Three reasons HR should embrace behavioural science

21 Sep 2017 By Georgi Gyton

Understanding why people do what they do is key to good HR practice, CIPD conference hears

Why people behave as they do and what affects the way they do it are key questions for HR, Jonny Gifford, research adviser for futures and insight at the CIPD, told delegates at the CIPD Behavioural Science at Work Conference earlier this week. So how could knowing more about the nuts and bolts of behaviour help HR? Here are three key insights People Management took away from the day:

  1. Science could be the way to leaders’ hearts

    When Victoria Waller, head of talent and leadership at the Home Office, tried to get buy-in for an initiative on leadership development, she faced an uphill struggle – so she turned to behavioural and neuroscience for help. “Because it is evidence-based it can be very appealing to even the most sceptical leaders,” said Waller. “It also allowed us to have a conversation about the need for people at the top to undergo more training – which could have been quite confrontational.”

    But that’s not the only reason to use behavioural science; its insights can be applied in a very practical way to really change someone’s working day, explained Waller. Discovery – the government’s long-term leadership initiative, which has so far been rolled out to the most senior 250 people in the civil service – covers topics such as neuroplasticity and what happens when the brain is faced with threat. According to science we only get two good hours a day from our brains, said Waller, so we need to make sure we get the most out of it during the time when it’s most effective.

  2. Every industry is being disrupted by tech – and HR is no exception

    Technology is disrupting the relationship between brands and consumers, so it is safe to assume that it is going to disrupt the relationship between employers and employees, said Colin Strong, global head of behavioural science at Ipsos. “Technology has always defined the nature of work,” he said. We are already seeing increasing monitoring of employees, he added, through the use of screenshot technology or the implanting of microchips, for example.

    But what’s the point of collecting all this data? “Psychological insights from data are increasingly used in marketing, so why not do the same in HR?” Strong said. He urged HR to set the agenda on what approach employers take to staff monitoring, rather than leaving it to IT to decide, but said it was important for organisations to consider what they were actually trying to learn, instead of just embarking on a general data gathering exercise.

  3. Employees fear the ‘threat’ of feedback

    Hoping to tackle lacklustre performance in employee satisfaction, workplace bullying and stress in the workplace, Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals commissioned a piece of academic research reviewing studies into engagement over the past 30 years to find out what drives performance. It discovered that effective performance management is not about once or twice-yearly tick-box appraisals – it’s about having skilled managers, trust between employees and employers, and reward for performance.

    “People want certainty,” said Lucinda Carney, chief executive and founder of Actus Performance Management Software, who worked on the project with Kevin Croft, director of transformation at Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals. “The brain registers threat when faced with the prospect of feedback. We search for the negative, so we need to balance it up with positive feedback.”

    Ongoing quality feedback, and goals that stretch people but are achievable, go a long way to motivating staff, Carney added.

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