Why your COOs should be CBOs: Chief Behavioural Officers

(Financial Conduct Authority)


Business leaders increasingly recognise that an understanding of people – both customers and employees – can make or break a business. Below we set out the case for the Chief Behavioural Officer (CBO) – and why all Operations leaders should be one.

Many of us have worked with uncollaborative team members, but in some teams, employees working in silos is a particular problem. Laszlo Bock, Google’s former head of People Operations employed an interesting intervention: In a team experiencing tension, staff were asked to respond to a quarterly survey of two questions: “In the last quarter, this person helped me when I reached out to him or her”; and “In the last quarter, this person involved me when I could have been helpful to, or was impacted by, his or her team’s work.”

Everyone rated their team members, and an anonymous ranking was shared with the team. While each person knew where they fell in relation to others, they did not know exactly how each of the other team members scored. This intervention, feeding back each team member’s performance relative to others, was enough to encourage less cooperative staff to improve the quality of their collaboration.

Within two years, the team went from a score of 70% favourable to a score of 90%.

Leading companies like Google are using such behaviourally inspired solutions to encourage organisational change. But behavioural science can benefit any organisation – it offers Operations leaders a highly valuable lens for approaching problems where logic alone is not enough.

In particular, Operations leaders often ponder a number of questions:

  • How do I design my organisation’s processes to produce good outcomes in an efficient way?
  • How do I encourage recycling and waste reduction among staff?
  • How do I hire in a way that taps into the breadth and depth of talent in the market?
  • How do I ensure my organisation is resilient in the digital age?

These questions could keep Operations leaders up at night. We think channelling the skills of a Chief Behavioural Officer can help. Below we outline in relation to each of these four questions, how behavioural science can turn Operations leaders into behaviourally informed COOs, or indeed CBOs.

Tackle uncertainty in organisational processes

A first area of focus for a Chief Behavioural Officer is to mitigate the uncertainty facing employees and consumers.

Why would CBOs tackle uncertainty? Turning to the experience of animals, research shows that the situations they find stressful are those they cannot predict or control. Rats, for example, given a choice between a predictable electric shock versus an unpredictable shock, choose the predictable one – even when it is longer and more intense. And their stress responses drop when they are able to anticipate or control the timing of these shocks.

As humans, we exhibit similar stress responses in the face of uncertainty. We are hardwired to avoid uncertainty and our subjective and physiological responses to uncertainty compare to our experiences of physical pain.

This finding was also borne out in our work with financial services firms. We conducted a behavioural design audit of the FCA’s own processes for authorising firms and we found uncertainty to be a big problem. Specifically, firms did not know what to expect of the authorisations process and had no idea about the status of their application.

“It’s like my application went into a black hole… it’s all just a mystery”, said one firm employee.

This uncertainty was a problem in two ways: 1) uncertainty made it difficult for firms to do business, causing stress and anxiety which is not conducive to a good firm experience; and, 2) experiencing the ‘black hole’ caused higher volumes of calls to FCA case officers, which was a drain on precious resources for all parties involved.

To reduce this uncertainty, we recommended an application tracker. Firms would know what to expect from the start and could see the status of their application at any time. The tracker would also show approximate timings, breaking up the authorisations process into more manageable chunks.

This idea is based on what is known in the behavioural science literature as ‘operational transparency’, where showing the effort involved in delivering a service or product serves as a signal of value and offsets the negative feelings of waiting.

‘Operational transparency’ as a way to improve user experience is now almost ubiquitous – London Transport improved commuter experience by showing wait times, rather than speeding up trains. Deliveroo updates you as your order is being processed, Royal Mail allows you to track your delivery and Uber shows you exactly where your driver is.

The authorisation tracker, ‘Track My Application’, is now live and is designed to give the FCA on-going feedback from firms to make it progressively better. The tool aims to both increase efficiency (by reducing calls and emails) and to improve the firm experience.

After the tool launched, 85% of users provided positive feedback and insights from behavioural science suggest providing a better firm experience will increase compliance and co-operation, which is exactly what the FCA wants from firms.

Design-in recycling and waste reduction

Most Operations teams are keen to reduce the wasteful use of resources like paper, takeaway boxes and single-use coffee cups, and to encourage more recycling. If we could design our working environments with these outcomes in mind, running smooth operations would become easier and we could promote better working conditions for staff, greater efficiency and live up to our responsibility towards the environment.

A Chief Behavioural Officer would focus the solution on re-designing the environment rather than trying to educate, train or scare people into better behaviour.

In a natural field experiment at a large Swedish university, researchers tested whether changing the pre-set default to double-sided printing could help cut down paper consumption. Before the intervention, users could switch from a pre-set default of single-sided printing to double-sided printing, but single-sided was the default and many users clicked print before thinking twice. Changing the default to double-sided printing had a noticeable impact, with a sustained reduction of paper consumption of 15%.

