Our minds at work - Developing the behavioural science of HR

01 November 2014
Published: November 2014
This report sets out the case for applying a behavioural science lens to a wide range of HR issues. Understanding human behaviour at work lies at the heart of HR. We need to make sure HR strategies and interventions are in sync with how people are ‘wired’ and don’t inadvertently encourage undesirable behaviour. It is easy for the thinking behind HR activity to be narrow and not consider the organisation systemically.
It makes the case for applying behavioural science to HR practice more widely. While some leading-edge consultants and practitioners are already doing this, it is far from normal practice. And yet it has a natural fit with the ‘USP’ of HR: a focus on shaping human behaviour at work for both the good of employees and business needs.
Behavioural science offers no panacea. But we should not ignore its value for understanding human behaviour at work and delivering higher impact HR. Nor should we shy away from making bold decisions, based on quality behavioural science evidence, on how we organise work and manage people.

Areas of HR that can benefit from a behavioural science lens

Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of intuition in decision-making can help recruiting managers draw on their expertise more effectively and, at the same time, avoid falling prey to unconscious bias.
As well as highlighting the social nature of threat and reward, behavioural science research shows that financial reward is not the straightforward motivator that we often assume it is. An understanding of these factors gives a basis for more effective remuneration and reward systems.
Personal criticism and feedback are not the productive forces of motivation that we often assume they are. Behavioural science can shed light on these processes and what, for instance, helps and hinders productive performance conversations.
Neuroscience highlights that we are essentially ill-equipped as humans to cope with an ever more fast-paced and fragmented world of work. Taking note of our limited ability to multi-task, on the one hand, and how we can increase our mental capacity, on the other hand, can help us become more effective as individuals.
As shown by the economic crisis, reward systems can create perverse incentives that undermine professional ethics. Behavioural science can be used to create systems that shape ethical behaviour in a positive way – for example, by ‘nudging’ with mental reminders about the consequences or core purpose of an activity.
As well as the subject of what motivates us at work behavioural science can help us understand factors such as how we form attachments to organisations as social entities. By creating positive systems, it can also be used to encourage management behaviours that are known to foster employee engagement.
The nature of our physical environments can influence us in many ways, even including how honestly we behave. Understanding such factors can help us to create workplaces that are more conducive to creativity, collaboration, efficiency and ethical behaviour.
Behavioural science explains how resistance to organisational change is a natural reaction. Equally, it provides practically useful insights into how we can foster a change-ready mindset and how seemingly die-hard habits are malleable and can be replaced.
Psychometric tools can help allocate employees appropriate roles and inform team composition. Behavioural science also gives us insight into the methods by which we can develop effective teams – for example, by emphasising the social interaction and collaboration.
The experience of social conflict represents a deeply threatening internal crisis that can even affect basic cognitive faculties such as intelligence. Understanding this, as well as the huge cognitive ‘rewards’ of resolution, can guide us in developing effective solutions that are less adversarial, such as mediation.
Unconscious bias has become a staple application of behavioural science in an employment context. We instinctively look for similarities between ourselves and others and are primed to quickly judge ‘outsiders’. One solution may be to foster ‘belongingness’ by emphasising the positive opportunity to build relationships across difference.
Neuroscience shows how our visceral reaction to stress can hijack our rational minds. On the other hand, moderate levels of stress create a healthy tension and help us perform.
Behavioural science also gives us practical clues on how to develop well-being at work, for example by building our sense of competence and autonomy.
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