The behavioural science of...

Equality and inclusion 

Unconscious bias has become a staple application of behavioural science in an employment context. The key message isthat we instinctively look for similarities between ourselves and others and are primed to quickly judge ‘outsiders’; and that these evolutionary traits don’t fit well with the demands of today’s organisations (van Vugt and Ahuja 2010). As individuals and organisations, we need to relate positively to difference, not just to stay on the right side of equality law, but in order to truly benefit from the range of available talent, and to avoid groupthink and create organisations that can respond and thrive in a fast-changing world.

Drawing on a range of evidence, including behavioural science as well as other social science disciplines, Stevens et al (2008) offer some solutions. They argue that a ‘colorblind’ approach to diversity (that is, not recognising differences) fails minority groups because it suggests their distinctiveness is not important, yet a simple multicultural approach that highlights differences ‘excludes nonminorities and threatens unity’. Instead, ‘belongingness’ can be fostered in a diverse organisation by positioning diversity as an opportunity to ‘create high-quality relationships across difference’ rather than as a threat.

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Well-being and stress 

The study of workplace stress has long received attention from researchers. We know stress can impede performance as well as provoke medical problems, and that factors such as powerlessness exacerbate stress and factors such as exercise help reduce it (for example, see Cooper 2008). Much of the research focuses at the level of social rather than cognitive processes but behavioural science has distinct insights to add.

Firstly, it gives a description of what happens to our brains under stress. As already discussed, high levels of stress lead to fight or flight tendencies and impaired cognition. But from a psychological view, moderate stress creates a healthy tension, increasing our performance (Sincero 2012). Indeed, Csikszentmihalyi’s celebrated description of ‘flow’, in which our activity is characterised by absorption and energy, requires a degree of challenge (Hills 2014).

Behavioural science also sheds light on how best to manage psychological well-being. For example, based on self-determination theory (for example, see Ryan and Deci 2002), recent research shows that the extent to which we experience competence, relatedness and autonomy influences our physical and mental health (González et al 2014). This has clear implications for the work we do and how we are managed.

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Interpersonal conflict 

Much interpersonal conflict can be traced to difficulties with performance management and clashes in personality or working styles (CIPD forthcoming), areas we have already discussed. But what happens psychologically when conflict escalates and how can we best resolve it?

Social research has established that formal HR and legal procedures tend to escalate conflict, as parties become entrenched and less willing to concede ground (Denvir et al 2007). This was a core observation in the influential Gibbons Review (2007), which argued that mediation and early intervention were more effective means of resolving disputes.

Behavioural science helps us understand why. As innately social beings, interpersonal conflict represents a deep internal crisis; the possibility of being demonised and isolated is instinctively highly threatening and can even affect basic cognitive faculties such as intelligence (Baumeister et al 2002). This generates severe reactions because it causes the limbic system to hijack the brain (see Section 2) and make rational, considered thought difficult. On the other hand, reconciliation and maintaining relationships are huge psychological ‘rewards’ for mediators to leverage in encouraging parties to focus on resolution and compromise.

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Learning and development 

As mentioned in Section 1, learning and development has been the focus of our research on behavioural science to date. For example, in Part 1 of our Fresh Thinking in Learning and Development series we focused on neuroscience, looking at features such as brain plasticity (the process by which we learn to think and work in different ways) and memory, and their relevance for learning tools and techniques, innovation and creativity (Howard-Jones and McGurk 2014).

In Part 2 of the series, we looked at heuristics, bias, expertise and other aspects of how we reason and decide, and how we can shape our habits and improve our decision-making (Banks and McGurk 2014). And in Part 3 we looked at how insight leads to idea formation and innovation and how intuition complements insight in creativity and problem-solving (Sadler-Smith and McGurk 2014). More recently, we have looked at practical examples of how neuroscience is being applied in learning and development (Stuart 2014).

