Behavioural Science in HR

Three woman discussing ideas in an office

Blog Author
Emily Allen
Product Manager - HR & L&D

I have heard a lot about Behavioural Science in relation to HR recently. Therefore, as an ambassador of life-long learning, and with a degree and keen interest in Anthropology, I felt the CIPD’s recent annual Behavioural Science Conference was the perfect opportunity for me find out a bit more about how Behavioural Science can help those of us who work in the ‘people profession’. 

People’s behaviour as a science in the world of work 

Behavioural Science (in the context of HR) takes its evidence from social sciences such as anthropology, psychology and neuroscience, to help us understand human behaviour so we can maximise the performance of people within the workplace.

Our brains are constantly processing information, which means we make short-cuts in what we do with that information, which can lead to bias, procrastination, and lazy behaviours. However, in the workplace we need to behave much more objectively. 

The CIPD say that as the people experts, HR professionals need to lead the way in how we manage people’s behaviour in the workplace. Work can, and should, be a force for good. By using what we know about the science of human behaviour, we can look into why people’s behaviour may not be in line with their organisational culture and requirements.

Question everything

Rob Briner, who spoke at the conference, offered a very engaging, if slightly controversial, position on how we need to evidence the changes we make in HR. He spoke about how we need to treat HR like other disciplines (for example: medicine, education, police work) and question everything we do. He believes that in HR we have been giving “solutions” before we have understood what the problem is. A very simple example of this, he says, is that people assume that low engagement is a problem in their organisation, and that low engagement leads to low performance. But have we asked ourselves the right questions to analyse what we are really trying to fix – if anything? Is there really a link between engagement and performance in your organisation? 

He gave the example from the university he lectures at, where they found student satisfaction scores are inversely linked to how well a student is doing - happier students often do less work and so achieve less academically. So, if lecturers focus on making students happy, rather than academic achievement, they could be missing the point.

Behavioural science considers the way we treat employees as a science, so like all good scientists we should question any assumptions we already have.

My favourite behavioural science tips from the conference:

  • If someone doesn’t know how long a task is going to take, they will procrastinate - often indefinitely. Make it simple and let them know it’s easy
  • Appreciation is the number one motivator. People want what they are doing to be noticed and acknowledged. And little and often is much better than a large dose infrequently (which suggests we shouldn’t be saving praise or recognition up for the annual appraisal!)
  • People bond over a novelty. If employees are coming together who don’t know each other very well, introduce something into the environment they can connect over. This can be really good for induction or training days
  • Google did an extensive study on what makes teams work well and the number one requirement was psychological safety. If people feel safe to be creative and get things wrong, the team will be much more productive
  • If a job advert doesn’t specify “negotiable,” more men than women will negotiate. If the advert says “negotiable” then women and men are both equally open to negotiate. This could make an impact to starting salaries and working towards closing the gender gap
  • People are more engaged, work harder and become more successful when they make progress in tasks that mattered to them. Humans need to feel progress, and this can be written in when jobs are designed
  • Change is a constant, but to be successful it should be little and often. Big changes jar with our sense of identity, whereas we know from studies that small steps work. We also know this intuitively – phrases like “planting the seed” are there for a reason - but in reality organisations don’t practice this and, for example, announce redundancies in a big bang approach
  • Bias is hard-wired into our human brains. This isn’t a negative, we need to make short-cuts to process everything in the world and stereotypes help us do this. But some things are more helpful than others in avoiding bias. For example, training on bias isn’t particularly effective as our brains go through a long-winded process to unpick it. In fact, once we know about bias, sometimes we even use it to excuse ourselves. So we need more than an awareness of bias when we are doing interviews to avoid recruiting in our own image. 

What next?

Some of the points I picked up from the conference are intuitive, some are new. But I find it’s always good to step away from the everyday workload and really think about what the world of work means and how we can improve our profession. I think recognising human behaviour as a science is a great step for our profession.

My next batch of continuing professional development (CPD) will be at the CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition (ACE) 2019 in Manchester on 6-7 November 2019. It’s a great conference and I am really looking forward to seeing some of the influential speakers on key topics, such as AI, diversity and inclusion, and the latest thinking in leadership.