1. Use trust to combat the infodemic
We are living in an era of declining trust. Growing polarization and shrinking trust in institutions have provided fertile ground for the infodemic of disinformation. One noteworthy finding in Edelman’s 2019 Trust Barometer was that, against this backdrop of declining trust, the single most trusted institution is “my employer.” That’s good news for companies and their leaders, who now have the opportunity to both fill a critical gap in society and enable a safe return to the workplace by providing reliable, science-based information and guidance. Employers could become the one trusted source of information that employees across the political spectrum are likely to believe.
Trust is a scarce commodity. You have it. Use it wisely.
2. Utilize social norms to encourage good behavior
Behavioral economist Dan Ariely has written extensively about the distinction between market norms and social norms. Companies and their employees typically operate in the domain of market norms, which are transactional and motivated by financial return. But social norms, which typically dominate our interactions with friends and families, can be far more motivating when deployed in the workplace — which is why volunteer-driven Wikipedia and Linux continue to flourish and trounce better-funded rivals with large armies of full-time employees.
Social norms have played a significant role in tackling the pandemic since its onset. When the guidance to wear face masks was first adopted, for instance, public health messaging frequently emphasized that one wears a mask to protect others more than one does to protect oneself. Now, as behavioral fatigue sets in and case numbers are poised to rebound, employers would do well to remind workers of the social norms underpinning their behaviors. In doing so, they would also reap an ancillary benefit, by fostering a greater sense of community in the workplace.
We are all in this together. How can you do well by doing good?
3. Use default settings and choice architecture to combat behavioral fatigue
A textbook example of the power of behavioral economics is with respect to organ donation. In countries where organ donation is an “opt out” (people are automatically enrolled as organ donors unless they explicitly state otherwise), participation rates are dramatically higher than in countries where the decision is an “opt in” (people are not enrolled unless they explicitly choose to become organ donors). Most people, it turns out, just go with the default setting.
The behavioral economist Richard Thaler, who popularized the term “nudge,” has written extensively about the power of choice architecture — designing the number of choices, the sequence in which they are presented, the use of a default setting, etc. — in influencing behaviors.
These insights are particularly relevant as employers reopen workplaces amid a backdrop of behavioral fatigue. The use of choice architecture and, in particular, default settings, can free up workers from having to make decisions and can help combat behavioral fatigue. This could include everything from mandatory testing upon arrival to physical cues for social distancing, similar to the markers that have become ubiquitous in retail settings, and the placement of hand sanitizer dispensers next to doorknobs.
How can you free your workers from behavioral fatigue while creating a safer workplace?