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Ford’s Marina Pearce, PhD on Leveraging Behavioral Science to Translate People Strategy into Action

Written by Liz Fosslien

To drive lasting change, leaders need to inspire action at every level of an organization. That’s no easy feat. On a recent webinar, our CEO Laszlo Bock spoke with Marina Pearce, PhD, Global Head of Talent Analytics at Ford Motor Company, to discuss how leaders can leverage behavioral science to achieve their most important goals.

Laszlo Bock (LB): A year ago, you overhauled Ford’s approach to supporting employees. Can you talk us through that journey? 

Marina Pearce, PhD (MP): We started by collecting information from our employees about what matters to them and what would actually meet their needs. We learned a lot, including that we needed to be more open to what matters to them – not just sending surveys about the things we care about from an HR or company perspective. We ended up creating Ford’s Ask / Listen / Observe framework, which combines what we hear from employee surveys (“Ask”) with what employees naturally share in public forums (“Listen”) and how they interact with enterprise events and materials (“Observe”). Combining these data gives us a more accurate, reliable picture versus our old every-other-year survey approach.

LB: Can you share an example of how Ask / Listen / Observe helped you better support your people over the last few months?

MP: Sure! Because of Ask / Listen / Observe, we noticed very early on that childcare responsibilities would be a major stressor for some employees. A few exceptional HR leaders then ran focus groups and tested ideas for what Ford could offer these employees to make them feel supported.

Based on all that work, we’re providing: enhanced sabbaticals that allow employees to take one or more months off at a reduced salary while still maintaining their benefits; alternative work schedules; part-time shifts; emergency nanny services; daycare cost assistance; and more.

LB:  Achieving goals comes down to being able to inspire action at every level of an organization. What recommendation do you have for a leader looking to turn strategy into action? 

MP: Leaders should lean on tech more than they naturally might. Until this year, it was common at Ford to conduct an annual engagement survey and then provide a list of results to people leaders. Sometimes those results felt personal and helpful, sometimes not so much.

Think about how you would engage with that list. You’d probably read it once–maybe twice–then put it down. You might feel overwhelmed by the amount of information being presented, or you might shy away from it if the results aren’t very positive. Maybe you’d think about it again here and there, or maybe you’d be too distracted.

We used to ask leaders to build action plans based on that list, and then we’d be frustrated when their scores didn’t change later. That was not leaning on tech – that was leaning on humans, who are busy and distractible and have biases and competing interests.

LB: What’s different now?

MP: We set up more automated insights in our platforms, which review a people leader’s results, highlight the few insights that matter most, and then guide them to learning resources that address their unique challenges. That’s a much more enticing way to present survey data–and a better way to make change easy. That’s leaning on the tech.

Humu nudges play a big role, too. By focusing leaders on only what matters most for them, then reminding them very succinctly, at the right moments, to adjust their habits, nudges really drive impact. That capability is what sold us on Humu. It’s next-level and not something I see with other tools. I’m hoping that nudges will replace traditional action planning altogether.

LB: What do you think people tend to get wrong when it comes to changing behavior?

MP: I wish we wouldn’t forget that there are scientifically proven ways to make change easier. The way you tell a story, the way you engage someone, present data to them, include them or exclude them, even the tone and visuals you use matter.

That’s why I like Humu. You base your platform around scientific principles. You study the right ways to focus attention, to send reminders at the right time, and to offer support in a way that feels very personal–and therefore relevant and motivating. It’s a wise way to create new habits.

LB: How long do you think it takes, on average, until a leader can see measurable change?

MP: Organizational change is a long-term endeavor, especially if you have over 200,000 employees like we do at Ford. And total time depends on a number of factors – where are you starting, where are you now, is there industry pressure forcing you to be different, and so on. But behavioral change on the individual level can be quite fast. Anyone can start building tiny new habits, especially if you have technology that reminds you to practice those new behaviors, pretty quickly.

LB: Last question. A lot has shifted for all of us over the past six months. What are some recent changes you’ve seen at Ford you hope will continue?

MP: Expectations are different. I can be a whole person. The idea that my toddler might run in during our conversation, covered in paint or throwing toys around, doesn’t stress me out anymore.

Once the pandemic subsides, do you think we’re going to move back to hiding ourselves and sticking to perfect 8-5 in-office schedules? No. Or, I hope not.


If you’d like to learn more, check out Ford’s Return to Work Playbooks for Manufacturing and Non-Manufacturing, their Ask / Listen / Observe approach to employee sentiment, and their Media Center.

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