This website uses cookies to improve your user experience.

Manage your cookies

We use cookies, some of them are essential, others are optional. Learn more.

Strictly necessary

These cookies are necessary for the website and can’t be deactivated.

Marketing & Analytics

These cookies can be set by our advertising partners through our website.


To individualize your content, we use tools that personalize your web experience.


Human resources · 

4 minutes

Cormac O'SullivanPiggy

Nudge Theory: Influence Big Decisions with Small Changes

In the evolving landscape of management theory, one approach that stands out for its effectiveness and subtlety is the nudge theory. Used correctly, it offers a powerful tool to gently guide decisions without imposing restrictions. The concept, developed by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, provides a lens to understand and influence people's behavior in the workplace.

What is Nudge Theory?

Nudge theory, as proposed by Thaler and Sunstein, is a concept in behavioral science and psychology that involves subtly leading individuals towards beneficial choices while still leaving all options open. In other words, it's about setting up 'choice architecture' that steers people in particular directions, but preserves their freedom of choice.

The theory gained prominence following their book, "Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness". The fundamental idea is that by understanding how people think and make decisions, it's possible to 'nudge' them toward choices that are in their best interest.

How to Use Nudge Theory in Management

Using nudge theory in management involves understanding your team's behavior patterns and subtly encouraging better decisions. Here are five practical ways to incorporate nudge theory into your management model:

Encouraging Skill Development

Promote continuous learning by nudging employees toward professional development opportunities. An example might include automatically enrolling staff into a relevant online course with the option to opt-out, rather than waiting for them to opt-in.

Facilitating Healthy Competition

Leaderboards, recognition awards, or performance graphs can nudge employees to work harder by appealing to their competitive nature. When employees can see their performance metrics in comparison to peers, they are likely to make more effort to improve.

Promoting Positive Behavior

Publicly recognizing positive actions can subtly encourage similar behavior among other employees. For instance, a monthly spotlight on an employee who demonstrated outstanding teamwork can prompt others to emulate this behavior.

Nudging Towards Innovation

Create an environment that encourages innovative thinking. You might nudge employees to think outside the box by providing a platform where they can freely share their ideas and receive constructive feedback.

Healthy Work-Life Balance

Encourage a healthy work-life balance by leading by example. Sending emails outside of work hours, for instance, may set an unintended precedent that constant availability is expected. Maintaining boundaries, on the other hand, can subtly nudge employees to do the same.

Nudge Theory: Examples in Companies

The application of nudge theory in companies is widespread, particularly in those seeking to foster a healthier, more productive work environment. Here are five examples of how organizations have successfully implemented nudging techniques:

Google's Healthy Eating Nudge

Google used nudging to encourage its employees to make healthier eating choices in its offices. They strategically placed healthier snacks at eye level while moving less healthy options to less visible locations. This small adjustment led to a significant increase in the consumption of healthier snacks.

UK Government's Behavioral Insights Team

Known as the 'Nudge Unit', the UK Government's Behavioral Insights Team applies nudge theory to influence public behavior in areas like tax compliance and energy consumption.

Opower's Energy Report

Opower, an energy software company, uses social comparison nudges to encourage customers to save energy. They send reports comparing an individual's energy use with that of their neighbors, prompting many to reduce their energy consumption.

Virgin Atlantic's Fuel-Efficiency Initiative

Virgin Atlantic used nudge theory to encourage fuel-saving practices among its pilots. The company simply informed pilots of the company's fuel usage, resulting in significant fuel and financial savings.

StickK's Commitment Platform

StickK, a goal-setting platform, uses nudge theory to encourage people to stick to their commitments. Users set a goal, put money on the line, and risk losing it if they don't meet their target. This has led to impressive success rates for goals ranging from weight loss to quitting smoking.

Implementing Nudge Theory in Change Management

Incorporating nudge theory into change management processes can significantly assist organizations as they navigate transitions. Rather than enforcing new rules or practices, nudges gently guide employees towards the desired change. Here's how you can apply nudge theory in different facets of change management:

Simplifying Change Communication

When communicating changes, it's essential to keep information simple and actionable. Complicated instructions can overwhelm employees and hinder the change process. Nudge theory advocates for presenting information in an easy-to-understand format, breaking down complex change procedures into manageable steps.

Cultivating a Change-friendly Culture

By incorporating nudge theory into daily operations, you can create a culture that is more adaptable to change. Regularly nudging employees towards flexibility, open-mindedness, and continual learning fosters an environment where change is not feared but embraced.

Using Defaults to Drive Change

Default settings can act as powerful nudges in change management. For example, if a company is migrating to a new email system, making the new platform the default option on all devices can encourage its adoption. While employees still have the choice to use the old system, the effort required to switch back can nudge them towards adapting to the new one.

Incentivizing New Behaviors

Positive reinforcement is another valuable tool in applying nudge theory. By offering incentives for adopting new behaviors, companies can motivate employees to embrace change. These incentives can be as simple as verbal recognition, or more tangible rewards such as bonuses or perks.

Feedback as a Change Agent

Providing feedback, both individual and collective, can also serve as a nudge to facilitate change. Regular updates on how well the team is adapting to new processes or how the changes are positively impacting the organization can motivate employees to fully embrace the change.

Using nudge theory in change management can significantly ease the transition process, ensuring changes are effectively implemented with less resistance. The subtlety of nudges allows organizations to guide employees towards desired outcomes, ensuring the organization can continue to grow and adapt in a fast-paced business environment.


Nudge theory, when applied thoughtfully, can positively influence employee behavior and improve the overall functioning of an organization. By using nudges to gently steer employees towards better choices, managers can foster a more productive, innovative, and positive working environment. As more companies realize the benefits of nudge theory, its application in management will likely continue to expand.

Related articles