Leveraging “Wise” Interventions to Promote CR in the Workplace

What does the word “intervention” bring to your mind? When I was a paraprofessional in clinical psychology, interventions consisted of 10-week programs, teams of professionals, and time-consuming follow-ups. At school, interventions meant spending time as a Resident Assistant mentoring and supporting my slightly younger peers through crises. And as it regards my own self-interventions, well, dieting and exercising has been a long and sore journey.
 
I’m here to tell you that going small can lead to big results. For example, a brief writing exercise has been shown to drastically reduce the racial gap in education over 2 years; reducing plate sizes makes people feel fuller with less food; and asking individuals a single question improves their romantic relationships over several weeks. These are peer-reviewed and scientifically rigorous examples of what psychologists’ term “wise” interventions—small, effective interventions that are neither costly nor complicated. 
 
Wise interventions can also be used within your workplace to promote corporate and employee responsibility. So whether you are part of a large corporation or a small nonprofit, here is some “wise” advice to encourage better employee practices at your work.
 
“Nudge” your employees in the right direction
 
You just got off work and are making your way through traffic to the grocery store. As you leave the crowded lot and enter the store, you pull up your mental list of things to buy. You head first for the milk and juice, and find yourself walking past items you weren’t planning on buying… but on second thought, that item on special looks pretty good, so you throw it in your cart and continue shopping. By checkout, you have walked up and down every aisle in the store, and have contributed more to your cart than initially planned.
 
Grocery stores have been using nudges for years—as have you. Consider when you highlight the takeaways of a report, place recycle bins near your desk, or send a calendar invite; you are making it easier to commit to a desired behavior. While you have a choice, the desired behavior is easier to make (in the grocery store situation, the alternative is walking around the edges of the store). And that’s a nudge. 
 
Some nudges you can implement within your company:
 
1. Go green by having more recycle bins than trash cans around the office; leave markers around disposable dishware so employees can write in their own names, encouraging reuse.
2. Promote volunteering by gathering a list of volunteer events that your employees can attend in-person after work or during their lunch hour, or by identifying virtual events.
3. Encourage healthy eating by placing healthier snacks near break room entrances.
4. Hold informationals about local nonprofits during lunch breaks, ideally in the company café. 
 
While you are coming up with your own workplace nudges, keep in mind that nudges make certain behaviors easier without adding a penalty. For example, demanding that employees either volunteer or donate their own money to a cause is not considered a nudge. Instead, one might email employees about local volunteer opportunities (#2 above), attach a map of these locations, and also give each employee an envelope for donating any amount (even $0) to be collected at the end of the week for an employee-nominated nonprofit. 
 
Inaction is easier than action
 
Economics relies on human beings as rational creatures; we are not. In my own life, it’s still a struggle to run, workout, and reduce sugar intake, despite the enormous benefits of all three. The reason we may not commit to a desired behavior with long-term benefits is we give greater weight to the here-and-now. In other words, it’s easier to conceptualize the difficulty of going to the gym right now than it is to envision living longer several decades from now. 
 
But even the slightest effort or obstacle can deter a positive behavior. Consider a study by Madrian and Shea, who were looking at 401K participation rates at a specific company (2001). They found that 401K enrollments rose to 20% after 3 months of employment, with a gradual increase to 65% participation after 36 months. Under the economics model, where human beings are entirely rational creatures, this would suggest that it was only beneficial for 65% of employees to enroll in a 401K plan after 36 months. Yet, once auto-enrollment was introduced at the same company, participation jumped immediately to 90%, and increased to more than 98% after 36 months. One reason for this jump is that inaction is easier than action
 
Setting defaults also creates group norms which we’ll touch on in the next section. Another study looking at defaults, this time at organ donating rates across countries, found that citizens of countries with an opt-out default viewed organ donating akin to, “letting other people go ahead of you in line”. And how did citizens of opt-in countries view organ donating (such as the U.S.)?  “Giving away half your wealth to charity when you die”. Clearly, setting defaults not only makes certain behaviors easier, but also establishes a group norm. 
 

 
Defaults can be implemented for various purposes, from setting your employees up for financial success through automatic 401K enrollment to establishing volunteer days, such as what Oracle and many Bay Area companies already have in place. As you consider defaults at your own company, recall that even an opt-in policy is still a default, and thus impacts behaviors and workplace norms.
 
Promote corporate responsibility by setting group norms
 
Recently, executive leadership at a San Francisco-based startup spent half a day on the internal launch of their foundation. Nonprofits and foundation committee organizers strategically placed information tables near where employees walked by to grab breakfast burritos. There was some activity at the tables, but most employees waited for the executive leadership to speak at the launch. One by one, executives and managers gave their support for the launch. The event could have been a success at that; instead, the last speaker wisely asked for a pledge to support the foundation by show of hands. Everyone raised their hand. It set a powerful group norm; as soon as the event concluded, employees massed around the tables to sign themselves up. 
 
Kurt Lewin, considered one of the founders of social psychology, did a similar thing back in World War II. At that time, there was a shortage of premium cuts of meats, and the U.S. Government commissioned Lewin to find out how to convince families back home to buy “variety” meats (i.e. organs). One of Lewin’s signature findings arose from this study: it is easier to convince groups to change than individuals—if there is some explicit buy-in to the new norm. And just like the executive from the SF-based start-up, Lewin used a pledge by show of hands to make that change; there was over 4x more participation in buying cheap meats than there was in another lecture-only condition. 
 
The biggest takeaway from Lewin and the San Francisco start-up is that group norms can be changed, but there must be buy-in by the group themselves. Whether that is done by show of hands, verbally or through written correspondence is up to your company’s culture. Next time your company is asking employees to get involved in your CR programs, get some kind of group buy-in to establish CR as the new group norm.   
 
For more information on how SVCF can help your company with its CR programs, please contact donate@siliconvalleycf.org