Why every manager needs a nudge

Becky Wood
Team Humu

Managers love nudges. 90% of managers say that nudges make it easier for them to practice good work habits, and 94% of team members say that they notice their managers taking action on nudges to get better at their jobs.

But what exactly is a nudge? What’s the science behind it, and why do nudges tend to be far more effective than traditional manager training?

Liz Fosslien, Humu’s Head of Content and Communications, sat down with Dr. Stefanie Tignor, our Head of Data Science and Insights, to answer these questions and more. 

Liz Fosslien (LF): What does the research say about traditional manager training?

Stefanie Tignor (ST): Training, on its own, doesn’t stick. 

That’s because more than 70% of growth is due to “informal learning” that centers around continuous experimentation and improvement. You share a draft with your manager, you get feedback, you make edits, you run an updated draft by your team, and, over time, you learn how to create something exceptional.

But traditional workplace training doesn’t take advantage of informal learning. You learn the most when you learn by doing — not sitting in a one-size-fits-all training session. Studies show that the closer the training is to the actual context of a person’s workday, the more likely new skills and habits are to stick.

LF: You touched on this a bit, but can you more explicitly dig into why training doesn’t work?

ST: Research shows that if we don’t apply new information within the flow of our work, we’ll forget about 75% of it after just six days. You can have the best training in the world, but if your people don’t have opportunities to practice what they’ve learned over and over, none of it will stick.

Helping employees learn is less about exactly what information you give them and more about making them better at learning.

“You learn the most when you learn by doing — not when you’re sitting in a one-size-fits-all training session.” - Dr. Stefanie Tignor, Head of Data Science and Insights

LF: What role do managers play in employee learning?

ST: Ultimately, managers are the ones who have the biggest impact on whether or not their people have ongoing opportunities to learn. In our research, we find that people with a manager who gives them effective growth and development feedback are 3.6x more likely to feel motivated by their work. And people who don’t have that kind of manager are 5x more likely to leave their job.

But the state of manager effectiveness is dismal: 70% of people say that their manager is the worst part of their job. And that’s where nudges can help. 

LF: So what is a nudge? 

SF: A nudge is a short, personalized suggestion for how you can grow your professional skills. Nudges are delivered to people in the flow of their work via email, Slack, Teams, and more. 

Backed by Nobel Prize-winning science and the expertise of our people scientists, nudges are designed to provide the recipient with a bite-sized recommendation that they can take action on right away to build better work habits and achieve their goals. Getting nudges is like having a virtual, personal coach that’s making it easy for you to improve every single day. 

LF: Do nudges actually work?

ST: They do! Here’s a fun example. At Google, Humu co-founder Jessie Wisdom’s team designed a nudge to help people eat healthier. They swapped M&Ms from being in clear hanging dispensers to opaque bins that the person had to reach into. The grab took effort; the opaque vessel made the candy less enticing. That one simple switch led to a 9% drop in candy intake in just one week.

And we see the same thing at Humu: a tiny nudge can have an enormous impact. At the fast casual restaurant chain sweetgreen, for example, nudges boosted sales and saved $3.2 million in reduced turnover costs. In one busy urban location, the store manager received a nudge from Humu encouraging her to solicit employee feedback on processes in the store, a management lever known to increase motivation and innovation. Hours after asking her team for ideas, an employee approached her: why not use a bit of extra soup (a seasonal promotional item) and portion out samples for customers to try in line? The manager green-lit the idea, with great results: more sales, less waste, no extra labor, an empowered employee, and happier customers.

LF: Why do nudges succeed where training often fails?

ST: Not all people need the same things. In fact, research shows that manager development efforts are 8x more effective if leaders first identify where a specific manager needs to improve, instead of just giving everyone the same training. Nudges, unlike most training, are ultra-personalized.

Nudges are also ongoing, unlike training that happens all at once. At one technology customer, we saw that manager ratings went up while managers were actively attending coaching sessions, but immediately dropped back to baseline once the training program was over. Managers at the same company who got nudges, however, saw their ratings continue to climb as time went on.

LF: What’s an example of a useful nudge for managers?

ST: One I really like focuses on employee recognition: “Name drop, then cc.” The next time your employees do something well, it says, copy those individual employees on your status update to management. This small gesture helps your people feel valued, and makes them more likely to contribute in the future.

LF: Why are managers especially important in the “new normal” of work?

ST: Today’s managers aren’t just managing their employees’ workloads, helping them feel recognized, and providing them with growth opportunities: they’re also the face of the organization, especially if people aren’t going into the office as much. Employees expect to feel supported, motivated, and valued by their manager, and are ready to quit if they don’t.

Managers need more support than ever — and offering personalized support like nudges should be at the top of every leader's priority list.

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