Innovation, People & Human Resources

How Shopify’s chief and founder Tobi Lütke uses priming to change employee behaviour

Bri Williams /

Tobias Lutke Shopify

Shopify chief executive officer and founder Tobi Lütke. Source: Shopify.

Replacing a hot water service because there were too many buttons was just one of the decisions executed by Shopify chief executive officer and founder Tobi Lütke in the pursuit of productivity and creativity. 

Let me explain.

Shopify is the world’s largest successful e-commerce platform, with 4,000 employees and 600,000 customers, and founder Lütke was recently discussing his approach to business in the excellent podcast The Knowledge Project with Shane Parrish.

“I ask everyone to build world-class software”, said Lütke, “but if you arrive in an office, where the first thing you do is get hot water … and you are faced with some sort of insane user experience … where the obvious thing to use the device feels like an afterthought … then I can’t really ask [my team] to do better. [If I do] I’m fighting gravity.”

Time and again the use of environmental primes, or nudges, in the Shopify offices were mentioned as a way to shape employee behaviour. As Lütke points out, asking employees to create beautiful, effortless products is incongruent with a workspace that is ugly and full of friction. For the same reason, their floor plan is intentionally maze-like in places to prime staff to explore and have fun. Rationally, these things shouldn’t make a difference. Behaviourally, they do.

Aside from replacing the hot water and microwave with more effortlessly functional variants, Shopify also overhauled the way it encouraged staff to keep the cafeteria clean. Their first inclination was to educate staff by placing posters around the room. No effect. They then used a social norm on the poster to shame staff into correcting their behaviour. A small but fleeting effect. Finally, they just put a tray next to the exit of every lunchroom where people could deposit their dirty dishes. Problem solved!

Primes, or subconscious cues in an environment, can be applied to all types of spaces, even the bathroom. In my interview for the Behavioural Grooves podcast recently, co-host Kurt Nelson mentioned toilet paper primes. Yes, that folded triangle of toilet paper on top of the roll in your hotel room bathroom is sending an important message: ‘Relax, your room has been thoroughly and carefully cleaned because we care about you.’

Lessons for business effectiveness

Priming plays a significant role in how your staff and customers will feel and act. If you need more proof:

Lessons for personal effectiveness

Priming doesn’t just affect others, it affects you too. To prime yourself, set up your home and work environments to support your goals. Change your computer login to something positive, surround yourself with plants and light to stimulate your energy levels, remove temptations from line of sight, use smaller bowls and spoons if you want to eat less, remove your smartphone from your office if you want to be more productive, and use the words ‘I don’t’ rather than ‘I can’t’ when refusing a treat.

You are already priming, but is it in the right direction?

By the way, you are already priming yourself, your customers and staff, whether you realise it or not. The key is to prime in a way that serves your objective. According to Lütke, “people are so much more affected by their environment than we like to believe”. Indeed.

NOW READ: How a Wi-Fi password changed behaviour

NOW READ: Environmental primes: Why traffic noise increased car insurance payments by 11%

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Bri Williams

Bri Williams is Australia's foremost authority on behavioural economics applied to everyday business and personal effectiveness. Author, speaker and leading consultant, Bri can make your life easier through behavioural science. More at www.briwilliams.com.au.

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