Psyched: Adding Behavioral Psychology to HR

Psychology in HR is more than industrial or organizational psychology. Behavioral psychology can help you get more done with less effort.

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Psyched: Adding Behavioral Psychology to HR

Here's what you need to know about psyched: adding behavioral psychology to HR:

  • Behavioral psychology is the study of how our thinking impacts how we behave; specifically linking our cognitive states to our behavior.
  • Using platforms that simplify tasks, so employees only need to click and complete an action, can make forming a habit even easier.
  • Intentionally framing an idea by putting it in a specific light, makes it more attractive to the listener.

For HR managers and small business owners that want to boost employee productivity and responsiveness, simply tweaking your communication can do the trick. All you need is a little psychology to get things moving.

While most focus on social or industrial psychology for HR matters, behavioral psychology can help you streamline communication and ensure things get done.

But before we get started, let’s go over what behavioral psychology is and how it can help you improve your employee relationships.

What is behavioral psychology, and why apply it to HR?

Behavioral psychology links our cognitive states to our behavior. Basically, it’s the study of how our thinking impacts our behavior. And while there’s been quite a lot written about behavioral psychology and consumer behavior, many techniques can also boost HR efforts.

After all, consider all the “small” things that can bottleneck your operation:

  • Late paperwork updates or submissions
  • Interpersonal conflicts
  • Having to sell your improvement ideas to the management teams or staff
  • Misunderstood instructions
  • Unnecessary conflicts due to poor communication

With behavioral psychology, you can make minor tweaks to the workplace or your communication style to limit these bottlenecks and create a positive work environment.

Applying behavioral psychology concepts is all about improving communication and engagement.

6 behavioral psychology skills for better communication

At the end of the day, applying behavioral psychology concepts is all about improving communication and engagement. While there are several psychological approaches, these top six are easy to implement in the workplace, starting today.

1.   Framing

Have you ever had a situation where an employee or their supervisor just didn’t listen to your advice? Whether you’ve struggled to get minds on board for new tools, updated processes, or resolving conflict, how you explain your request often matters more than what you’re asking for.

When you intentionally frame an idea, you are putting it in a light that makes it more attractive to the listener.

Here are some examples of what framing could look like in practice:

Situation: You want to push for a migration to a new payroll platform that will save 15% of the budget in the long term and reduce time spent on manual data entry by 50%. But the upfront migration time cost is a big ask, and the management team is on the fence.

Approach: You may downplay the migration time and highlight how fast you’ll be back on track—or even be ahead of the game—after the solution is implemented.

Situation: An employee’s performance is struggling, and while they seem to appreciate feedback, they aren’t improving. They also haven’t touched on the career advancement and training options included in their benefits package.

Approach: You may request they use the training materials to improve their performance. But you can frame this request as a chance to help the employee progress through a roadmap.

2.   Priming

Priming is a way to tap into a person’s subconscious. Essentially, you can affect someone’s behavior by exposing them to specific information or stimuli.

In the case of human resource management, an example is providing an onboarding checklist to a new employee. To affect an employee’s mood or actions, you can also use:

  • Images
  • Sounds
  • Smells
  • Other items

Common examples of priming are using positive messages, whether soothing background music or motivational posters, in the workplace.

You’ll want to ask yourself—what small things can help direct an employee’s mindset? This can include rewording memos or internal email templates to be more conversational and positive or discussing deadlines for compliance requirements far in advance.

3.   Loss aversion

Humans tend to feel loss more than gains. Yes, those 10-minute feedback sessions or daily praises matter. But sometimes, you’ll need to leverage an individual’s fear of losing something.

This doesn’t have to be a stressful event, either. You shouldn’t use loss aversion to threaten employees—such as withholding pay or suggesting termination. That will have the opposite effect.

Small, seemingly insignificant loss aversion methods are far more effective (and humane).

Consider task streaks for increased motivation. For example, for every day a task is completed on time, add $1 to a jar or box for that employee. At the end of a period, what is collected will be donated to their favorite charity (or given directly to the employee as a gift card). But if they miss that task for a day or two, maybe they lose that streak and have to start over from scratch. They won’t want to risk that. Once a streak starts, sweetened by a monetary reward, they will want to keep productivity up.

4.   Choice

The average adult makes around 35,000 decisions per day.

Choice can be empowering. But it can also cause fatigue.

The average adult makes around 35,000 decisions per day. Meaning asking your employees to make too many decisions, even for the optics of “choice” or “flexibility,” could be hindering performance.

While you may want to offer extensive benefits packages or “pick and choose” schemes, avoiding long lists of options can streamline the process and reduce decision fatigue. This may even be the issue with unlimited PTO days and why employees tend to underutilize them—when you have “unlimited” time off, how do you choose when to go? How long to leave for? The lack of parameters can cause decision paralysis and unnecessary strain.

In fact, rather than focus on giving employees more options, it might be better to focus on the quality of those options.

5.   Habits

Installing positive habits can reduce stress for HR teams significantly. There are so many employee-side requests, such as PTO time, ACA market deadlines, performance reviews, and employee feedback. Automating these processes can help, but ensuring that employees know what to do, habitually can help streamline the process.

To help employees create habits, you’ll need:

  • A cue to signal it’s time to perform an action. A simple notification in your task management or employee communications app can do the trick.
  • A reward for prompting a response. This can be as simple as a positive emoji or ticking an item off the list.

Using platforms that simplify tasks, so employees only need to click and complete an action, can make forming a habit even easier.

6.   Reciprocity

As it often happens, giving is getting. Offering something small in value—whether that’s onboarding swag, birthday gifts, random kudos, or just regular praise—can significantly improve employee engagement and productivity.

In one study by Deloitte, researchers found that 25% of employees want recognition for their efforts. Do you wonder what you should say? Three-quarters of respondents said a simple “thank you” would suffice.

As deadlines approach to update benefits information or you’re looking at struggling performance, simply thanking your staff for their hard work may make them more receptive to future asks or recommendations.

Identifying and improving employee well-being at work is the best way to build loyalty and trust between staff and the organization.

Are there other types of psychology that work well with HR?

Traditionally, psychology in HR has revolved around three other practice areas:

Organizational psychology

For HR, organizational psychology is one of the top priorities. This field deals with motivation and engagement but can also delve into leadership styles and management.

Industrial psychology

This branch focuses almost entirely on improving manufacturing and other manual labor productivity and morale. Today, it primarily focuses on framing and evaluating job requirements so that employees understand expectations and meet objectives.

Social psychology

Social psychology deals entirely with how people affect others. Brushing up on some of the recent studies in this area can help you fine-tune conflict resolution in the workplace and improve collaboration.

More on better employee morale and motivation

Psychology offers a great way to understand employee communication and motivation better. But there’s more to creating a productive workplace than applying these principles.

Identifying and improving employee well-being at work is the best way to build loyalty and trust between staff and the organization. But what should you look for? And how can you prioritize well-being the in the workplace?

Check out our Peoples Operations Guide and Checklist for Employee Well-being for the full story.

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