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The team goes with your idea. Your boss praises you. And all your meetings end early. Having things go your way is more within your power than you think, says former McKinsey partner Caroline Webb. In 30 minutes, she will translate cutting-edge science and teach you the tiny tweaks to your daily routine that will improve your “luck.” Step by step, Webb will share • how to set better priorities • ace every interaction • strengthen your personal impact • boost your energy and enjoyment • and more.
CAROLINE WEBB is CEO of Sevenshift, a firm that shows people how to use insights from behavioral science to improve their working life. Her book on that topic, “How To Have A Good Day,” is being published in 17 languages and more than 60 countries. She is also a senior adviser to McKinsey, where she was previously a partner. An economist by background, she makes extensive use of behavioral science, including behavioral economics, psychology, neuroscience, to help her clients discover how to be at their best – and how to bring the best out of their colleagues in turn. During her 12 years at McKinsey, Webb specialized in helping organizations shift their culture in more positive directions. She co-founded McKinsey’s leadership practice, and designed the firm’s approach to transforming senior team dynamics and improving personal effectiveness. She also founded and remains faculty of McKinsey’s flagship leadership development course for senior female executives. She is a founding fellow of the Harvard-affiliated Institute of Coaching and has degrees in economics from Cambridge and Oxford Universities. Her work has been widely featured in the media, including the Financial Times, New York Times, Fast Company, The Economist, WIRED, Fortune, TIME, Business Insider, The Guardian and Harvard Business Review.
CFW: Welcome to the Conference for Women tele class; How to Have a Good Day. Our guest today is Caroline Webb, CEO of Sevenshift, a firm that teaches people how to use insights from behavioral science to improve their working lives. Her new book on that topic, “How to Have a Good Day” draws from behavioral economics, psychology and neuroscience to transform our approach to the workplace. In today’s tele class Caroline explains how to apply advances in behavioral science to our daily tasks and routines, including how to fit better priorities, make our time go further, ace every interaction, be our smarter self and strengthen our personal impact. In today’s class Caroline will teach you how to navigate the typical challenges of modern workplaces and to give us the tools we need to have truly good days. Caroline Webb, welcome to the Conference for Women tele class.
Caroline: I’m delighted to be here; thank you.
CFW: And we’re delighted to have you. I want to start off – I mean a good day is obviously a very subjective thing to many people; how do you define it?
Caroline: Yeah; it is a bit audacious, isn’t it, to set out my stall as I’m the person who can tell you how to have a good day. Everyone feels joy and satisfaction in different ways. Over the years I spent about 15 years working with organizations to help them improve their organizational culture, to help teams be more effective, and I’d always go in first of all trying to understand a little bit what it felt like to work in their organization.
I’d interview people and I’d ask them, “What is a good day for you?” Then I’d ask them, “What is a bad day?” and then I’d say, “What would it take to have more good days,” and these were very rich conversations as you can imagine. It was fascinating to me how whatever sector I was working in, whether it was the private or the public or the social sector, whatever level of seniority people were at in their organization, there was a really common sense of – well, I guess three big things.
One was that people felt good about what they’d spent their time on; you know that it felt that they’d spend time on things that matter to them. Time and energy I should say really. Second, that they felt good about what they’d actually achieved – and that’s good about not just sort of achievement in the conventional sense but perhaps about the quality of the conversations that they’d had, and the feeling of the impact that they’d had.
And then there is definitely a third big bucket, which is about whether people feel like they’ve got the enjoyment and the energy and resilience to carry on. You get to the end of the day, do you have just enough left in the tank to make you feel like you’ve got enough to go forward into the next day with a smile on your face.
So it’s those three things that led me to really get interested in what would it take to be more systematic about putting in place the building blocks that get us to each of those three things.
CFW: Got it; so achievement, meaning, enjoyment, energy and resilience; all good things. I’m wondering if you could tell us more about your background as an economist and how that shaped your view of good days.
Caroline: It’s a good question because economics is known as the dismal science, so it’s not an obvious thing for an economist to spend time on. Well, you know I actually – when I was a little girl I wanted to be an astrophysicist; I was really into physics and then I took an economics class and I thought, “Oh, my goodness, it’s possible to be rigorous and scientific about human stuff.”
Actually that was a really defining moment in my career; to think about I guess social science, human science, behavioral science as a path. That was really the thread through everything that I’ve done and I saw economics as exactly that; as a way of thinking rigorously about how human beings can achieve their maximum potential.
What happened over time was that I realized that the people side of economics perhaps wasn’t as prominent as I’d like. I had a lovely first career as an economist. I’ve loved everything I did but I wanted to get that interest in human performance and potential a little bit more central in my professional life.
So then I went into management consulting with a desire to focus on organizational change, organizational culture. I went into that work I think with a slightly different approach than some of my colleagues; because I’d had this very evidence‑based, very technical background my approach to cultural change, to organizational change was always really evidence‑based; very, very keen to look at the scientific evidence around human behavior.
So I think that my background as an economist is mainly – well, very, very keen to be research orientated and rigorous in everything that I say about – when I’m dispensing my advice on how to have a good day. I think that’s what places me in this sort of translational space between the world of academic scientists and the world of practitioners. It’s certainly a place that I like to sit.
CFW: Got it. Now for your book “How to Have a Good Day” you’ve drawn, as you mentioned, from lots of science; from psychology, from economics, from neuroscience, how did the science, particularly the neuroscience, inform your book?
Caroline: Well, there’s obviously an enormous amount of research in those fields that’s relevant to human behavior, and ever more that’s relevant to how human beings thrive. What I was trying to do across these three disciplines was look for the research that I knew was actually going to make the most difference to people in the workplace. So that means there’s lots of stuff that’s out there that is interesting but it’s not – it’s perhaps a little bit abstract for those of us who are thinking about, well, how do I tackle my to‑do list in a more effective way.
