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The science of improving your work life

Caroline Webb, author of How to Have a Good Day and CEO of Sevenshift, on what you can do to have a more fulfilling work life

Published: Sep 16, 2016
Image: Shutterstock

Whether you’re working at your dream job or you’ve been plotting your escape for months, chances are that you’ve experienced your fair share of days that simply can’t end soon enough. From snarky colleagues to grim commutes, the possibilities for our working day taking a wrong turn are seemingly endless, and what’s more obvious remedies aren’t always in sight. Thankfully then, Caroline Webb, CEO of Sevenshift, an advisory firm focused on performance in the workplace, and a senior advisor to McKinsey, has put together a guide for improving our work life with her new book How to Have a Good Day.

Drawing upon extensive research in the fields of neuroscience, behavioral economics and psychology, Webb draws out key lessons on how we can make our work smarter, productive and ultimately more satisfying. In this interview, she introduces CKGSB Knowledge to some of the main takeaways. Excerpts:

Q. In the book there is an emphasis on priorities and focus. How does the science indicate that those things are so important?
A.
Well the importance of being deliberate, let’s say, about our priorities and our goals comes from the way that our brain processes information. The truth is that our conscious brain can only process a portion of reality around us at any one time, which is kind of hard to accept, because subconsciously we’re filtering out most of what’s going on around us, and we don’t really like to think of ourselves as not being objective observers of the world. But what the brain decides to consciously prioritize and make sure we notice are things that resonate with what is already top of mind for us, and you can see where this is going. It means that if you’ve decided that something is a priority, you are way more likely to see it and to notice it than if it isn’t. So let me give you an example. There’s a classic study which is done with a bunch of radiologists who are looking through a pile of lung scans and there was a gorilla printed on the last one and the vast majority of them, 83% of them, didn’t see the gorilla even though eye-tracking devices showed they’d looked directly at it and even though the gorilla was huge compared with the average lung nodule, the sort of thing that they were looking for. And the reason is it wasn’t their priority. If we go into a meeting looking for a fight, we’ll probably get it. If we go in looking for collaboration, we’ll probably get that. It’s really remarkable how the facts can appear to change once we’ve decided what our priorities are.

Caroline Webb Author of How to Have a Good Day
Caroline Webb Author of How to Have a Good Day
Q. You talk about the interaction between the mind and the body and the way that these aren’t isolated kind of things. What are the physical or health considerations when it comes to us having a good day?
A.
There are reasons you want to look after your body for health reasons, but we kind of know that. I think the bit we’re much less aware of is the fact that the way you treat your body has an immediate effect on the quality of the thinking that you do and the way that you feel emotionally. You immediately boost your focus and your mood by, say, doing 10-20 minutes of moderate activity. And I think if people understood that there’s an immediate payoff to thinking about breaks that you’re taking and the exercise that you’re getting and the downtime that you’re giving yourself, I think people would see it quite differently, they’d see it much less as time out and much more as time invested.

Q. How can we best manage our workflow throughout the day so we have, as you say, a bit of downtime?
A.
Unlike a lot of people I don’t say there’s only one time of day that you should do any particular type of task—I think it’s about self-awareness and starting to notice when you’re at your best and giving that time to your most important task. Beyond that, I think there is some general advice that everybody can take.

First of all, single tasking. If you do one thing at a time you’ll get things done much more quickly and much more brilliantly than if you multitask, and all the evidence is really clear on this—the conscious brain can only do one thing at a time, so if you try and mix things up so that you’re checking your email while you’re trying to write something or trying to talk to someone then you are essentially asking your brain to keep switching back and forth and of course that’s inefficient. So going offline while you’re doing your most important task for the day and just really focusing on that one thing means that you get it done more quickly. And it’s not easy initially if you’re used to being online all the time. I think that people starting at five or 10 minutes of being offline, it’s not too small to start there.

I think the other general thing I would say is the importance of strategic downtime. All the research suggests that the quality of your decisions and choices declines the longer it is since you’ve had a break. That’s pretty stark. So the idea of taking breaks being for wimps, it’s just not true if you care about the quality of your work. So being tactical about when can I get a little kind of five minute break between meetings, can I end meetings slightly early, can I plan more breathing room that allows me to reflect on? These moments of reflection and rest have been shown to be as important for our brains ability to process as the more obvious uptime.

