I subscribe to a lot of email newsletters. You’re welcome.

One that I always look forward to getting is one by Bri Williams who hails from down under and who’s company People Patterns focuses on the psychology/behavioral science side of how to influence behavior. She always has great insight into the human condition.

bri williams

Her most recent email was all about giving people freedom – specifically – how a company gave unlimited time off to their employees – and then watched as people took less time off than before the policy change. Weird – right? I feel like that little kid on the bus in the commercial that says

“They are PAID vacation days!”

If a 10 year old gets it why don’t grownups?

Because we are weird. That’s why.

I’m going to quote and paraphrase a lot of Bri’s email here because I can’t really link to it. By the way… please show her some love and subscribe to her updates – it is worth your while.

But here’s the meat of the discussion…

In the UK a company called TriggerTrap thought their employees weren’t taking the appropriate amount of time off. In the UK employees get 28 days which expire if not taken during the year. The employees weren’t taking them. So the CEO said – no more limits. Take as much as you want. The outcome. The employees took even LESS time off!


Yup… unlimited days off – poeple take fewer days off. Seems, to quote Vizzini from the Princess Bride, inconceivable.

But here’s why according to Bri (taken directly from her email newsletter)

Why people didn’t take leave

According to Triggertrap two problems seemed to underpin people’s reluctance to take leave;

Their entitlement was no longer on their pay slip so they weren’t reminded of it and

People felt guilty taking days off because it no longer felt like it was theirs to use

It’s counter intuitive, isn’t it? You imagine that once given a ‘blank cheque’, staff will take as much as they can get away with. And occasionally this might occur.

But that’s not how we are wired.

We are wired to;

  • largely conform with those around us. If no one in my team is taking leave then I won’t either. (Social Norms)
  • mentally account for things like annual leave. When no limit is set there is no credit in the account to draw upon. (Mental Accounting)
  • pay attention to things that are top of mind. If annual leave is not brought to our attention we will get caught up with other things. (Availability Bias)
  • prioritise now over later. Work can always seem busy in the moment so it is very hard to imagine taking time off. (Short term bias)
  • be paralysed by choice. Having to decide how many days to take from an unlimited number can perversely make it harder because it’s difficult to know how much leave is ‘right’. (Paradox of Choice)

According to Bri, in order to counter those innate issue of psychology and behavior, the company had to add incentives to take time off (paying people a bonus to not work on top of paying for the days off – think about that for a minute), highlighting the number of days people were taking to show it was normal and expected behavior, and encouraging people to suggest others take time off.

I highlight this discussion for a very specific reason.

If you are a manager – or if you are in HR (heck – if you have any responsibility for results through people) make sure any behavior you want to change is viewed through a less-than-rational lens. People are – to quote Dr. Ariely – Predictably Irrational.

If we want to have impact in our organizations we need to understand that a logical discussion of what you want and need may not be enough to get behavior to change.

Expect the unexpected.

And go visit Bri at her site and sign up for her newsletter. It is always a great read!