Organizations across multiple sectors are increasingly exploring how the principles of behavioral science can help them better understand what drives employee behaviors and motivations. Among those at the forefront of that effort is UNLEASH America speaker Chris Dobyns, a human capital strategic consultant and former chief of staff for the National Security Agency.
Dobyns has worked in the area of compensation for more than 30 years and has held various compensation-related positions with a number of large organizations. More recently, he has emerged as a leading voice in applied behavioral science in human capital management, exploring the possibilities of behavior-shaping initiatives while also urging organizations to take a thoughtful and transparent approach to their implementation.
We spoke with him recently about his upcoming UNLEASH America talk in Las Vegas, his work at the NSA and the implications of leveraging behavioral science in HR.
What will you be talking about at UNLEASH?
Our presentation is going to be a brief overview of some of the recent advances in the area of applied behavioral science in the workforce, both to enhance the elements of human capital management as well as the area of compensation and total rewards. When we talk about behavioral sciences, we’re really talking about three different areas: We’re talking about applied cognitive psychology — the way in which people think and feel and emotions, social neuroscience — how the brain mediates social processes and behavior, and behavioral economics — which deals with financial and resource-related decision-making and judgments in people.
What’s an example of how behavioral science can be applied in human capital management?
One of the things that we’ve tried to operationalize is the concept of the bandwagon effect. The idea is you try to influence your peers by telling them a little bit about factually what the behavior of their peers has been.
Typically what I’ve seen in the private sector is where the organization maybe has some reservations that its workforce isn’t saving enough and preparing for retirement. In order to influence people to save more, they effectively will go and canvas their existing workforce and then they’ll put out a publication for everyone to read about the average contribution rates for the 401(k) by their respective grade level. Jack looks at that and says, “Here’s some data in terms of what my peers are doing and it says that my peers are contributing to the 401(k) at an average of 12.5 percent,” and “Oh, wait a minute I’m only contributing at 8.25 percent.” So now I’m motivated and now I’ve been influenced behaviorally to say, “Well, maybe I should be contributing more.”
That’s effectively how you operationalize that bandwagon effect with your employees. That one is obviously in all of their best interests, as well as the employer’s, to have your workforce as prepared for the next career stage as they move through your workforce and eventually to retirement.
How do you approach concerns over the use of behavioral science in the workplace?
Specifically in the intelligence business when we talk about behavioral science, people get a little bit sketchy about the differentiation between shaping people’s behavior and manipulating people’s behavior. When it comes to this area of applied behavioral research, we need to think long and hard about whether or not just because we can do something, whether we should do something.
When we’re doing behavioral shaping either with individuals or large scale with our workforce, those shapings should be both in the interests of the employer and the employee. They can’t be just be unidirectional. They can’t benefit one party. They need to benefit both parties, which is what I read in most of the literature. In the things that we’ve done, we’ve tried to walk down that line to make sure that if we were trying to encourage employees to make a better choice, that those choices were potentially both in the interest of the organization and the employee in a fully transparent way.
When you’re implementing a program that’s based on something new, such as applied behavioral science, how do you get buy-in?
The very candid answer is applied behavioral science is still an emerging area, specifically for human capital management. The guys that are in advertising and marketing have been doing this for years, but unfortunately HR, as a general statement, has a tendency to be a little bit more conservative. They’re not known for being early adopters of brand-new types of interventions. And government, which the National Security Agency is part of, is an incredibly conservative organization. Government by design is very risk averse, so making headway in this area has been slow-going. Some things we’ve done in such a light-handed way that we’ve been able to do it almost unilaterally and haven’t had to get a lot of senior management buy-in. But they’re around the very edges of the things that we could be doing.
When you implement a rewards program, or some other new workforce initiative, how do you gather feedback from your employees?
It’s principally in three areas: recruiting, retention or the satisfaction, commitment and engagement areas. In recruiting, after we’ve put a new program in place we try to put as much of a marketing face on that as possible. The demonstrated metrics of that would be increased or easier recruiting of talent in the hard-to-recruit areas — potentially a greater proportion or number of individuals coming from some of the top-tier schools or our ability to effectively attract talent from other top-tier employers.
On the retention piece, we mostly look at our ability to hang on to our existing workforce. We look at mostly attrition statistics and the stated reasons why people are leaving, and any specific patterns in particular talent, discipline or domain areas where we see greater or lesser loss of employees.
The last one would be more of the attitudinal piece, and we measure that in two dimensions. We do have an annual employee climate survey that we distribute, which captures and in the aggregate gives us a sense of how the workforce is perceiving their pay relative to others. We can do some cutting and slicing to gauge how our STEM and cybersecurity workforce is responding.
Additionally, we have our own internal social network. The NSA exists on its own separate classified computer system, so we’re not hooked into the internet in any way, but we actually have our own social network platform. Employees will provide input into that platform from which we can collect and glean what the relative response of the workforce is in reaction to any particular human capital event that’s going on — whether that’s a new pay program, or the most recent hiring freeze, or the most near-miss employee furlough, or any of those kind of good or bad things.