Q. You talk about the discover-defense axis (how we are subconsciously on the lookout for threats and rewards) and how even small slights can put us into this place where we’re less productive, we’re less smart and so on. In a modern-day office environment, feedback, evaluation and criticism are so important. So how should these things be handled by those who are giving out this criticism? Are there any considerations for those who are receiving it? And on the flipside are there any considerations for how we should be handling praise too?
A.
You’re absolutely right that critical feedback is almost perfectly designed to put a brain on the defensive and when someone’s brain is on the defensive they’re not able to think as clearly because the brain is devoting some effort to that defensive response, whether it’s fight, flight or freeze. And in the modern workplace fight, flight or freeze does not look like someone actually punching you [laughs]; it’s much more subtle. Someone can be on the defensive and all you’re aware of is that they’re maybe seizing up a little bit or they’re not thinking straight about what you’re saying, and obviously then what happens is the change that you’re hoping for doesn’t manifest itself. So, absolutely right to think about how can you give feedback in a way that doesn’t put people on the defensive, and there are actually three brain-friendly feedback techniques that I talk about, and one of them for example is to be really, really explicit and clear and fulsome and specific about the things that you like about what they’re doing so that the framing is: “What I really like about this is… specific thing, specific thing, specific thing, what would make me like it even more is….”

There are two things going on here. One is that people talk about the ‘praise sandwich’ and the fact that it’s a good idea to say something positive before you say something negative, but the problem with that classic approach is that it only solves a fraction of the problem. We’re all geared to be more sensitive to threats than to rewards. So you have to be aware that one piece of negative feedback will drown out positive feedback unless you make sure that the positive feedback is as believable and credible as it can be. And the way to do that, and this is the second thing to note, is that the brain much prefers concrete examples to generalities. So if you hear someone say, “You’re great, you’re great, now here are five things that I think you could do differently….” It’s obvious when I say it like that, but the truth is that is often the way that feedback is delivered. You think, “Well, I’m generally saying you’re amazing, so surely that should be enough”, but no, what you remember are the specifics, the stories, the examples. And so that’s why the format of what I really like about ‘specific, specific, specific, and then what would make me like it even more’ is it’s just a really good way of keeping people off the defensive, while telling them exactly what they need to hear, so it’s not a soft option.

Q. Obviously the title of the book is How to Have a Good Day, but if, for whatever reason, we’re having a bad one, how can we react to that?
A.
I actually split [the part of the book on resilience] into three. The first one is staying cool in the moment. You’re in the meeting and it’s going badly, how do you stay calm? But then there’s also after the fact, how do you move on? Because they’re almost like two different skills. Then there is sort of an even longer-term skill, which is just recognizing all the things we were touching on before, which is that the way you treat your body helps your emotional resilience over time. So there are a few different dimensions of resilience and handling a bad day.

One thing that I find super helpful when you’re in the middle of a situation that isn’t feeling great is to use the distancing technique, and that’s where you put yourself in a different perspective and you look at the situation from the different options. You can look at the situation from the perspective of someone who might be a stranger passing by—what would they see? I personally like the distance of saying, “What am I going to think about this looking back in a year’s time?” I have a client who really likes the idea of saying, “What would my best self say about this?” There’s a CEO I was coaching who likes saying, “If someone else was CEO of this company, what would I advise them?” All of these distancing techniques have been shown to reduce the level of defensiveness, the activation of threat defense system in our brains.

There’s another killer technique, which is called reappraisal, which is where if it’s a kind of recurring thing that’s going on or is something dragging on and is just something you’re finding it hard to move on from, it’s really helpful to use this technique of reappraisal, which is essentially telling yourself a different story about what could be going on. The way it works is that you first home in on what the facts are and strip it of interpretation. Instead of saying, for example, “My boss never pays me any attention”—that’s a generalization, it’s also a tiny bit emotional even though it sounds fairly sensible—what you do know for sure is that perhaps that’s something more like “My boss didn’t invite me to speak at this week’s team meeting”. In fact what you actually know given the brain’s filtering and the fact that reality is subjective is “I don’t remember my boss asking me to speak at the team meeting”. So the first step is getting clear on the facts, and then you say, “Okay, what could be an explanation of that?” And it almost doesn’t matter if you believe the stories that you make up, it’s helpful of course that you come up with explanations that could be reasonable, but just simply saying, “Maybe my boss thinks that I’ve had plenty of exposure and is trying to give a chance to someone else.” You don’t have to believe it, but the very fact of starting to contemplate other explanations than “I’m being ignored and this is awful” has been shown to really not only improve your resilience to specific situations going on wrong now, but actually boost your resilience longer term to something that goes wrong later.

