Humu Nudges: Nifty Reminders or Lazy Leadership?

Humu, a human resources consultancy founded by the former Head of HR at Google, uses behavioral economics ‘nudges’ to prompt better leadership. But is it necessary?

“Nudge.” What a pleasant and innocent way to describe what really might be called “your organization thinks you could be better and here is how, maybe you should do this.” Because that’s what a ‘nudge’ really is, right?

Building on the research of Nobel prize winning behavioral economist Richard Thaler and Harvard Professor Cass Sunstein, the Human Resources consulting company, Humu, founded by the former Head of HR at Google, Laszlo Bock, uses ‘nudges’ to get managers to make better decisions. According to an interview with Yale Insights, Humu uses small reminders throughout a manager’s day to influence their behaviors, and thus, make better decisions. Some examples of Humu nudges include sending a text to a manager right before a meeting reminding them to seek input on a decision being made at a meeting, or a calendar reminder to schedule a feedback session with direct reports. Nudges come directly from a Co-Founder’s account, so it comes with the extra “weight” of a PhD in behavioral economics – this stuff is grounded in real research.

Where Bock obfuscates is how his company does it. Emails are scanned but are not “read,” he claims. The data is the users and Humu is fully GDPR compliant according to official company policies. I have no reason to believe otherwise, but it does leave a dirty feeling with me that if my company were to use Humu’s product, a machine would be scanning my email for certain sentiments to determine if I were a flight risk, and, accordingly, prompt an intervention from my manager.

Perhaps more strikingly though, is my wonder if companies paying for Humu’s services could do this internally. It isn’t particularly novel, after all, to expect good managers to seek input during a meeting. So is this a failure of a company’s culture and the company’s leadership? Or merely a failure to implement a process or checklist to ensure managers are doing their job? Could I, as a company executive, publish a 3 x 5 note card that all managers are expected to review at the beginning of a meeting that carries the same message as Humu’s text message reminders? Could I teach a Chief of Staff to seek outsider opinions when driving a decision making process without the calendar invite reminder? Perhaps that isn’t as effective in our phone-obsessed world, but it seems like a step I’d want to try first before hiring a consulting company for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

To be clear, I actually believe in nudges, and don’t disagree with Humu’s premise behind their product. Thaler and Sunstein produce multiple examples of evidence when choice behavior can be influenced by choice design – in everything from Medicare Part D plans to Swedish retirement investment accounts. Choice paralysis is real – we experience it everyday (have you ever apartment hunted in a major city? I’m currently going through this difficult challenge). I just don’t believe an organization needs to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to implement it. I’m not convinced it takes AI to determine when an employee is disgruntled, or to remind a manager to do their job. What it does take is employees who care about one another, and clearly articulated expectations and standards. Write a playbook or Standard Operating Procedure, and demand that employees follow it. When they don’t, hold them accountable – dock their pay, demote them, don’t promote them, or fire them – this isn’t an area of choice paralysis – and it shouldn’t take a nudge to tell a leader what to do.

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1 thought on “Humu Nudges: Nifty Reminders or Lazy Leadership?

  1. Dan, I agree that there are many steps that can be taken to improve leadership within an organization before resorting to this product. However, while I won’t pay a hundred thousand dollars, I sure wouldn’t mind parting with a few thousand for it. It’s amazing how so many things can slip one’s imperfect mind in the face of mounting work pressures and life’s distractions. A tool like can definitely help to plug the cracks, make things more manageable and improve one’s overall effectiveness. That said, my worry here is twofold: 1) The number of nudges can become a metric for managerial ineffectiveness. But this is strictly personal. Last thing I need is some silly tool tracking me when I slip up with even things of little consequence. 2) One can become overly dependent on it, in the same way I’ve become too dependent on using calculators to perform basic arithmetic. This spells good news for Humu, because their product has the potential to become sticky, if deployed right. Still, it’s bad for the individual who can no longer function without it. All in all, like you, I’m bearish on it’s ability to penetrate the market quickly.

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