Just tell me what to do. The principle of opting-out.

Most people only want one thing in change and that is, 'Help me! Make it easy for me! Above all, don't make me think too much about things I don't have time for and just tell me what to do.' The principle of opting-out can help you do just that....


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Just tell me what to do. The principle of opting-out.

Managing change is about helping people. Make it easy and pleasant for people to change. "Help me!" is the cry that every people-oriented change manager picks up from the multitude of feedback in organizations.

You can help people change during the implementation of a program, but you can also help them already proactively by properly designing the intended behavioral change using some principles from the behavioral sciences.

For example, “I don’t have time for this, when do I have to do this?” is a common response to change. Learning to hold meetings differently, learning to use new software tools, learning new skills, working in a more customer-oriented way… these are all things that initially require additional time. It’s true that most people have little time to spare, but it’s primarily the lack of attention that is the obstacle to change.

Therefore, in the design of change, let us look for ways to make it easy for people, to save time, and above all to compensate for their lack of attention. One way to do that is to change the default option from opt-in to opt-out.

Opt-out or presumed consent

Consider the challenge of organ donation. There is a shortage of organs to save sick people in many countries. A large majority of people do want to be organ donors, but when the default option is “opt-in” (consciously choosing to participate in something), only a minority actually turn out to sign up for it.

The cause? Attention.

A growing number of countries now have an opt-out system for organ donation. Opt-out means that a person is automatically signed up for a service and always has the option of easily opting out. It is an example of a ‘nudge’, a nudge in the right direction, which I wrote about in Changing organizations, one nudge at a time.

From 2020, every resident of England over the age of 18 will be legally expected to consent to the donation of their organs after death. If they do not want to be a donor, they will have to “opt out.” Countries like Belgium and the Netherlands did this before. There is a clear link between countries with an opt-out system and a high percentage of organ donors.

When the default is on opt-out, the majority of people will keep that choice. This is due to the ‘status quo effect’. The video below shows an interesting experiment around this effect.

In their book “Nudge,” Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein say that many people like to go with the flow and when they have to make a difficult decision, they prefer to do nothing at all. Hence, the opt-out principle can be so effective in obtaining a certain change.

Another example of the opt-out principle is the current Covid vaccination campaign in Belgium, where you receive a standard invitation to be vaccinated, but have the choice not to be vaccinated. Or an example from the Netherlands, when you switch to a different energy supplier, the choice for green energy is already checked by default.**

Opting-out in organizational change

Of course, organizational change is not about life and death, but perhaps about surviving and standing still, as an organization and as individuals.

When you want to drive a change, and you know that time and attention is an obstacle, remember that most people want to, but don’t think about it or get around to it. So what is the choice that can help them start or do the change anyway?

Learning new skills

If a new learning platform is part of your approach, then first of all you want employees to find their way to the learning platform. You can then choose to make this new software part of the employees’ home screen by default, or send them a message series by default that gets them started. Always give them the choice to opt out. Also, wouldn’t it help many people to get a notification to online learning by default when a meeting is dropped or when someone is on the train or other waiting time is detected?

Better onboarding

Quickly and properly onboarding new employees is important for any type of organization. Many newcomers leave their company within a year and a half and, of course, that comes at a great cost. Solid onboarding can improve those percentages. For example, Google* has set up a simple email sequence for its managers to support them in onboarding new employees, with the following themes:

  • Hold a discussion about roles and responsibilities
  • Pair your new employee with a peer buddy
  • Help him or her build a social network
  • Organize onboarding check-ins once a month for the first 6 months
  • Encourage an open dialogue

This checklist is sent to the manager via email, at the right time and with a clear action attached. These clear instructions ensure that managers don’t have to think about it too much themselves and increase the likelihood that action will be taken. It was greatly appreciated that onboarding was made so easy for them. No one complained that they received these mails by default. They could choose whether to act on them or not, but those who followed the tips had new employees who were fully effective 25% faster than managers who did not.

This example has already inspired me to set up a sequence of messages at Soulcenter that supports directors and managers of residential care centers to get started with the new living approach. The basic question we asked ourselves was: what is the minimum support needed for directors to achieve the desired outcome? How can we help them? This resulted in five messages with tips and points of attention that are relevant at decisive moments in the change process and that are sent out at the right time.

Increase job mobility

If you want more employees to be able to change jobs within your company more easily, make sure that vacancies and candidates can be consulted openly, without a threshold. For vacancies this seems obvious, but for candidates it is perhaps less so. Many managers want to keep their best people and not see them snatched away by other managers. As a result, more people are held back from changing than one would suspect. So leave profiles open, provide in your policy that you can and may address people directly if necessary. Unless the employee un-clicks this himself because he is really not interested in another job.

Soft paternalism?

This idea of “opting out” is somewhat controversial. Some speak of soft paternalism. Now, research** does show that most people don’t really have a problem with a default opt-out option. But still, you have to be careful. Some defaults will be more readily accepted than others. It may be culturally determined. It depends on the trust people have in your organization. They need to feel that you have their best interests at heart.

When a change is really important to the person themselves, or the organization or society, opt-outs will be more easily accepted. By now you know that most people want a change for the better, but don’t always get around to it.

Be especially careful that when it comes to default options, you walk a fine line between self-interest (the organization) and the interest of the person changing (the employee). If you get it wrong, your default option may do more harm than good. That’s why the basic question of “how can we help the employee” should always be central.

Opting-out is an interesting design principle to have in your toolkit as a change manager, to make it easy for employees and managers to make or support a change. Keep in mind that most people often want only one thing in change and that is, ‘Help me! Make it easy for me! Above all, don’t make me think too much about things I don’t have time for and just tell me what to do.’


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