The One-Man Behavioral Army: Advice for Practitioners and Managers

As a behavioral scientist at a tech company, I am often asked intriguing questions about how or why the company hired me, what I am expected to do, and what my day-to-day work looks like. It gets more complicated when I tell them I am the only behavioral scientist in a company with a few thousand employees. How does that work? Who do you work with? Which part of the organization do you sit in?

A recent book by the Action Design Network, titled Building Behavioural Science in an Organisation (edited by Zarak Khan and Laurel Newman), is an excellent starting point for answering some of these questions.1 In its pages, many amazing applied behavioral scientists share their experiences and learnings from working in various parts of an organization.  

One crucial aspect covered by the book is the different models of operationalizing behavioral science in an organization. The 3 models they describe are:

  1. The Individual Contributor Model
  2. The Centralized Team Model
  3. The Integrated Model

The book has in-depth chapters on the second and the third models, and I would strongly recommend reading those for some great insights on how you can apply them. However, there’s relatively little information available about the Individual Contributor model. As a living experiment of that model, I decided to write down some of my thoughts.

One caveat: What I share here is based on my experiences and the conversations I have had with other individual behavioral science contributors in large organizations. It is entirely subject to our experiences and may not be scalable for every organization. But for what it’s worth, I believe sharing this might help those who are jumping into this type of role.

Without further ado, let’s dive in.

So, you’re the first behavioral hire in your company

Image courtesy: @preeti_please (Twitter)

Well, first of all, congratulations. You are now officially qualified to be the human insights expert in your company. Get set for a roller coaster ride of a lifetime.

Here’s what to expect in this unique role.

  1. Prepare to educate others. I know you walked in thinking you are the expert and everyone will come to you for guidance, but here’s the kicker: Most people in the organization probably haven’t heard of behavioral science. A large part of your job is going to be evangelizing and advocating for the importance of behavioral science in the organization. Be prepared to give many 101 talks.
  2. It’s on you to carve out a space for yourself. As the lone behavioral scientist in your organization, it will be tempting to adopt the mentality that everything would work better if behavioral science were applied to it. I strongly recommend leaving that attitude at home. The thing is, the organization was probably working perfectly well before you joined. Be prepared to realize that many teams are innately using behavioral science, knowingly or unknowingly, and you are only the latest addition to the team. It will be on you to find the right place for yourself in discussions.
  3. The “Let’s nudge everything” mindset. With absolutely no disrespect to anyone, I think one of the biggest problems with behavioral science lies in how it’s been marketed as a quick-fix solution to everything, using toolkits with cool abbreviations. Your organization may be expecting that when they hire you. Be prepared for a lot of questions on “how can we nudge XYZ…” and have a spiel ready about why a toolkit is not always the right solution.
  4. The Lone Wolf Syndrome. I’ll be honest. It gets lonely being the only behavioral scientist in a large company. You will miss having conversations with other like-minded folks. You will miss geeking out about the latest research shared on Katy Milkman’s podcast. You will miss sharing behavioral valentines with others. Be prepared to spend a lot of time over weekends doing all this with others outside of your organization.

So, what should you do:

  1. Find out why they decided to hire you. The first conversation you have with your hiring manager should be about their reasons for hiring a behavioral scientist. It’s important to make sure they understand the subject, and that they’re hiring you for the right reasons. Do they have a vision for where they think behavioral science fits in the organization? Are you an experiment for them? What happens after 2 years? What does success look like for this role?
  2. Find out career plans for you. I know, it’s an individual contributor model. But what happens next? Will you stay an individual contributor forever? Will this company ever expand the team and promote you to that coveted position of Chief Behavioral Officer? Who makes these decisions? What’s your career path? What happens in your performance cycles? It’s important to have these conversations with your managers early on to set the right expectations.
  3. Get your manager to believe in the vision. In an experimental role like this, it’s important to find the right manager. Find someone who has your back, who believes in your unique skill set, and is willing to stand up for you. Keep sharing your vision with your manager constantly and help them understand the larger implications of applying behavioral science in the organization.
  4. Find low-hanging fruit and score some early wins. This is one of the most important parts of this career path. It is on you to lay to rest any doubts the organization might have about hiring their first behavioral scientist. For the first few months, keep an eye out for quick, easy experiments with wide-reaching implications, to show to the company the importance of this subject. Find your early fans, and do your best to improve their lives with your contributions. They will bat for you when you need them.
  5. Be complementary to everyone’s skill sets. At many points in your career as an individual contributor behavioral scientist, you will find yourself in overlapping Venn diagrams with others: Product design, marketing, user research, data science. There’s nothing wrong with it, but remember, be respectful of their domains. They know best what they are doing. You don’t need to do what they do, you just need to find ways to help them do what they do, better. 

