Improving School Leadership: One Nudge At A Time

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Paul Ainsworth

Paul has been writing for the Teacher Toolkit website since 2012 and is the author of 'No Silver Bullets: Day in, day out school improvement'. He is a system leader supporting primary schools, secondary schools and MATs currently with with Infinity Academies Trust as Education...
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Can we improve school leadership by ‘nudging’?

A few weeks ago I was in a meeting and one of the issues being considered, was how to ensure that data returns were completed on time. Very quickly the group began to look at penalties; was this an issue that needed to be picked up through appraisal or should it be a disciplinary issue?

Many leaders automatically look for compulsion by setting rules and regulations to ensure that actions are completed appropriately but as I suggested in my last blog there is another alternative and that is to seek to influence people by using ‘nudge’ theory.

One Nudge At A Time

‘Nudge’ is a booked written by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein and has been very instrumental across the USA and the UK.

It was a ‘go to’ book in the first Obama administration. Anecdotally it was also a required read for the first Cameron government prior to their election and we still have ‘The British Behavioural Insights Team’ at the Cabinet Office. Both leaders were trying to change societal behaviours and they recognised that being a ‘choice architect’ and creating the conditions for individuals to make certain decisions would be more effective than legislation.


If a school leader wishes to nudge his colleagues to work in certain ways the following diagram from the Behavioural Insights team provides an ideal starting point to help with this leadership technique.

If we wish our colleagues to do certain things, we should try to make them easy, attractive, social and timely. If we can utilise all of these factors there is a far greater likelihood of our colleagues behaving in the way we wish.

Taxing Times

A very simple example of using these ideas was trialled to encourage people to pay their taxes on time.

It was found that 33% of people were paying their taxes at a certain point. By adding the following different sentences to a letter sent to people it was found that the percentage of payments increased.

– “9 out of 10 people pay their tax on time” – now 35% paid

– “Most people in your area pay your tax on time” – a small increase to 36% paid

– “You are one of the few people in your area not to pay your tax on time” another small increase to 37% paid

– “Most people in your area pay their tax on time and you are one of the few not to do so” Finally 39% paid.

I wondered if the same sort of technique would encourage my colleagues to submit their data on-time or increase the number of completed reports to parents early to give more time for proof reading.

Perhaps the email close to deadline date could say, “most of your colleagues have already submitted their data and you are one of the few yet to do so”. It would be interesting to see how effective such a statement would be rather than the email, which says, the deadline for data submission is in two days time.

Attractive Thinking

Many of the tasks that we wish our colleagues to complete are not always easy even though we continually try to find ways to make them more straight forwards. So, we need to concentrate on how we can make things attractive, perhaps the impact it has on the young people we are working with. ‘Social’ would be highlighting that other colleagues are doing the specific action and alongside this, encouraging those colleagues to share how they are doing it. ‘Timely’ would be through developing structures so actions are completed at the right time. It would also be ensuring that we give our messages at the right time too, neither too early nor too late.

So, during next week, think about how you could use nudge theory in your leadership. Rather than compelling people to do something, be a choice architect and consider how you can make actions easier, attractive, social and timely. Perhaps you could reflect on the following points.

1. What do you feel now about your balance between compulsion and influence?

2. How can you use nudge theory in your leadership?

3. Think of an issue you are working on, how can you use nudge to solve this issue?

Gentle and well-thought out nudging, might just do the trick …

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