Leaders need to be careful about displaying traits, negatives impact just as positive inspires, says behavioural scientist

Behavioural science can be used in recruitment to develop tools that protect against hiring bias (e.g. gender, race, self-selection), or behavioural tools to create closer collaboration amongst teams

FP Staff October 10, 2018 17:52:51 IST
Leaders need to be careful about displaying traits, negatives impact just as positive inspires, says behavioural scientist

The annual United Nations Young Changemakers Conclave (UNYCC) will be held in Mumbai on 27 October. This will be the ninth edition of the event.  Started in 2011, the conclave has had speakers as diverse as Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada to Raghuram Rajan, former governor, Reserve Bank of India to Ravi Shankar Prasad, Union minister. UNYCC  is an initiative by X Billion Action Lab and UNIC for India and Bhutan to enable a dialogue about creating systemic change and reimagining impact in the digital age.

The theme of this year’s conclave is 'Re-imagining Impact' in the digital age and will explore topics such as 'Re-imagining Content', 'Re-imagining Society', 'Re-imagining God', 'Re-imagining Money' and 'Re-imagining Conflict'.

This year's speakers include Smriti Irani, Union Minister of Textiles, Omar Abdullah, former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir,  Radhanath Swami of ISKCON, Junaid Ahmad, India country head of World Bank and Umang Bedi, President of Dailyhunt. To attend the ninth edition of the UNYCC, you can register here: https://bit.ly/2QdClvm

Leaders need to be careful about displaying traits negatives impact just as positive inspires says behavioural scientist

Sanna Balsari Pulsule. Pic courtesy: UNYCC

Firstpost spoke with one of the speakers at the UNYCC, Sanna Balsari Palsule, a personality scientist from the University of Cambridge, who specializes in leveraging behavior to help people be more productive and lead more fulfilling work lives. She is an expert on how individuals adapt their behavior to be more successful at work.

Excerpts from the conversation:

What is behavioural science in the context of corporates/corporation?

Behavioural science can be applied across the entire organisation - across departments from communications to operations to sales to marketing, hierarchical levels, and individuals. It is universally relevant and creates an impact. It is essentially the study of how people make decisions and behave in a chaotic, noisy, complex world.

In the context of the workplace, behavioural science is about a deeper understanding of behaviour at work, and using these insights to design solutions, realign policies and implement programmes that improve the quality of employees’ lives.

One part of behavioural science at work is 'nudging' - this involves designing solutions that guide people towards better choices based on how people actually behave. The important idea here is that a small tweak can go a long way. For example, Google did this when nudging its employees towards healthier eating habits by labelling healthy dishes more indulgent names to make them more enticing and placing healthier meal options at eye-level.

Is the science at par with what Burrhus Frederic Skinner propagated, for instance, or is it not about conditioning at all?

Behavioural science is different to what Burrhus Frederic Skinner propagated. Skinner led the field of “behaviourism” and was a leading behaviorist in the 60s and 70s. Skinner was fascinated by how our actions are shaped by the environment and context around us. However, Skinner was not interested in the internal psychological factors that guide and influence behaviour. Behavioural science is concerned with both the influence of internal forces (e.g. cognitive biases, mental shortcuts) and external forces (e.g context) on behaviour.

How does behavioral science differ from psychology?

Psychology is a larger umbrella term for the discipline as a whole and incorporates a number of different sub-disciplines such as clinical psychology, forensic psychology, developmental psychology, judgment and decision-making. Behavioural science involves the science of human behaviour, such as why habits form. Behavioural science is based on the principles and findings from decades of research in psychology, but actually emerged as a discipline from economics when researchers challenged the tenet that people are perfectly rational beings who weigh up the costs and benefits of all their decisions (instead, we find that we are predictably irrational!)

What are the major developments in this science?

I would say that we are currently in the midst of a behavioural science revolution so much so that companies are increasingly building behavioural science capabilities within their organisations and departments so that they can design better solutions to motivate, manage and lead employees effectively. Outside of the context of the workplace, behavioural science is increasingly being used to address some of society’s most pressing problems, and even integrate into policy.

Do you see a population/employee choosing bad behaviour just because the leader does so?

Yes, it can happen. One can draw on principles from behavioural science on the principle of social norms to understand the powerful force of behaviour. That is, when individuals view others in their eco-system behaving in a certain way, they are more likely to feel the pressure to mimic and follow this behaviour. This can be dangerous when leaders role-model negative traits, but can equally be positive with inspirational leadership.

What do you think organisations need to be cognizant about with regard to behaviour in the backdrop of  behavioural science.

Organisations need to remember that individuals are not rational actors who always know how to make the best choice and act on it. We tend to assume that individuals behave in certain ways, but we need more realistic models of how people actually behave in their day to day work lives, the internal biases they carry and the ability to be influenced by the context. In the light of this, there are endless opportunities and possibilities for integrating a deeper, more nuanced understanding of individuals into our organisations. For example, behavioural science can be used in recruitment to develop tools that protect against hiring bias (e.g. gender, race, self-selection), or behavioural tools to create closer collaboration amongst teams. Similarly, behavioural science can be used to help people be less distracted at work, and cultivate better work habits amongst employees.

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