The CIPD’s HR Outlook Survey, published earlier this year in association with Workday, found that personal experience and the judgement of experienced professionals were not only the two most common sources of evidence that HR practitioners turn to when making decisions, but were also more likely to be considered ‘high quality’ than other sources.

Stacked bar graph of how frequently different types of evidence inform business decisions where 'data, facts and figures I or my colleagues have gathered from my organisation' is the most often used, followed by 'personal experience'. Meanwhile, 'results from scientific research' is used the least.

With so much trust placed in professional judgement, it’s perhaps not surprising that, at the CIPD Scotland Annual Conference next month, Chief Executive Peter Cheese will be calling for the people professionals of the future to make decisions that are principles led, evidence based and outcomes driven.

But what does being evidence based really look like? According to the HR Outlook, HR professionals usually turn to a combination of HR analytics, personal experiences and insights from colleagues and peers to inform their decisions.

For the CIPD’s People and Strategy Director, Laura Harrison, using a range of sources like this is crucial.

‘There’s nothing more important, or more human, than gathering information from your own experiences, conversations and relationships’, she says, ‘but relying on this kind of evidence alone could prove problematic in terms of securing buy-in and credibility from colleagues, decision makers and budget holders if it’s not backed up with more tangible evidence too’.

This could explain why more than two thirds of HR professionals say they often or always turn to data, facts and figures to inform their decisions, and just over half turn to results from scientific research at least some of the time. Worryingly though, more than two fifths rarely or never back up their decisions with evidence from scientific research.

In the CIPD’s latest podcast, experts Hilary Scarlett, Samantha Rockey and Jonny Gifford explore what HR professionals miss out on when they overlook the science behind what makes people tick. Behavioural science can tell us a great deal about how our minds operate at work, and can therefore be invaluable in informing many aspects of HR strategy - from L&D to recruitment and people management.

For example, when our minds are in what behavioural scientists call a ‘threat state’ – perhaps because we feel socially rejected or because we’re faced with too much uncertainty – our ability to perform, collaborate and learn is dramatically reduced. HR therefore has an important role to play in understanding what can trigger that threat state, and in helping to ensure that employees are in what’s known as a ‘reward’ state as often as possible – by giving them a sense of control, helping them learn and grow, and giving them a sense of pride, purpose, meaning and belonging.

Science also proves things that many of us instinctively know. When we’re burnt out, we struggle to take on new ideas or even make the simplest of decisions. Similarly, we can only concentrate for around 20 minutes before fatigue and distraction sets in – but give us the right kind of snacks and keep us well hydrated, and we’ll retain more knowledge.

Much of what behavioural science tell us sounds a lot like common sense, says Samantha Rockey, but what’s exciting is that it’s now backed up by evidence about what’s going on in the brain when these patterns emerge. Drawing on behavioural economics, cognitive psychology and social neuroscience, behavioural science provides us with data about how people behave and make decisions – this is good news for HR professionals as they can now back up their gut instincts about people with hard evidence that the rest of the business will struggle to ignore.

The application of behavioural science in the workplace is far from a passing fad – it’s been part of the way we think about leadership development for more than 15 years, says Rockey. And, Laura Harrison argues that since human psychology evolves at a far slower pace than the world of work in which we all operate, HR professionals looking to future-proof their careers are well advised to hone their skills in behavioural science: “In a fast changing world, rather than focusing all our attention on the latest processes and technologies that our competitors might be adopting – which could soon be rendered obsolete by the next big thing – we should also pay more attention to strengthening the theoretical underpinning of our profession, which will help us make sound decisions no matter what the future may hold.”

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