From urinals to paying tax: how nudge theory can change the way we work

28 September 18

Have you been nudged to behave differently?

The chances are you have, even if you might not know it.

Nudge Unit

When David Cameron became prime minister in 2010, he created the “Nudge Unit” or more officially the Behaviourial Insights Team.

The team applied the work of Nobel prize winner Richard Thaler to encourage better behaviour amongst UK citizens.



Famously, Thaler’s suggestion to etch the image of a fly in urinals at Schipol airport led to an 80% cut in spillage around the toilets.  It seems men cannot help but take aim at the fly, saving on clean-up costs as well as alleviating unpleasantness.

One of the team’s early successes was with vehicle excise duty (VED, or road tax to give its incorrect name). They ran a trial that included adding a picture of the offending vehicle in the letters sent to non-payers of VED that led to a 22% increase of the payment rates.

Since then, the team has expanded into wider areas including work.

Trainee Teachers

Their Australian spin off recently used behaviour insights to increase significantly the number of trainee teachers applying to rural and remote schools.

They identified the barriers to applicants (uncertainty and a preference for the status quo, both reinforced by the selection software). From this, they trialled three interventions, two of which made a big difference (see hereto find out more).

Gender Pay Gap

Back in the UK, the team have identified behavioural changes that could reduce the gender pay gap.  For example, did you know:

  • with a four-person shortlist that has three women and one man on it, a woman will be hired only 67% of the time;
  • if you’ve got two women and two men on the shortlist, a woman will be hired 50% of the time – the odds you would expect if people were making hiring decisions purely based on merit;
  • according to a recent studylooking at academic hiring, when there’s one woman (against three men) on a four-candidate shortlist, there’s statistically no chance she’ll be hired?

Many companies now require a mixed gender shortlist, but adding just one woman to a shortlist to prevent it from being all-male may not succeed.

The team identified some other interventions that are likely to work.

  • Use skill-based assessment tasks in recruitment
  • Use structured interviews for recruitment and promotions
  • Encourage salary negotiation by showing salary ranges
  • Introduce transparency to promotion, pay and reward processes
  • Appoint diversity managers and/or diversity task forces

They also identified some that don’t seem to work.  Surprisingly, this includes unconscious bias and diversity training.  It seems they do raise awareness but don’t do very much at all to change behaviours. Surprising, given how many companies prioritise them.

You can find their guidance here.


Another intriguing piece is on incentives at work.

Financial incentives, at work or elsewhere, don’t always have the expected effect.  They point out that sometimes if people are offered a small payment to do something they’re less likely to do so than if there was no payment at all.

However, non-financial incentives and a desire to help others can be powerful motivators for behaviour change. Even a simple “thank you” can have a big effect (although not, it seems, if given indiscriminately).

All of this concerns our sense of meaning at work.  The more meaning we attach to our work, the better we tend to perform.


Underpinning the approach of the Behavioural Insights Team is a four-letter acronym – EAST. Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely.

They give some examples of each below.

  • Reduce the ‘hassle factor’ of taking up a service. The effort required to perform an action often puts people off. Reducing the effort required can increase uptake or response rates.
  • Attract attention. We are more likely to do something that our attention is drawn towards. Ways of doing this include the use of images, colour or personalisation.
  • Show that most people perform the desired behaviour. Describing what most people do in a particular situation encourages others to do the same. Similarly, policy makers should be wary of inadvertently reinforcing a problematic behaviour by emphasising its high prevalence.
  • Prompt people when they are likely to be most receptive. The same offer made at different times can have drastically different levels of success. Behaviour is generally easier to change when habits are already disrupted, such as around major life events.


I’m working just now with two clients on their transformation programmes.  Key to both is achieving behavioural change with their people.  The Behavioural Insights Team is challenging me to think quite differently about how to do this.







Norman was commissioned to assist the Naval Families Federation as we embarked on a comprehensive review of our strategy. He is a skilled facilitator and helped us to ensure that the whole team’s input was heard and valued. His input gave us confidence in our approach and put us in a strong position to take forward work on our theory of change, and ultimately to deliver a coherent strategy to take the organisation forward.

Bridget Nicholson – Head of Strategy, Naval Families Federation