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Personal effectiveness and smarter working 

How can we maintain focus and work effectively when our tasks are increasingly fragmented? In response to an increasingly fast-paced and digital world, our attention spans are declining and we take on more and more. Yet what is needed, especially in our VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) times, is the opposite: greater reflection so that we are less prone to blind spots and less vulnerable to corporate risk (Taleb 2008, Atkins et al 2012).

Neuroscience research shows that our brains are far less able to multi-task than we expect, leading to a loss in focus and quality thinking (Rock 2009). However, it also shows that brain plasticity can work in our favour; that through brain exercises, for example, we can enhance the capacity and quality of our thinking (Merzenich 2013). This can lead us towards smarter working, better decisions and greater effectiveness.

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Performance management 

Annual appraisals are a fairly universal aspect of performance management, but do they achieve what they set out to achieve? A common view is that they do not, but are somehow a necessary process anyway.

Already there is solid meta-analysis evidence on the limited benefit and the potential damage caused by person-to-person feedback (Kluger and DeNisi 1996). Indeed, Kahneman (2011) argues that the widely accepted notion that criticism of poor performance helps people improve is a statistical sleight of hand; because of regression towards the mean, we will always tend to improve following unusually poor performance.

Behavioural science can help us do better in this and other aspects of performance management. For example, considering people’s psychological motivations and responses to threat can help us understand why managers and their reports fail to have frank conversations about performance, or why these go wrong when they do take place. Building on this, insights from behavioural science could provide evidence on what methods work best to influence and support employees to have beneficial performance conversations that maintain or even build trust.

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Pay and reward 

If pay does not by itself set culture, it is one of the clearest articulations of an organisation’s actual values and norms, regardless of what values are officially espoused. In some situations, such as parts of investment banking, it is widely accepted that skewed incentives have helped drive behaviour that’s out of kilter with ethical and sustainable institutions (CIPD 2013c). In a very different setting, there is currently debate about how, if at all, performance-related pay should be applied to the teaching profession.

As discussed in Section 2, neuroscience research suggests we are hardwired to be driven by the reward of social acceptance and the threat of exclusion.

But threat and reward are not only relevant to social interactions – far from it. Other research has shown that task performance is not enhanced by the combinations of threats and rewards that are often assumed to motivate us. For example, Pink (2009) shows how financial rewards can backfire: by reducing intrinsic motivation they ‘can transform an interesting task into a drudge’.

Remuneration and benefits are a massive part of organisations’ expenditure, but what are organisations getting for the money they invest in salaries, bonuses and benefits? As important factors that shape the employment relationship, we should look at the evidence on how different forms of reward influence work-related behaviour and performance.

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Workplace environments 

The environments in which we work have a huge impact on us, but organisations rarely take full advantage of the ability to shape them to facilitate desired behaviour and effectiveness. Workplaces can be instrumental in shaping organisational culture – for example, fostering more creative, collaborative or networked environments. Indeed, returning to the theme of ethics, research by Yap et al (2013) has shown that ergonomic factors, such as the size of one’s desk or seat, even affect how honest our behaviour is.

By shedding light on how and where we work well (more creatively, efficiently, ethically, collaboratively and so on), behavioural science can contribute to our understanding of how to make workplaces positive, enabling, flexible and, most of all, human.

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Ethical behaviour 

Since the economic crisis, we have seen a string of ethical crises at the heart of the business world. Much of this has focused on the financial sector, including the Libor and PPI scandals and the irresponsible trading of derivatives that helped trigger the 2008 crash. Indeed, our 2013 survey of financial services employees (CIPD 2013c) found that, over the previous two years, a worrying one in six respondents had felt bullied or put under excessive pressure to behave counter to their own ethics and to the interests of customers. In other sectors, there have been the failures that led to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the well-documented failings at the Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust, to name but two cases.

We can use behavioural science to shape ethical norms and behaviour. For example, Dan Ariely’s (2012) research shows that the physical and psychological distance between ourselves and cash influences how honest we are. Give anyone the opportunity to cheat for money and they will cheat more if handed tokens that they take away and change for money than if, at the moment of cheating, they are given hard cash. Thus, simple reminders of the link between complex transactions and real money may lead bankers to behave more responsibly.

