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I’m a little envious of professional thinkers that get to go to work and face down challenges that make our little tree care problems seem tiny in comparison.  One concept that has been getting a lot of talk internationally amongst a range of professionals is known as “Nudge Theory”, and there are almost certainly applications for our industry.

Cass Sunstein, a Harvard Law School professor and Richard Thaler, a behavioural economist (awarded a Nobel Memorial Prize for his work on nudge theory) have suggested that a subtle nudge can have an influence on an individual’s, a group’s, or even a society’s decisions. An example of nudge theory in action came from a need to reduce a high number of injuries occurring in Japan on subways. Rather than a costly and disruptive engineering solution, a rail operator chose to abandon anxiety-inducing door-closing warning sounds for a short and pleasing composed melody. The “Hassha” melodies are different at each station (and different where there are multiple platforms) and have delivered significant reductions in passenger stress -- most importantly, this creative and cost- effective change reduced rushing injuries without reducing the efficiency of the subway system moving passengers. Passengers haven’t been forced to change their habits. It’s just that opting-in seems preferable to the alternative.

In another high-profile example, Spanish government used a nudge approach in changing resident organ donation registrations from automatic opt-out to opt-in, and as a result are now able to connect many more available organs to citizens in need. These results have encouraged other governments to follow suit.  As for backlash on the policy change, there has been relatively little, because the option to opt-out persists.

How does nudge theory go to work for you, the arborist?  If I were to quickly rattle off an example, I would jump straight to human resources: a recruitment, development and retention formula, all in one:

 

Employer 1 has an expectation that all employees must attend a college apprenticeship program within their first year of employment at the employer’s expense (having completed a 3 month probation period) regardless of their experience level. If the employee chooses to opt-out, they would be limited to seasonal work or to residential work only as prestigious contracts require qualified apprentice workers (for example).

Employer 2 promotes their expectation that employees pursue a college apprenticeship during the recruiting and orientation process, but clarifies that apprenticeships are awarded at management’s discretion on a performance- evaluation basis, and after a minimum commitment of 1 year.  In addition to those requirements, a multiple year contract must be fulfilled or the full course costs would become the responsibility of the employee. Following completion of the program, in addition to regular duties, the employee would be expected to provide training to workers that are not eligible for apprenticeships.

 

From the outside, both companies are committed to training their personnel in accredited programs. From the inside, these two work environments are fundamentally different:

 

Employer 1 creates an automatic opt-in incentive where an opt-out exists, although the choice does impose limitations that will be less desirable to most workers (e.g. seasonal work, residential work only, etc.).

Employer 2 does not give a choice initially of opting-in or out. The dangling carrot incentive philosophy suggests that a competitive, loyal worker with a strong work ethic will rise to the challenge and assumes all others will be flight-risks at worst, or tier-2 workers at best. After the established performance hurdles are clear, the opt-in may be less desirable than the opt-out to the employee when faced with a minimum-term contract. This system intended to reduce exposure to flight-risk workers, increases flight-risk potential in what is ultimately fewer tier 1 arborists that have met the high-performance criteria.

Regardless of your philosophy, employees inevitably leave for many reasons: personality dynamics, wages, benefits, workflow, career changes, and relocation to name a few. The rate at which workers exit the workplace, the rate that prospective workers apply, what baseline skillset your workplace can deliver consistently, and how safely their work is performed will measurably vary between these philosophies. A little nudge can be a turning point for your workplace culture.

- Gary Oaks

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