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How Business Leaders can use Behavior Science to build Engaged and Motivated teams

Updated: Apr 1

The Disengaged Employee

The word engagement was first used by Professor William Kahn in his paper in 1990 titled Psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work. The term quickly caught on since it described a relatively new way of thinking about work. In this blog, we're going to examine engagement through a new lens and uncover new ways of addressing employee engagement. 

A century or so earlier, the relationship people had with their work was very different from what it is for today. For one, people worked with their hands, ate the fruit of their labor, quite literally, and felt a direct connection between their work, the results of their work and its purpose.

While the above may be an oversimplification of how various factors interplay, it helps us point to some important features of workers and modern-day work:

  1. Info workers work with their minds more than with their hands

  2. The daily impact of their effort is intangible

  3. It's harder to map individual responsibility to success/ failure at an organizational level

This means that engagement isn't a given anymore and businesses are aware of it. Companies now regularly use Employee engagement surveys to get insights into their teams’ motivation and engagement levels.

Meanwhile, disengagement has become a growing problem. According to the latest 2023 Gallup survey disengagement is a growing global problem. 59% of employees are disengaged and 18% are actively disengaged. This means only one fifth of the workforce is actually engaged at work. These highly engaged employees have higher levels of job satisfaction, are less likely to leave, realize their contribution to the whole and feel valued by the team. They are also more productive and profitable than their disengaged counterparts.

The link between employee engagement and motivation

In today’s workplace, it takes more than a steady paycheck and the occasional pat on the back to keep workers motivated and engaged. As we head further into the 21st century, the traditional methods of managing and motivating staff seem increasingly out of step with the reality of our modern workplaces.

Since the mid-80s, much research has gone into understanding motivation. Today we understand there are two types of motivation - extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation. The most successful employee engagement strategies strike a balance between the two.

Well-meaning incentives, for example, often focus only on external factors. This outdated method of management sees the employee as an inert actor who needs to be motivated by the carrot or the stick to move the needle in the workplace. "Reward the good and punish the bad" was the standard practice in the industrial age and continued to be used for the better half of the 20th century.

In his book, Drive: The Surprising Truth of What Motivates Us, author Daniel Pink uncovers for management what science has known since the 80s. People are far more driven by their internal motivations to do better at work than by external rewards.

The Gallup report on Engagement underscores this. Employees feedback on what their companies need to do better don’t focus much on rewards, pay hikes. 

41% of employees want more from their company culture - to feel respected, acknowledged for contributions made, get more autonomy, clear communication on their goals, stronger guidance and the like. While only 28% of the feedback is on external motivators like pay and benefits.

An introduction to Behavior Science

So, how does a forward-thinking company design their engagement initiatives? 

Enter the fascinating world of behavior science—a field that promises to turn our understanding of workplace engagement and productivity on its head.

At its core, behavioral science studies why we act the way we do. What factors affect our thinking, decisions, and consequently our behavior? When applied to the workplace, it provides a rich toolkit for shaping environments that foster higher levels of engagement and efficiency.

Here's a brief look at some behavior science principles that can inform our understanding on Employee Engagement.

Key Principles that explain Employee Behavior

Over the past 50 years Behavior Science has made rapid progress. Initially management used it to understand consumer behavior, in order to make sales and marketing more effective. In recent years, management has seen the value of applying the science to understand employee behavior, and are using it to improve employee experience.

Here are a few principles of Behavior Science that can help leaders understand their employees’ behavior better -

1. People don't always act in their best interests. Sometimes there are things that blind us to what is good for us. Behaviorists call these heuristics or mental shortcuts, quick calculations that don't actually add up, like this one. 

Example: A common heuristic known as Status-Quo bias can be seen when employees resist change in organizations, or a new way of doing something. Even when the new process is more beneficial for them.

2. People's choices can be directed based on how the options are framed. Often we choose something because it’s the first thing we see - which is why product placement in a shopping aisle makes a big difference to shoppers’ decisions. Behaviorists call this Choice Architecture. 

Example: A famous example of this was when the UK government made a small change in the pension savings enrolment form. The form made the enrolment automatic and employees had to opt out if they did not want to be part of the retirement benefit scheme. Previously they needed to opt into the scheme. This simple change increased those who opted for pension plans from 61 to 83%.

3. We are more influenced by those that surround us than we realize. Walking into someone’s home, we may remove our shoes, if we see other shoes outside the door, assuming it’s the expected behavior. Behaviorists call this Social Proof,

Example: Hotels often use this in their signage to reuse towels to save water - citing that 70% of hotel guests do this to save water.

4. Freedom/Autonomy is a basic need. Stemming from a basic psychological need for autonomy, people hate being told what to do. This is why a micromanaging leader can seriously damage motivation and engagement. 

Example: Suggestions are far more impactful in any communication rather than directives.

5. Intangibles like trust, respect, culture, connectedness are a product of attitudes and behaviors and can be built with some effort.

Example: People are hard-wired to expect fairness in the workplace. Employees who can get visibility into their organizations reward system find it easier to trust that they are being judged fairly and this makes them feel more respected.

