This post is the fifth in the Training in Turbulence series, which explores how to develop talent amidst the disruption and volatility of the COVID-19 pandemic. Talent developers will find that the concept of nudges pairs well with micro-learning, as described in the last post!
From programs to systems
Before COVID-19, talent developers taught coaching skills in “macro-learning” contexts that required considerable resources, particularly of that increasingly-important resource: employee time. As this resource wanes amidst economic disruption, talent developers have to develop alternative strategies for building core skills. One such strategy, that of behavioral nudges, doesn’t just require “less” of learner’s time. It requires no time investment whatsoever.
Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein suggest in their book "Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness" that “nudges” are strategic configurations of the “choice architecture” surrounding behaviors. Those who want to use nudges to improve the performance of a skill, say coaching, should seek to influence the “physical, social, and psychological aspects of the contexts that influence and in which our choices take place – in ways that promote a more preferred behavior rather than obstruct it.” If we want to develop coach-like behaviors through nudges, we need to stop managing learning programs - and start acting on organizational systems.
Getting started with nudges
At first, this may seem daunting. Many of us were educated in the traditions of cognitivism or other theories of education, trained to teach primarily through the well-sequenced delivery of high-quality content. In support of this, we learned to work within a system. We didn’t learn to be architects of the system itself. If we want to build nudges, we need to give ourselves the time and patience to learn this new tactic. Still, I believe that everyone in this profession can affect positive outcomes through nudges, regardless of our level of experience or expertise with this type of intervention.
Let’s start with the basics. To create nudges that assist in the building of coaching skills, we need an awareness of when, where, and why coaching should ideally take place within our organization. When we isolate these variables, we begin to understand the best place to deploy a nudge.
Since workplace coaching originated with formal “sessions,” team meetings and 1:1s are the natural places to begin. Team meetings often have a recurring cadence, they occur in conference or huddle rooms, and they provide an opportunity for coaching because they are the typical setting for performance-oriented conversations.
When considering the physical, social, and psychological aspects of team meetings and 1:1s, perhaps we are drawn to that physical (or virtual) organizing tactic that guides nearly all of these interactions: meeting agendas. Meeting agendas are often “topical,” in that they sequence a list of items for discussion. It is here that we can apply a simple nudge to encourage coaching behaviors by writing each agenda item not as a topic, but as a question. Then, below each question, we might include 2-3 coaching questions. For example, let’s say a manager and an employee are reviewing candidate resumes in search of a third member to add to their team. Rather than writing “candidate selection” or “new employee hiring” atop the agenda, the manager can add the question: “What next steps must we take in our hiring process?” Below this question, they add three popular, practical coaching questions: “What do we know to be true about each candidate? How can we separate the facts from our judgments? And if we say yes to this candidate, what are we saying no to?” By formatting meeting agendas in such a way, the manager nudges their meetings away from reporting sessions and towards coaching opportunities.
But coaching as a habit cannot be limited to team meetings and 1:1s. Nudges can make us more likely to practice coaching on a peer-to-peer basis, but only if embedded in the environments where our peer-to-peer coaching should occur. My background is in technology, and currently, I work for Zendesk, a company that builds software for customer interactions. Customer service conversations in the form of “tickets” form the most common use case for this software. Customer service agents or salespeople can work out of Zendesk to respond to emails, serve chats, and take phone calls. Zendesk then logs the conversation in a ticket that facilitates further communication. Working at Zendesk, it’s clear to me that many of our customers deal with highly complex questions from their clients. When evaluating this scenario for nudges, we again want to consider the when, where, and why. In this context, our “when” includes the moment before a new hire submits a response to a customer. Our “where” is the software user interface in which customer support agents work. We can deploy a nudge in this context to accelerate new agents in their ability to support customers.
Nudges and technology
Let’s use this example in the context of an online store that uses Zendesk to field questions ranging from refunds and billing to product troubleshooting and issue resolution. If that online store needed a fast way to bring their new hires up to speed, they could pair a new agent with a tenured mentor for 1:1 assistance on ticket responses. That’s where the nudge comes in. The online store could configure Zendesk in such a way that the new hire’s replies are automatically sent to their mentor for feedback and coaching before they are sent to the customer. The store could even configure Zendesk in such a way that the mentor could initiate a coaching dialogue based on the new hire’s responses, giving the new hire a chance to revise their answer before sending it out to the customer. By configuring a software application to initiate a coaching dialogue automatically, a talent developer nudges their organization towards peer-to-peer coaching. By the way, such a use case is quite common amongst Zendesk’s customers - it can be configured with a simple and widely-used feature known as “macros.”
Accustomed to a world of macro-learning, talent developers tend to think too broadly about many things within their domain. Shifting from day or week-long courses to small systems-level details is an abrupt change of pace. We must remain focused on the least amount of work that we could do to make it easier for team members to engage in a target behavior - in this case, coaching.
For a nudge to achieve optimal results, it should require little work by the talent developer, and next to no overhead or administrative obligation. Similarly, team members should hardly be aware that the nudge exists at all. That’s why low-tech nudges are not only more efficient to implement than high-tech nudges - they’re often more effective! Ultimately, this is why nudges matter for training in turbulence. They combine little effort on the part of the trainer and the learner - to achieve lasting improvements to recession-ready skillsets.