Before we get into the business of why a business should train their teams in behavioural science, a quick question.
What links the following three things?
- Surgeons sterilising their hands before operating.
- The psychological profiling of criminals.
- Wheelie suitcases.
At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking ‘not that much.’
Yet all of them have a common denominator: they all seem obvious to us now, but took a long time to gain any sort of a foothold in society.
When the idea of surgeons sterilising hands and surgical instruments before becoming intimate with a patient’s innards was suggested by Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelwies in the mid-19th century, he was widely mocked and derided by the medical community for his science and logic.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that the FBI started psychologically profiling criminals, something that now seems such a clear thing to do.
And while the wheel was invented around five or six thousand years ago and we lugged suitcases around for centuries, it took ages until – ta-da! – the two things combined and really caught on. (Albeit three decades after, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb points out, we had placed someone on the moon)
But what does all of this have to do with behavioural science?
We think quite a lot.
Because in the same way we look back on these forehead-slapping-ly obvious developments with a kind of pie-eyed wonder, we think that future generations will look back at today’s working world and ask themselves, ‘Why on earth weren’t more organisations and institutions being trained in behavioural science sooner? It seemed so … apparent.’
But, of course, we probably would say that, seeing as we eat behavioural science for breakfast. So, instead, let’s hand it over to those in the know to see what they have to say. Here are five of the reasons you’ll want your teams training in behavioural science.
1. You won’t be overtaken by competitors
“If you’re not up with the best techniques in decision making, your business will be taken over by a business that has it all worked out.” – Lord Gus O’Donnell
Former head of the UK’s civil service and one of the founding members of the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team, Lord O’Donnell is a big believer in the power of behavioural science. While the discipline has been accelerating at a dizzying pace in the public sector – the UK was the first government to implement a ‘nudge unit’ in 2010 and within eight years there were another 200 or so around the globe – businesses haven’t caught up. Yet. But the ones that do catch up, and embed behavioural science techniques, will likely outshine the ones that don’t.
2. Employees can make decisions based on evidence, not guesswork
“We should teach executives how to conduct experiments, how to examine data and how to use tools to make better decisions.” – Professor Dan Ariely
While we agree with the Predictably Irrational author and Professor of psychology and behavioural economics at Duke, we would add that it’s not just executives who should be learning these things. Entire teams who better understand behavioural science and human psychology will mean they share the same language, bring about evidence-based problem solving, make better decisions, and generally just make work … better.
3. Your comms will improve. (And just about everything else.)
“There is a real business need for organisations to view and design their communications through a behavioural lens.” – Professor Paul Dolan
We would go further than Professor Dolan does in this report – you could happily swap ‘communications’ in the quote above for HR, L&D, strategy, or, indeed, any area of business. The sentiment still holds true. Practically anything that happens at work is a behaviour. And by understanding those behaviours a bit better, real, positive change happens.
4. Difficult tasks might become more manageable.
“Making hard things fun is a much better strategy than making hard things seem important.” – Professor Katy Milkman
Behavioural science and understanding why we do what we do can help learning. Like Katy Milkman, behavioural scientist and professor at The Wharton School of Business, we’re huge advocates in making tricky things (like learning new stuff) fun. Less in the whacky ‘let’s all wave our arms around sense’ and more in the ‘actually, by making learning engaging and rewarding it’s actually more memorable and effective’ sense. Introducing behavioural techniques to learning – things like spacing effects and gamification – can help make learning the hard-to-grasp more graspable.
5. Your bottom line could shoot up.
“£100 billion.” – The Behavioural Insights Team.
According to the 2019 Boosting Businesses report from the BIT, raising the UK’s productivity levels to those of Germany would see a £100 billion increase to the economy – and they suggest implementing behavioural strategies at work can play a pivotal role in doing so. As the report states, “Incorporating a behavioural approach into business policy is not about abandoning traditional approaches but instead about designing them in such a way as to increase their impact and cost-effectiveness.”