How ‘microlearning’ improved Google manager-team relationships by 33%

Intervention Education, 

Abstract

Good management requires cultivating an environment where employees feel comfortable taking calculated risks. This often only occurs when team members feel accepted and respected by their peers and manager. Unfortunately, many managers struggle to create an accepting culture.

As an innovator in the technology industry, Google needs an environment where smart risks can be taken. They decided to take a behavioral approach to ensure they create this psychologically safe environment. By sending out a whisper course – a series of emails with built-in nudges – to managers, they found workers rated their managers 22-40% points better in performance surveys. 

Rating = 3/5 (Unclear if improvements were measured from an employee [i.e. non-manager] perspective; easy to implement)

How microlearning and whisper courses led to a safer team culture
Condition Results
Before microlearning course Pre-intervention measurements were not provided. 
After microlearning course A 33% increase in reported team safety culture and a 22-40% increase in employee evaluations of managers

A ‘sample nudge email’ from the intervention

The Nudge: A ‘sample nudge email’ from the intervention

Key Terms

Nudges: Changes in choice architecture that lead people to make better choices without coercion.

Microlearning: Turning a big lesson into smaller, more digestible bits. This is usually done to maximize learning. Based on studies of chunking and working memory, this method is designed to make information stick. 

Team Psychological Safety: The belief among employees that they will be safe (e.g., not fired) when they take calculated risks. In innovation-heavy industries, like the technology sector, fostering this belief is crucial, since employees need to feel safe enough to take risks and innovate.

The Problem

Year after year, companies invest time, money, and resources into developing intricate programs to teach their managers how to build cohesive teams that get the job done. Unfortunately, research shows that these intensive courses aren’t very effective. By some estimates, only 50% of the information from these courses is remembered. This lack of learning can negatively affect important aspects of a team environment, such as team psychological safety: the belief shared by team members that it is safe to take risks.  For example, in a team where there is low psychological safety, asking a clarifying question may be seen as a result of stupidity or lack of listening. In a psychologically safe environment, fallibility is allowed, curiosity is encouraged, and work is framed as a learning problem. 

Google was struggling, as extensive manager training led to meager improvements in psychological safety. Therefore, Google’s learning and development specialists sought a new method to make important lessons on team psychological safety stick.

Design

Microlearning

The solution focused on the concept of microlearning: when a lesson is broken down into small, bite-sized chunks. Since our brains have limited space for information, breaking down information into the most important parts is easier to remember. In this case, the learning specialists delivered these micro-lessons in a series of emails, which they called “whisper courses”. Over the course of ten weeks, managers received emails that included lessons on managerial behavior that the managers had previously identified as a weakness. The email would end with two concrete examples of how to apply the behavior, which acted as a gentle nudge for managers to act in a similar fashion. While not explicitly mentioned, this is similar to what is prescribed by the EAST framework, which emphasizes making information both easy to understand and simple to apply. 

Measuring effectiveness

The experimenters measured the lesson’s effectiveness through manager self-reports.  They compared results to a control group, which encompassed teams where the manager was just given the traditional managerial education. Google employees were invited to rate both the effectiveness of the whisper email and what resonated most with them personally. The key factor for psychological safety was the response to the statement “I look for ways to acknowledge and appreciate each of my team members, and make sure to communicate this in a timely manner.” (If the response was positive, it was assumed that psychological safety had been fostered.) Furthermore, to see if microlearning was enjoyable, they examined the degree to which managers would recommend the course to other Google employees.

Results and Application

The behavioral architects found that Google employees had highly favorable views of the whisper lessons by the end of the program. Most importantly, favorable statements that involved appreciating and valuing teammates rose by 33%. 

Google expanded the study towards nudging managers on a broader scale. They found that managers who received whisper lessons on their lowest-ranked behavior improved by approximately 22-40% compared to a manager in the control condition. Consequently, Google has now expanded microlearning and whisper courses to every part of their business. If the world’s leading tech company finds their intervention effective, perhaps the behavioral techniques can create a more robust and functional team environment in smaller companies.

Industry

Application

Education Microlearning has the potential to improve students’ educational outcomes too. The whisper course format used at Google could easily be transferred into an e-learning format.
Insurance Teaching managers and employees to make clients trust them is essential. So, whisper courses could help nudge managers and employees into behaving in ways that promote this trust.
Health & Wellbeing Much like in insurance and technology, fostering trust between doctors and patients is essential for positive, long-term health outcomes. Whisper courses delivered to doctors might help promote it, in the same way it worked for Google.

Ethics

  • While the intervention was successful in the short-term, it is unclear how long-lasting its effects were.
  • It is unclear whether and how privacy and consent were respected.
  • While a safer work culture helps members of marginalized groups the most, the intervention’s consequences for equity are also unclear.

Yes

Room for improvement

Insufficient information/Not applicable

Welfare
Does the intervention demonstrably improve the lives of those affected by it? Various quantitative and qualitative metrics point to the intervention’s success. However, it is unclear if this success remained long-term.
Does the intervention respect the privacy (including the privacy of identity) of those it affects? While the data was reported anonymously, it is unclear if and whether privacy was respected during data collection.
Does the intervention have a plan to monitor the safety, effectiveness, and validity of the intervention? While effectiveness was measured, it is unclear how safety and validity were measured.
Autonomy
Does the intervention abide by a reasonable degree of consent? It is unclear if and how consent was gathered.
Does the intervention respect the ability of those it affects to make their own decisions? Managers were able to choose whether to complete the course, and they decided what their answers were.
Does the intervention increase the number of choices available to those it affects? The number of choices remained the same.
Equity
Does the intervention acknowledge the perspectives, interests, and preferences of everyone it affects, including traditionally marginalized groups? It is unclear whose perspective was being assumed during the intervention’s design.
Are the participants diverse? It is unclear how diverse the participant set was.
Does the intervention help ensure a just, equitable distribution of welfare? While members of marginalized groups tend to be most harmed by unsafe work cultures, the intervention does not discuss other ways that whisper courses could help promote equity.

Related TDL Content

Why Are Many Americans Checked Out At Work? 

If you are interested in further applications of behavioral science in the workplace, read this piece by Stacy Post from John Hopkins University. Here, she tackles a complex, but important, societal issue: employees feel “checked out” at work,  leading them to be unproductive and costing the economy millions every day. Post also shows how leaders can harness the power of behavioral science to instill pride, increase worker engagement, and better prepare managers.

How Reciprocity Can Fuel Innovation

Fostering a safer work culture is only one way to promote innovation. In this piece, Tiago Rodrigo highlights how another behavioral mechanism—reciprocity, our desire to treat others better when they treat us well—can help foster innovation too, especially in the technology sector.

Applying Behavioral Science In An Organization

Technology companies are always on the hunt for innovative techniques to give them a competitive edge. If you are interested in how behavioral science may fit into a company like Google, Preeti Kotamarthi breaks down both how behavioral science overlaps and stands out from other interventions in the tech industry. 

Sources

Newhouse, D. & Getz-Kikuchi, R. (2017). Whisper courses: on-the-job microlearning with email. Re:work, Google. Retrieved from https://rework.withgoogle.com/blog/whisper-courses/