Is Paternalistic Leadership a Positive?

leadership directionRecently, David Brooks wrote a very interesting article in the Opinion Pages of The NY Times called, “The Nudge Debate.” He discussed the relative pros and cons of how far our government should go in pushing people toward “positive behavior through social policy.” In other words, how much should policy “nudge us” to do what’s good for us through laws and rules?

There are points on both sides of the debate. If government dictates too much of people’s personal behavior, they will never make decisions for themselves. If policies don’t dictate what a person should or should not do, they will err and cost society or themselves money or some other resource. Both sides are probably right, and both are probably wrong. Because in the big social fabric that is humanity, you have all kinds of behaviors, norms and most importantly, people. We bristle at not having choice and most don’t make the same choices. Brooks argues that so-called “Social Paternalism,” is not a bad thing. (He defines this as a “check box” that defaults to the “correct” choice, vs. a law that says you have too.) He says this approach essentially gives us a nudge to do the right thing.

Good business leadership also starts with helping others make the right choices – not by dictating which behaviors are right, but by giving clear choices and the consequences of each. If an employee wants a raise or a promotion, they should know which behaviors will most likely lead to that outcome and which will not. It should not be arbitrary so that people learn “helplessness,” meaning they don’t know what behaviors are or are not going to lead to the desired outcome.

Given a choice, most of us will do the right thing. Leadership that clearly defines the outcomes of different choices – with a default to the better choice – works. If you automatically enroll a minimum wage worker in a 401K plan and they start seeing the deduction from their paycheck, they are likely to be upset, regardless if it is good for them or not. If you have forms designed to default to select the positive choice and explain why, you’ll get about half of them to sign up, and they won’t be upset.

It’s not only about choice, but also about education. If people don’t truly understand “why” they should care about something, they won’t. It’s our job as leaders to provide choice, possibly a good default suggestion, and most importantly explain “why.” (Read any of Simon Sinek’s writing for more on this!)

Not everyone grows up in a household that explained the benefits of saving, or how working hard will lead to raises and promotions or why it’s important to take care of one’s health by eating lots of veggies. We can’t assume everyone knows what is best for them because they weren’t exposed to the data to make the best choices for themselves.

The workplace can be an opportunity to show, share and educate. A little Paternalistic Leadership is not a bad thing. Just make sure your people know they always have a choice and explain “the whys.”