August 25, 2016 by

When your mom falls asleep in church, you don’t need to yell in her ear, “MOM, wake up!” to keep her head from bobbing. You can just bump her with your elbow.

If you are practicing how to shoot, but your aim is off, you don’t need someone to build a stand to hold your gun level. It is better to have an expert next to you and have him lightly adjust the barrel direction with his finger.

And when you are learning how to lift weights, a coach can watch your knees and hips and correct your stance with a small correction here, another one there.

Nudges. Often, small nudges are all we need in order to do what we are doing better.

A new body of social science research is showing that the same is true in business ethics. If we want to motivate ourselves to do the right thing at work, we do not necessarily have to visit a psychologist to rid ourselves of our weakness of will. Instead, employers can slightly adjust the work environment to “nudge” employees to do well.

Three recent ideas about ethical nudging come from the research of University of North Carolina business professor Sreedhari Desai, Ph.D. She has an interesting YouTube video (titled “Small Nudges Can Create Ethical Behavior”) that is worth checking out.

The first form of ethical nudging pertains to bids and contracts. Dr. Desai wondered if bids can be fair when they include: 1. a description of a service, and 2. one overall price for the service. Through experiment, she found that vendors are more ethical, that is, their bids better reflect the true cost of the service, when they itemize the cost for each aspect of the service. Itemization is a small difference in the bidding process, but one that makes a larger financial difference, and definitely makes an integrity difference.

Workspaces can also be designed to nudge employees to think and act ethically. Again, only small nudges are needed. Through experiment, Dr. Desai showed that when office walls have pictures of aspirational figures (pick your leader…Gandhi? Rosa Parks? Tom Osborne?), employees make better ethical decisions than they do when there are no aspirational pictures.

The third form of ethical nudging that Dr. Desai describes is also about the workspace, specifically, the items we have around us with which to touch or play. Hold onto your hats…Dr. Desai determined that when workspaces include teddy bears and other childhood play items, ethical decision making is enhanced. She speculates that introducing childhood toys into the workplace puts us in mind of a time when life was pure and simple. A slight nudge towards our better selves.

So what do we do with this social science research about ethical nudges? Well, we can ask ourselves if we want to introduce any of the previous three ethical nudges into our business practices. Personally, I am not going to bring a teddy bear to work, but I like the idea of aspirational pictures. And it is simple to break out the costs of service in the bidding process. We can do it when making a bid or ask for it when receiving one.

In addition, this social science research can motivate us to investigate other ethical nudges that can positively affect our work systems. Let me know what your experiments yield, OK?

View “Small Nudges Can Create Ethical Behavior,” Dr. Desai’s video: youtube.com/watch?v=xt8OS92Bd3s B2B

Beverly Kracher, Ph.D., is the executive director of Business Ethics Alliance, and the Daugherty Chair in Business Ethics & Society at Creighton University.

Beverly Kracher, Ph.D., is the executive director of Business Ethics Alliance, and the Daugherty Chair in Business Ethics & Society at Creighton University.

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