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Is nudge management the key to overcoming change resistance?

Business and change are inextricable. But just because it’s common doesn’t mean successful business change is easy. As humans, we naturally resist the new and novel. We will fight or flee from anything unfamiliar, especially if it presents a considerable shift from what we know. However, recent studies reveal that small, subtle suggestions are making huge impacts in changing behaviours.


Effective, optional suggestions

A technique often attributed to making easier, faster, and simpler choices, nudging isn’t new.  We see examples of it every day. Your alarm is a nudge, so is the default renewal of subscriptions, even the ‘low fat’ labels on food are nudges.

The reason why nudges are effective relates to the fact that you are free to ‘follow’ the push or not. You have a choice. For example, GPS directions are a nudge, but how often do we stick to the exact route provided?

One of the most publicised examples of successful nudge management involves the reduction of fuel consumption by Virgin Atlantic pilots. In the aviation industry, pilots – particularly the captain – enjoy much autonomy when it comes to decisions that involve fuel and the flight. The experiment saw how nudges had an impact on the behaviour of captains. By simply informing the captains that their fuel consumption will be monitored and requesting them to report on their fuel performance, the airline saved $5.4 million in fuel.

Perhaps the experiment was highly effective since it avoided making fuel reduction a ‘mandatory’ requirement for pilots. Instead, it preserved the pilot’s sense of autonomy while making subtle suggestions about improving fuel consumption levels. The change didn’t seem out of their control.


Nudging the right way

So what about when it comes to managing change in the workplace? Can nudge management help? If we think about the top reasons for resisting change, nudge management does provide an ideal counter:

  • Fear of losing control: As demonstrated with the Virgin Atlantic experiment, the liberty-preserving aspect of nudges could make them an effective way to start changing behaviour.
  • Concerns about the unknown: The most effective nudges present a benefit upfront. You could suggest an action to simplify a process, help others make healthier choices or ensure their safety (as with speed limits, for example). No one enjoys coercion.
  • Insecurity over reputation: In some change scenarios, people may feel that the shift is occurring because they failed and were ineffective. One type of nudge – the use of social norms – can address this. By confirming that the majority of colleagues feel positive about change (or want to see change occur), that lifts the pressure on the people who may feel personally responsible.


While nudge management is a great tactic to use when implementing change, it’s prudent to remember that it is just one of many. Plus, the most successful examples of using nudges to influence change have involved ‘behavioural change’. Structural changes, for instance, may not be as adequately covered by nudge management.

Change is complex. Resistance is only one of the many challenges that accompany any shift from the norm. Every organisation, team and individual will face unique hurdles in their transformation journey. Great leaders will analyse the specific needs of their team or organisation and consider whether nudge management is a tool they can use.




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