly 

Getting ourselves to publicly commit to future behaviour is one of the most powerful ways to stick to a goal. This is because most of us like our behaviour to stay consistent with the image we hold of ourselves. 

One way that you can use this insight as a leader is by having a shared view of your team’s goals – perhaps in one spreadsheet or word document. Ask staff to present their goals to the team, verbally reinforcing their commitment to achieve and inviting support from colleagues. By encouraging openness about goals and space to share success in your team, more people will commit at the point of goal setting and be driven to see their goals through. As a leader, you can also role model this behaviour by sharing your commitments publicly, too. 

#4: Misinterpretation of social norms can lead to missed opportunities 

Pluralistic ignorance is a phenomenon which occurs when people mistakenly believe that everyone else holds a different opinion than their own. 

We saw an example of pluralistic ignorance at work in our work with Santander to understand why more men weren’t taking their full parental leave. We found this was due to a misinterpretation of social norms: they thought that their colleagues would not think that it was acceptable to take leave. In reality the opposite was true. 

By providing feedback to male employees which made clear that the majority of male peers were supportive of parental leave significantly, we increased participants’ intentions to take between five and eight weeks of parental leave. 

By misinterpreting a social norm, men were potentially missing out on valuable time spent with their children. 

Understanding how social norms impact colleagues’ behaviour can help you as a leader to design communications that demonstrate or clarify norms – which can have wide-ranging impacts on employee wellbeing, productivity, and collaboration. 

A better understanding of human behaviour equips leaders with a range of techniques to navigate challenges and coach their teams to achieve their goals.

Want to find out more? 

Our one-day executive programme in behavioural science for business leaders offers a deeper dive into the ways that behavioural insights can help you to design solutions, improve decision making and lead better. Alongside the training, the full course package also includes one-on-one coaching for you and a live masterclass in behavioural insights for your team. 

Email to receive more information about the course, including upcoming dates where you are, and our regular newsletter featuring the latest insights into behavioural science.