Tips from behavioural science for developing students

May 31, 2019 | Development

Alice Scott is Managing Director of Development Beyond Learning and holds an MSc in Behavioural Science. She offers advice on the best ways to support early career talent as they transition into the world of work.

It is a well-established fact that humans tend to be resistant to change. Conscious action requires more effort than maintaining the status quo (Ryback, 2012), and as neatly explained by Kahneman (2012) in ‘Thinking Fast & Slow’, we’re much happier relying on our effortless and automatic ‘system 1’ thinking, than the more laborious and rational ‘system 2’ necessitated by less familiar actions. Using the analogy of learning to drive, when we are learning, we are struggling using system 2; when we have mastered driving, we are in flow – using system 1. 

When early career talent transition to the workplace, they are firmly in the learner driver seat, battling with system 2 thinking rather than surfing effortlessly with system 1. 


Transition to the workplace

Transition into the workplace is one the most significant changes we face during our lives (Wendlandt & Rochlen, 2008). Compared to previous experience, choosing a career necessarily limits choice, whilst increasing stability and financial freedom (Buhl, 2007). Although this may sound largely advantageous, research suggests transition to the workplace can result in a time ‘fraught with anxiety, shock, fear, uncertainty, loss, loneliness, depression and feelings of low self-worth’; challenges not widely anticipated by employers or students themselves (Perrone & Vickers, 2003). 

For early career talent, the struggle with transition to the workplace is greatest for those with the least realistic expectations of their new role and lifestyle. Link that to the fact that ISE employers rate manging student expectations as their number one challenge (ISE, 2018), and an image emerges of a perfect storm where both context and characters are destined to make transition troubling. 


What’s behavioural science got to do with it? 

Behavioural science is the study of how people really behave vs how we expect them to. It enables us to explain such diverse phenomena as why people fail to save for their retirement and to seek medical care when they need it, to why they cheat more in the dark, or tend to allow themselves to eat more than they should after exercise. Behavioural science can help to explain why people follow the path of least resistance and to follow the crowd even when this goes against their best interest. Behavioural science also provides a toolkit of strategies for correcting maladaptive behaviour, and enhancing people’s lived experience.

In the context of helping early career talent to thrive through transition, behavioural science can provide a lens not only to understand why student talent struggles when entering the workplace, but also to see we can do to help them, and to smooth the transition. 


Top tips – two tools from behavioural science

There are a number of models and strategies that could be deployed from the Behavioural Scientist’s toolbox to support student talent transitioning to the world of work. Here we focus on two: 


EAST describe four strategies that research suggests are most effective in ‘nudging’ people to improve their behaviour. For your early career talent development programmes, consider how you can make them: 

EASY (if you want people to do something, make it easy for them): for instance through the support tools you provide your early career talent training with. Our programmes are typically accompanied with digital or physical guides that provide easy access to the top tips and techniques taught on our programmes. 

ATTRACTIVE (if you want someone to do something, make it attractive): what strategies are you using to ensure that your early career talent are attracted to and engaged with your development programme? That can be in the way you promote and reinforce the importance of the programme, to the experiences you provide on the programme itself. 

SOCIAL (harness the power of social norms to direct behaviour): we are powerfully influenced by the behaviour of others, so it is essential that your development strategy includes how to harness social norms for good. Programmes that allow students to drift in and out of training suffer from establishing a social norm that training is not that important. Our programmes are supported by social learning platforms, which highlight to cohorts the progress peers are making and celebrate commitment and effort. 

TIMELY (prompt people when they are most receptive and likely to benefit): timing is everything. There is a host of research available that highlights the skills which early career talent most need at each stage of their career – from pre-boarding interns, to rolling off a programme. Making sure they are receiving the skills they need and want, when they need and want them, needs to be the bedrock of any early career development strategy. Distributed learning providing just-in-time support for situations such as performance reviews, presentations and networking is crucial.  


2. SELF-DETERMINATION THEORY (Ryan & Deci, 2000; 2008). 

Self-Determination Theory suggests that people have three core psychological needs (autonomy, competence, relatedness) when it comes to promoting intrinsic motivation – the really good kind of motivation that we all want. 

Transitioning into the workplace places a huge strain on students’ ability to be autonomous, on their sense of competence and their social connections or relatedness. Given these are three psychological needs, which are essential for self-perpetuating, intrinsic motivation, it is critical that employers think about how to support their students in each of these areas. Here are a few examples:

AUTONOMY: give students some agency over their programme. For instance, getting them involved in designing the programme can be a highly effective way to make them feel they have autonomy, and cleverly promotes engagement through use of ‘the Ikea effect’. 

COMPETENCE: ensure you are providing them with the skills they say they want, and that is it clear they are lacking. In this way you will enhance their sense of competence, their confidence and their performance. The ISE’s development report provides rich insights into the types of skills that they most need. 

RELATEDNESS: the research is emphatic. We perform better when we belong. This is increasingly important for the more diverse cohorts organisations are hiring at entry level. Ensure that a culture of psychological safety predominates by training your managers on how to lead inclusively, and promote social cohesion across and beyond your early career cohorts. 
By understanding that transition is tricky, and putting strategies in place, we can ensure that our early career talent get off to a far more effective and harmonious start to their working lives. 


Read the ISE Development Survey 2019

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