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Employee engagement 

Employee engagement is a broad area that focuses on enriching working lives and strengthening people’s connections with the organisations in which they work to create healthy, dedicated and productive employees whose efforts are aligned with organisational strategy.

Much research into the drivers of employee engagement is based on correlations of data from self-completion surveys. Behavioural science can add to this by providing more robust evidence on what observably affects human behaviour in a work context. For example, experiments can look at what motivates people or influences how they develop identification with an organisation or group of people.

Equally, insights from behavioural economics and cognitive psychology can also be used to shape management behaviour and organisational culture so that they are more conducive to employee engagement.

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Selection and recruitment 

Dual process theory (see above) sheds light on many aspects of decision-making, including how we make selection and recruitment decisions. We know that we are vulnerable to unconscious bias, such as judging in-groups and out-groups. However, we should not simply seek to unearth and overcome all our instinctive reactions, as we risk cutting off a source of valuable intuition (Klein 1998, 2003).

Nor should recruiting managers rely too heavily on their experience in predicting how candidates will perform, as they may end up placing too much emphasis on relatively marginal factors (see Section 2). For example, they may pick up that a candidate shares a characteristic with a poor performer they have known, while overlooking that the candidate has very strong reasoning ability, which is a stronger predictor of performance (Banks and McGurk, 2014). Understanding the balance between such factors should help make better decisions.

There are also lessons for recruitment from the perspective of the candidates. Because of our instinctive reactions to threat, we generally perform best in situations of low-level stress. As Hills (2014) argues, because most of us find job interviews inherently stressful, recruiting managers should take care not to make them any more stressful if they want to get a decent reflection of what people are capable of.

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Organisational change programmes 

Those leading change programmes often lament the inevitable resistance that comes from some employees, but neuroscience evidence suggests this is normal behaviour. Firstly, neuroscience highlights the extent to which we are creatures of habit. Habitual thinking and behaviour are essential for the efficient use of our brains, protecting us from being overwhelmed by stimuli. Secondly, much anxiety about organisational change can be explained by our hardwired responses to threat (Hills 2014).

However, by understanding such processes more fully, we can unlock opportunities. For example, part of the prefrontal cortex – the area of the brain responsible for advanced cognition such as decision-making, forethought and regulation of behaviour – controls ‘which habits are switched on at a given time’ (Trafton 2012). Thus, we find that habits are malleable and that old habits can be replaced relatively easily by new ones – a valuable insight when we need to change how we work. Equally, Dowling (2014) argues that enabling employees to self-direct elements of change programmes facilitates brain plasticity and fosters a change-ready mindset.

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Team building and project working 

Building a successful team is both art and science. Occupational psychology offers useful psychometric tools (so long as they are well designed and appropriately applied). For example, these can help identify who will best suit which role and even who will work together most productively on a given project; whose working styles, personalities and strengths will complement each other best.

Behavioural science also gives us insight into how to develop effective teams. For example, evidence that our brains are, as Lieberman puts it, ‘wired to connect’ with other people suggests that we are intrinsically motivated to work as a team. Amazingly, recent research from Stanford University has found that, even if the work itself is conducted individually, simply inviting people to work with others can enhance their enjoyment, interest, persistence and performance (Carr and Walton 2014). In short, emphasising collaboration and joint effort will reap dividends.

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CIPD Podcast 90 - What neuroscience tells us about insight, intuition and creativity

David Rock, CEO of NeuroLeadership Group and Peter Cheese, CEO of the CIPD, discuss how neuroscience is changing the way we think about key areas of people development in the workplace.


Insights from behavioural science can make us happier and more successful at work, but business practices are lagging behind

CIPD recommends that businesses embrace insights from behavioural science to boost employee engagement, wellbeing and productivity at work.