What do you do when you have implemented a policy for your staff's benefit but they are reluctant to adopt it?

When UK-based photography company Triggertrap introduced unlimited paid holiday leave for its staff in 2014, something remarkable happened.

Despite natural concerns from management that such a system would result in people taking huge periods of leave, the opposite proved true – staff took less than their legally entitled leave allocation and the move, for all intents and purposes, backfired.

By December that year, Triggertrap Founder Haje Jan Kamps reported on his blog of a team run ragged – exhausted despite having access to a policy which allowed staff all the time they needed to avoid such burnout.

The Triggertrap experience is one Behavioural Economics Consultant Bri Williams leans on when explaining one of the more perplexing challenges facing leaders – that human behaviours aren’t always rational.

“Triggertrap is an illustration of the fact people don’t always do what you expect them to,” she told Leader.

“You would expect everyone to go on leave, but no-one went on leave – they weren’t taking leave because they felt they were letting the team down.”

To address the problem, Triggertrap introduced a number of strategies to push staff to adopt the practice.

They started publically tracking holidays to show people weren’t abusing the system, encouraged dialogue between staff to make sure people were taking enough leave and doing so at times convenient with their colleagues and brought in cash bonuses for those who took their leave.

The result was improved leave uptake.

The Triggertrap example demonstrates how small changes – nudging people in a direction without being forceful – can have a big impact on the thoughts or actions of staff in a workdplace setting.

Getting people to do what we would like them to is an essential but often misunderstood part of business.

Nudging is a behavioural economics technique pioneered by US Economist Richard Thaler, who went on to receive a Nobel Prize in economics for his work which looked at how the technique could be used to encourage better choices from a largely irrational public. 

Despite its best intentions, Ms Williams said Triggertrap ran into difficulty in leave uptake because it hadn’t considered people were more complex than face value would suggest.

She said such issues were common and leaders needed to think differently about how they enacted workplace change.

“Anyone in business should think about their job as being a behaviour change specialist,” she said.

“You might not go to work thinking of yourself like that, you might be a finance manager or an HR manager or whatever you happen to be, but ultimately everything we do in business relies on us being able to get other people to do what we would like them to do.

“We receive very little training in school and life around how people actually make decisions. We’re in a workplace and we’re very competent at our jobs, but we still don’t get a recipe book for how to get people to do what we would like them to.

“That’s the role of behavioural economics – it can be a framework to make leaders more effective.”

Removing resistance

When explaining how behavioural economics can be used to influence change, Ms Williams recommends a simple framework – moving staff from their current behaviour at point A to the desired behaviour at point B.

“You start by asking ‘what am I trying to get people to do’,” she said. “How you get people from point A to point B is your second question.

“You can then anticipate three points of resistance – apathy, paralysis and anxiety.”

Under Ms Williams’ framework, apathy refers to staff who simply can’t be bothered, while paralysis reflects those who might get confused by what you’re asking and anxiety takes hold when nerves get in the way of a commitment to change.

“It’s really about bringing things back to those basics – working out if apathy, paralysis or anxiety are going to prevent people from getting to point B from point A,” she said.

“Going through that as a framework flushes out the reasons people may be resisting change at a subconscious level.”

Once the reasons for resistance are established, behavioural techniques like nudging can be used to gently guide staff in the right direction.

It’s simple in theory, but Ms Williams said behavioural economics principles were far from commonplace in the Australian workforce.

“Businesses at the moment are relying on what they’re hearing their staff saying, but the problem with those interactions is you’re getting responses that might not equal real behaviour,” she said.

Jack McGinn is a Journalist at The West Australian Newspapers and is a writer for 'Leader', AIM WA's magazine for members.