How to use these principles to improve employee engagement

Implementing these principles may sound daunting, but it starts with small, intentional steps.

Employee engagement should aim to create impact in each person's daily life - rather than being a one-off event / program. For instance, it could mean rethinking how to approach performance appraisals and make feedback more regular. Or perhaps it could involve reconfiguring workspaces to encourage collaboration and communication, tapping into the social nature of humans to boost morale and productivity.

Here are a few suggestions on how leaders have used behavioral principles to build engagement and motivation in their teams:

Using technology to help us overcome human biases

Anil Sachdev, widely recognized thought-leader in HR and Talent Management loves to discuss the Future of Work. He cites a few examples where technology is being used to overcome human biases. For instance, one of the largest private banks in India struggled with countering biases in the interview process. The HR Head threw a challenge to the business leaders to choose 100 people based on interviews, while he would choose 100 based on tests designed by machines. And they would watch their career over 2 years. Those selected through tests performed better than those interviewed by senior leaders. Anil summarizes, "It takes a master interviewer to really assess skills, have no ego or bias, to really successfully select the right candidate. Today they’ve got rid of the multiple rounds of interviews and instead use technology to screen people."

Timely, well-framed nudges to build productive behaviors

From well-placed healthy food on office cafeteria shelves to using digital reminders to remind sales reps to focus on their calls, businesses are adopting nudges. Employees find that a timely, unintrusive, gentle suggestion is the perfect nudge they need to get on track with their daily work. The noise of multiple metrics, instructions, processes, constant pings and meetings make it hard for employees to stay on top of their work. Managers too find it hard to fathom what needs to get done, overloaded with data and reports. Nudges help teams cut through the noise, even when it’s as simple as a calendar reminder.

Use the power of social proof to celebrate your team's achievements

Social proof is a powerful way to build engagement in teams. Creating a culture where achievements are celebrated or hearing co-workers’ stories of success at the workplace can create an infectious enthusiasm in teams. In our work with teams, we've found that social proof works well to help individuals adopt important work behaviors - like updating their CRM regularly. When done consistently, individuals are rewarded by badges on the platform or congratulatory banners by their managers. This approach is far more successful than just sending reminders or repeating instructions over and over again. 

Build autonomy into your processes

Rajeev Dubey, a senior HR leader, ex Mahindra & Mahindra, is known for being an empowering leader. Rajeev believes that autonomy is not just a feel good factor but makes good business sense. He says, "For me, empowerment has several dimensions. One of them, an important one, is to empower people to take decisions, discretionary actions, without having to refer all the time to a chain of command. The other one is making the necessary resources available to them. Finally, when the chips are down, or when something goes wrong, the leadership should support them." [Source: People Centric Leadership]

Coach teams rather than direct them

The yesteryear of command and control have given way to a new league of leaders. These leaders see their managers as coaches rather than supervisors. Google's famous Project Oxygen set out to discover the behaviors that great managers display. In their study of over 10,000 observations of managers across more than 100 variables, they isolated 8 behaviors of great managers. More importantly, they ranked these behaviors. And no. 1 on that list is "Be a Good Coach."

How engagement impacts businesses

It's no secret that engaged employees are more productive. When workers feel invested in their jobs, they're more likely to go above and beyond, leading to better outcomes for businesses. It's a virtuous cycle: increased productivity leads to greater business success, which in turn can fuel further engagement.

Gallup found that employee engagement affected everything in a business - from absenteeism, to high turnover, to quality and productivity. Higher engaged teams were 18% more productive and 23% more profitable than teams that were disengaged.

Our customers’ teams, whether sales teams or customer service and back-office teams, find the same thing. They report that using behavior-science led technology has led to greater engagement and higher productivity, up to 20-25%.

Overcoming challenges/obstacles

No change comes without its challenges. Implementing these principles requires a shift in mindset at all levels of an organization. It also demands a willingness to experiment and learn from failures. Success lies in being persistent, adaptable, and always keeping the overarching goal of enhanced engagement and productivity in sight.

Conclusion: Looking Ahead

Integrating behavior science into your business practices is a journey—an exciting one that promises to change how you think about engagement and productivity. For those eager to dive deeper, countless resources are waiting to be explored - from online courses to insightful books by behavior science experts. If you're ready to take the plunge but not sure where to start, talk to a consultant who specializes in applying behavior science in corporate settings. You could also talk to business leaders who have adopted behavior-based approaches and tools to get further insights.

The future belongs to businesses that understand not just the 'what' but the 'why' of human behavior. Engaging your team and boosting productivity doesn't just mean doing things differently; it means thinking differently.


Anant is a co-founder and Rashmi leads communications at worxogo.

worxogo Nudge coach builds high performing Sales, Customer support and Back-office teams using Behavior science and AI. It is your employees’ personal productivity coach that analyzes how each individual is doing, understands their individual playbook and what motivates them to do better. Over 100,000 employees in Fortune 50 companies across 9 countries use worxogo Nudge Coach today.

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