Q. From a boss’s perspective, what role could they have in making sure that their employees are having a good day?
A.
I’m really hoping that people who are in management and leadership positions read the book and see how all of these techniques can be built into their leadership style. We talked about the importance of setting clear intentions, the power of setting clear intentions. If you’re very clear on what matters and therefore where you want to put your attention, then you’re basically going to experience things differently.

Another thing is being aware of the fact that even a difficult task can be enough to put people on the defensive and therefore have them not thinking as clearly as they might. Thinking about framing tasks using something I call positive task framing, which is where you say, “Okay, what’s the ideal situation? How do we move towards it?” You’ll get better thinking out of your colleagues if you do that than always focusing on the negatives and the problems that need to be solved. You still think about the problems that need to be solved, but by framing them positively by thinking about what’s the ideal.

So you can help people experience reality differently [laughs], you can help them think more clearly—we’ve already talked about giving feedback and helping them develop in a way that’s going to be easier to hear the messages and to act on them. And I think there’s actually an example that I use in the section on resilience, which is a CEO dealing with a really massive screw up at his company and using all of the techniques that he uses on himself for resilience in a group setting to help people get through this difficult crisis, so for example saying, “When have we handled crises like this in the past really well and what does that tell us now? And when we look back on this in five years time, what do we want to say about how we handled this?” All of these things can be done with colleagues, not just in your own head.

Q. When it comes to team relationships, what are the most important considerations?
A.
In the book I talk a lot about techniques that you can use. Obviously again I’m talking about them again in a one-to-one setting a lot of the time, but they can be used in group settings too.
One of them is the power of actually showing curiosity about other people, which is so blindingly obvious and yet most conversations at work are really one of a couple different types. They are very factual conversations—“When is this due?” “It’s due on Friday”—or it’s a sort of oiling the wheels, superficial kind of conversation—“How was your weekend?” “Fine, how was yours?”—or it’s let’s have a conversation which is like a game of tennis where I’m really just kind of getting ready to return the ball and I’m not really listening to what you’re saying—pausing to reload, I call it. It’s actually quite rare in a work context to really show curiosity about where someone else is coming from and to just listen.

Another thing that I’ve seen work really well is there’s a neuroscience concept called ‘in-group’, which is where people who are perceived to be like us in some way are treated by the brain quite differently to people who are perceived to be not like us, and people who are perceived to be outside our in-group are actually processed as a threat first and foremost until there’s some sense of ‘we have something in common’. So the bad news is that we’re quite tribal, the good news is that we’re actually able to feel like someone’s on our team with actually very, very little—it’s been shown that merely assigning people randomly to a team will actually create a sense of camaraderie that means that they will immediately treat people in that totally random team more positively than someone who is just randomly assigned to a different team over the other side of the room. So it doesn’t take much to look for those points of commonality, and that’s why we sometimes talk about the weather, that’s why we sometimes talk about sports. These moments of small talk are actually very important social interactions that create a sense of being on the same team and that’s one of the reasons why leaders who really emphasize a shared goal and shared visions tend to get more out of their teams. If they’re not treating each other like a threat, if everybody feels as if they’re on the same team truly, then you get better behavior out of everybody.

The other thing in that chapter which is interesting and useful in a team setting is reciprocity, and by that I mean sharing something of yourself. And it doesn’t have to be personal stuff, it can actually be things that [team members] are doing at work and things that they’re worried about and things that they need help with. The more that you can encourage that kind of free-flow of discussion so that people feel that they’re opening up to each other, the more that you create a sense of trust within the team.

Q. To what extent does the advice depend on the nature of your workplace or where this is being applied?
A.
Everything that’s in the book I have pruned to be the stuff that works across cultures and across settings. I’ve had a chance to work with clients in so many different countries and see so many different types of organization and it’s been fantastic because it does then allow me to be quite confident in saying this is stuff I’ve seen work in all sorts of different settings. It was one of my filters for what went in the book: Is this speaking to something that’s really truly universal? And that’s one of the reasons why, again going back to something I said earlier on, I don’t make assertions about you should never check email in the morning, because I don’t like making assertions about what people should or shouldn’t do unless I feel that it is really a general principle that they can then decide to apply in their own way and in their own lives and that’s generally my approach.

[This article has been reproduced with permission from CKGSB Knowledge, the online research journal of the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business (CKGSB), China's leading independent business school. For more articles on China business strategy, please visit CKGSB Knowledge.]

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