We’ve seen behavioural science yield similar outcomes at the FCA. With the help of setting double-sided black and white printing as the default on all printers and going digital, paper usage decreased by 67% compared to the 2017 baseline. We saved a further 1 million sheets of paper, the equivalent of 94 trees, in one year, by automatically deleting print jobs that were sent to the printer but never released to print by the user.

Waste reduction is not only about reducing paper usage and printing. What to do when dealing with the challenge of chewing gum disposal? Behavioural design suggests a solution can entail using specific chewing gum bins close to desks and even the ‘gamification of gum’ – implementing GumTarget boards with yes/no questions and asking people to ‘answer’ by sticking their gum on it. For example, the London Borough of Ealing has tested the divisive question: “Marmite: Love it, Hate it?”

We can design environments which tap into inbuilt psychology and mean that we do the right thing by default. The resulting interventions are often low in cost, especially relative to the expected benefit.

Get ideas for better recruitment from behavioural science

The merits of diversity and inclusion (D&I) go beyond fairness. They drive hard business metrics like organisational performance and operational risk. Research shows that diverse teams process information more thoroughly and accurately, are more innovative and yield greater economic prosperity.

A key task for the Chief Behavioural Officer is using behavioural insights to improve D&I.

One application is in ensuring organisations hire based on merit. By drawing on all talent in the market, organisations benefit from filling vacancies more quickly and easily. But the way organisations engage with potential candidates often keeps some of the best talent hidden and therefore out of reach.

Why? Gendered language in job posts can sort applicants before they have even applied. Gender biases limit both men and women, but in different fields.

job post for a teaching role might emphasise nurturing qualities, like being ‘caring’ or ‘supportive’, reflecting stereotypically female characteristics. Meanwhile, a job post calling for ‘analytic and leadership prowess’ might encourage more men to apply. In the former case, it may be more difficult to attract men to apply, while in the latter case, female talent may remain hidden, a challenge particularly in industries like finance or technology.

A first step is to purge gendered language from job posts. This also matters because women typically consider more factors than men when applying for jobs. They tend to apply only when matching 100% with the job description, whereas men apply when meeting 60% of the requirements.

What does the future hold for behavioural science applications in HR and professional development? At the intersection of behavioural science, big data, and experimentation, the emerging field of people science promises breakthroughs in measuring the employer-employee relationship and identifying barriers to success. Operations and specifically HR should set the agenda here, ensuring all interventions are transparent, the benefits are visible for employees and are rooted in ethical principles.

Think beyond digital walls when building cyber resilience

In 2018, UK financial services firms reported 93 cyberattacks. Just over half the attacks at financial services firms involved phishing, with 48 incidents reported in 2018, followed by 19 ransomware attacks. Other causes included malicious code (16 reported) and distributed denial of service attacks (10 reported).

A Chief Behavioural Officer might highlight that higher digital walls alone are not enough. Cyber criminals commonly target our human nature, rather than structural loopholes and a behavioural lens on cybersecurity is another way Operations can lower risks.

Salient reminders and appeals to group behaviours can help protect against cyber criminals. For example, a message that says “99% of your colleagues identify phishing attempts and alert the cybersecurity team” can promote the right behaviours by taking advantage of our natural desire to fit in with the behaviours of our peers.

Operations can also train their staff to recognise cyber-attacks by conducting phishing simulations – effectively a cyber ‘fire drill’. Phishing simulations involve sending out e-mails to staff that appear to be normal firm communication, except for a few details that can tip off attentive employees that the e-mail is not legitimate.

In these simulations, employees falling for the bait would be notified that they would have been compromised had the email been a real phishing attack. Alternatively, staff might receive a congratulatory message to confirm they correctly identified the phishing email.

Such immediate feedback helps to make the experience more visceral for employees and is an effective tool to encourage caution. Exercises like these help remind us of the risk of cyberattacks and can educate us about the clues that can alert us to a cyber threat.

By understanding staff through the lens of behavioural science, Operations leaders can encourage a security-conscious culture that lowers the organisation’s overall cyber security risk.

The way forward

Many Operations leaders already understand the value of considering what drives behaviour as a central component of their work and indeed many have been Chief Behavioural Officers all along.

But how to get started for those warming up to behavioural science?

Laszlo Bock suggests mixing findings from academia, with an organisation’s own ideas and then testing these findings in the day-to-day operations of the business. “Nudges are an incredibly powerful mechanism for improving teams and organisations. They are also ideally suited to experimentation, so can be tested on smaller populations to fine-tune results.”

Indeed, because behaviour change is highly contextual, trialling an intervention in a safe space allows organisations to manage their risks while exploring opportunities for continued operational improvement. It may be helpful to work on the low-risk, high-impact interventions first, to gain momentum and then to scale up from there.

Cutting-edge applications of behavioural science are not just for leading tech companies like Google. Many organisations can benefit from the insights that behavioural science offers, especially when faced with the complex challenges that Operations teams encounter.

And as even a tech giant like Google seems to realise, these are not challenges that technology, even Artificial Intelligence, can easily address. Human behaviour is a subtle and complex phenomenon and its management remains squarely in the ambit of human intelligence.

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