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Get Results as a Leader Using Choice Architecture!


I can see clearly now the rain is gone.  These immortal words by the great Jimmy Cliff resonate with me and the hundreds of supervisors I have shared this powerful insight about leadership. The truth is, most supervisors still believe in and adopt the approach for control rather than influence.  It is not their fault.  We have been using the same model for management since the early 1900s.  This carrot and the stick methodology is management 1.0.  What if there is a better way?  What if there is an easier way?  What if there is a more powerful way to get desired behaviors from your teams?  Enter choice architecture.

As we begin to reopen our attitude toward business and Covid-19, consider the tremendous opportunity to use this historical moment as a pivot point for leadership in your organization.  We are watching power-hungry politicians attempt to control a human population (in America) that have freedom at our core.  Civil liberties are being sacrificed in the name of remaining safe from a virus.  Some politicians are getting tremendous resistance because they are attempting to use management 1.0 (carrot and stick) instead of choice architecture to gain desired behavior. They are failing.  If we do experience a second wave of coronavirus, Americans will not be locked-down again.  If you desire more opinion on this, you can listen to my podcast, Crazy Enough to Win” on all major podcasting platforms.  This debate is not the point of this article.

The same results are occurring for supervisors and managers all over the world.  The old prescription for management is being revealed for the inefficacy that always existed.  There is a better way.  A more effective method to gain compliance or desired behavior is the gentle nudge that is the result of choice architecture.  I have been teaching and training supervisors, managers, and executives these concepts since discovering the work of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in 2008.  In the highly-recommend book Nudge, these behavioral economists call choice architecture the practice of influencing choice by “organizing the context in which people make decisions”.  Ironically, the book was written as we entered the 2008-2009 financial crisis, so the applicability of this work is timely as we recover from this pandemic.  How cool is that?

No credible definition of leadership is missing the word influence.  The essence of leadership is influence.  The essence of management is control.  Choice architecture is rooted in influence of other people rather than control.  Arranging food a certain way in the cafeteria to get people to make healthier choices is a common example of choice architecture.  The same thinking can be applied to all facets of human existence, including supervisors at work.  I am going to share a few examples in this article so you can see and understand the value for your leadership team.  For the past twelve years, I have honed and crafted these tools for manufacturing, healthcare, non-profit, petrochemical, and energy sectors to name a few.

Aspiring leaders (aka managers and supervisors) may use default options as a gentle nudge for team members. Here is an example, not a recommendation, so you will understand the point.  I am not an investment advisor.  If a manager desires more participation in the company 401K match, she may consider defaulting to accomplish this outcome.  In other words, instead of giving employees the option, she subtly sets the default as “in” and they must “opt-out” in order to not participate.  Defaulting is also effective in terms of employee safety and productivity on the job.

A second tool in choice architecture is framing.  Behavioral options might be presented in a way that highlights the positive or negative aspects of the same decision.  This can lead to changes in their relative attractiveness and as a result, employee behavior.  In safety management, this might be when a manager highlights a high compliance rate instead of placing emphasis on the few people that are out of compliance.  In production terms, framing can be the focus on those who succeed rather than those who fail.

Using decoys to encourage behavior is another example of choice architecture.  With Covid-19 in the background, a supervisor might post the number of cases (or deaths) in the community next to an automatic hand sanitizer dispenser by the break room exit in a manufacturing plant.  The decoy is the posting that reminds employees to clean hands before returning to work.

These are just examples to make the point for the use of choice architecture more deliberately as a tool to lead people in the workplace.  It already exits all around us in obvious and more subtle ways.  Flashing lights on a rural country road is an example to nudge a driver to slow down.  Aspiring leaders can learn to adopt this management 2.0 approach in order to gain desired behavior.  When taught properly, choice architecture opens an incalculable number of options for supervisors and managers.  I have heard comments from students like, “I was blind, now I can see” and “Wow, this makes my job easier”.

Choice architecture is deeply rooted in behavioral economics.  Richard Thaler won a Nobel Prize in this field of study.  The key to success is taking the idea out of the academic nuance and translating it into real-world tools that a “non-economist” manager can apply to her own reality.  In other words, merely telling someone what it is and how it works, is not enough.  Skills must be developed deliberately to transition choice architecture from understanding to application.  Ironically, a most effective utilization of choice architecture is in the field of marketing and sales. Sales professionals gain an incredible advantage to help a prospect on the buying journey with skills in this area.

Let’s conclude with the coronavirus.  Sweden opted not to have a strict formal lock-down.  They have had more deaths than some neighboring countries but about as many (per capita) as the U.S.  They have had far fewer deaths than some countries in Europe that had strict lock-downs.  Instead, they opted for the management 2.0 approach.  They made fewer restrictions for Swedish citizens and utilized nudges for social distancing and business occupancy.  The Swedish government employed choice architecture to guide citizens instead of using the heavy hand of authority.  They trusted people to do the right thing with a little guidance to be safe.  The global impact on Sweden is relatively less economically, than in the rest of the world and will likely lead to a faster recovery.  Choice architecture is as effective on large-scale problems just as much as the day-to-day issues faced by a front-line supervisor in a manufacturing plant. 

Several people have asked for my permission to share recent articles with others.  I not only approve, but I encourage you to do so.  If we can help others during this difficult time, let’s make the commitment to do so.  How is that for a nudge?