And that’s that. Go forth, spread the joy of behavioral science in your organization, and may you see the day your organization declares you the Chief Behavioral Officer.

But hang on. What about the other side? How should companies manage their first behavioral scientists? I have some early thoughts on that too.

So, you hired your first behavioral scientist in your company

Congratulations to you too! You are now officially on a growing list of companies that have taken a step in the direction of bringing behavioral science into the applied world.

Here’s what to expect from this individual:

  1. Context is king. I know you expected someone to walk in with solutions, but the best part about behavioral science is that it is entirely context-dependent. You can expect your behavioral scientist to say, “I don’t know, but let’s experiment” a lot. Don’t let this make you think that you made the wrong decision. This is exactly what they should be saying.
  2. More frameworks, fewer toolkits. Popular culture around behavioral science is all about toolkits with lots of abbreviations. The behavioral scientist you hire may or may not use those toolkits. They might want to get down and begin research from scratch to understand behavior within the organizational context. And that’s ok. They will find a more customized solution to your problem, and that’s way better than a toolkit.
  3. You’ll need to find the right problem to solve. In an organization, a lot of people will be solving a lot of problems. Where does a behavioral scientist fit in? What can they do without feeling like it’s a repeat of what others are doing? As a manager, figuring this out will be your biggest challenge. Expect the first few months to be full of confusion, for you and for your new hire, unless you actively decide to tackle this early on.

Here’s what you can do:

  1. Be their teammate. If you think about it from the behavioral scientist’s point of view, it’s hard being one-of-a-kind in a company. Imagine having no one to talk to about your field of work—the thing you spend the majority of your day doing. And the pressure of having to prove their worth, the importance of the subject, having to convince the organization to keep spending on them as a resource? It’s not easy. Trust me. They probably live in the constant fear that someday, someone will feel they are dispensable.

    The one person who can help them is you, their manager. Be their partner in crime; buy into their vision. If you hired a behavioral scientist, surely you’re already convinced that the subject is important. Make it happen for your hire. Help them showcase their work, talk about them to others in different parts of the organization, back them up. You are their team. Be there for them.
  2. Get them some quick wins early on. Like I said earlier, this will be the biggest challenge. What should the behavioral scientist do? As a behavioral scientist myself, I’m a bit biased: I feel every problem needs a behavioral lens. But as a manager, you know where a behavioral scientist could have the biggest impact in your organization. Keep an eye out for those problems, and jump on opportunities like that, on behalf of your hire.
  3. Think of a career plan for them. If you have a team, you probably plan for their careers. A designer becomes a senior designer, then a design manager, and then senior design manager. You get the point. What happens to the behavioral scientist? When a performance appraisal comes, are you comparing them to others in the team? Or do you have a different set of criteria for them because they have a completely different skill set? Where will they be 2 years from now? How will you help them grow? 
  4. Build the vision with them. I think one thing that managers could really help with, is in building the vision for this function. There are some questions that only they can answer. For instance, what will “success” look like for this individual contributor? What’s the timeline for this success? If in, say, one year, everyone is convinced that behavioral science is crucial to the growth of the organization, what is the next step? Do you want to let this person grow a team? Would it be a centralized team or an integrated team? Which part of the organization best facilitates the growth of this field? Will there be a Chief Behavioral Scientist someday?

    Be an evangelist who will speak to senior management and convince them about the need for this field. Get their buy-in for this vision. Your hire is depending on you for that. And one last point, which is a very real possibility is what to do when the vision comes true and you see this growing…
  5. Be ok if they outgrow your team. It’s unfair to think that the first person who decided to hire a behavioral scientist has the complete wherewithal and the understanding to know exactly where this function should sit in order to maximize the impact. It’s impossible to know this till you have started.

    Once you have established the need for the subject, though, be open to the idea that maybe your team is not the right place for this. One thing you should definitely not do is force yourself to integrate behavioral science into whatever team you are leading, just because of an obligation stemming from hiring this person. Maybe there is a better place in the organization that adds value to both the company, as well as the individual. And here’s the best part: you get to be the person who introduced your organization to this field. That’s something to be proud of. Be their advocate as they try to find the right place for themselves. 

Like anything else in life, behavioral science can only grow in an organization if you find the right match—between contributors and value seekers. Being a great contributor to the organization is symbiotic to having the right environment to show your contributions. And importantly, I have realized, this is true not just for behavioral science, but for any new exciting field we introduce to an organization. That could be People Analytics, or it could be Sustainability Experts. Many young people enter these fields with great ambitions. It’s important for organizations to understand how to best integrate new fields in a way that works best for the organization and the contributors.

Here’s to hoping we inspire more people to take up these unconventional, adventurous career paths, without worrying about where it will end up taking them.

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