So I looked across all of that research and I pulled out three big things that seemed to really cut across the disciplines and that I found time and again really resonated with my clients, for the people I was working with, and they were essentially these three things. One is the idea that we have a two‑system brain, that our brain divides and conquers all of the work that it has to do by splitting the effort between the deliberate system – what I call the deliberate system – which is everything that we do deliberately and consciously. So reasoning, self‑control, planning, that sort of thing; the sort of thing that would be surprising in a toddler, and the automatic system which is everything we do on autopilot.
There is a huge amount that comes from understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each system, and we’re so much more effective when we’re playing to the strengths of each system, and especially to the strengths and weaknesses of the deliberate system so that we’re really getting the best out of ourselves
The second theme is about the modes of the way those systems operate, so what I call the defensive mode and discovery mode and that’s really how the brain responds to stress and pressure and what we know about the best way to manage ourselves so that we are seeing difficult situations as challenges but not things that are going to sink us.
And then the third big theme is mind/body; the mind/body loop as I call it. The fact that the way that we treat our body has not just the long term effect on the quality of our mental health, but actually a really, really immediate impact on the way that we think and feel, so they’re the three big things.
CFW: Okay; so a very important point in the book that you make early on is talking about the two‑system brain, and I want to go back to that. You distinguish between what you call the deliberate system and the automatic system and I’m just wondering if you could illuminate those two points one more time.
Caroline: So the deliberate system is what you’re using to listen to me and what I’m using to speak to you. It’s kind of what we think of as ourselves because it’s the bit that we’re conscious of; you know, the choices that we make and so on, but most of what we do from day to day is actually on autopilot. It’s actually being managed by the automatic system.
So a lot of the choices we make are being taken automatically, and thank goodness because if we had to think through every morning, every step that we had to take on our way to work, can you imagine how long it would take if these things had not become automatic? If we built a spreadsheet every time we tried to decide what we were going to have for lunch so that we were consciously weighing up the pros and cons, we wouldn’t get much done, so thank goodness a lot of these happen on autopilot.
The tricky thing is that our automatic system has blind spots and tends to be prone to kneejerk behavior because it’s always trying to make things easier and lighter and simpler to do. So what happens there is that you sometimes make mistakes; if you’re under pressure your automatic system might sort of automatically make you blurt out something defensive. And then your deliberate system which really needs – it needs a lot of care to function at its best, you know? It gets tired easily, so when you can’t really think straight because you’ve been on a two hour conference call; it’s not just you. Your brain really does get tired. Your conscious deliberate system does get tired. It needs more breaks than anyone tends to give it and it needs a lot of care and understanding how it processes information.
So if we were able to figure out how to give our deliberate system the conditions to be at its best then we’re suddenly much more able to be smartest, wittiest, most graceful and intelligent version of ourselves.
CFW: Related to that perhaps, can you tell us more about what you mean by selective attention?
Caroline: Yeah; there’s a great example of how the two‑system brain works. I mentioned the deliberate system, our conscious brain has limitations. It’s fabulously intelligent obviously but it can only process a certain amount of information at any given time. So if you look around you in the room that you’re sitting in right now there are so many objects around you, and there are so many sensations in your body.If you’re sitting next someone you can look at the hairs on their head; every single piece of – everything you can see in your line of sight is a piece of data and your brain will crash like an overloaded computer if you really tried to consciously process it all at once.
So what happens is that to protect our fragile little deliberate system, which can only process a small amount of stuff at any given time, the automatic system cleverly filters out most of what’s around us at any given time. And the challenge with that is that it means that we’re only perceiving part of reality at any given time, so we think we’re being super‑objective but actually we are only perceiving what our automatic system has decided is important enough for us to notice.
There is a bit of a rule to what you tend to notice consciously and what you don’t. Your brain tends to make sure that you notice things that resonate with what’s already top of mind to you, so you kind of notice. If you decided to wear a red top today you suddenly notice everyone else is wearing red because you’re wearing red and your brain says, oh, right, well, I’m going to notice all the people who are wearing red.
I bought a pair of Nike sneakers for the first time a couple of months ago and I’ve never bought Nike before for some reason. I came out of the Nike store in New York and I suddenly noticed that half of New York were wearing Nike sneakers. They hadn’t just bought them; I was noticing them because Nike sneakers were top of mind for me. Now, this has a massive effect on us because what it means is that if we go into a meeting in a bad mood the science is really clear on this; we’re much more likely to perceive things that confirm our view that the world is a terrible place, so you will spot every instance of being interrupted, of someone saying something silly.
We’re actually completely capable of missing things that don’t fit with what is top of mind for us. It’s really profound because it means that if we go into a conversation and we’re a bit deliberate about our state of mind we can actually shape what it is that we tend to notice. If you’re in a bad mood because you spilt coffee on yourself – we talk about getting out of bed on the wrong side and then you notice every instance of being shoved on the subway or someone coming in front of you in the commuter jam.
But if you decide, okay, I’m going to notice three good things in the next five minutes – it doesn’t matter how small and stupid they are – and you put those things top of mind; it could be some nice hat that you see on your way into work – what happens is that your brain says, “Oh, Caroline seems to want to see good things and therefore I’m going make her see more good things,” and it’s one of the quickest [life hacks] I know. It works even when you’re in a really foul mood. It doesn’t turn a terrible day into an amazing one but it is a very, very good way of just shifting what you perceive to be the reality you experience.
CFW: Got it. Another thing you talk about is defending and discovering, could you talk about what that means?
Caroline: Yeah; that’s the second big theme in the book. Essentially, the way that this works is that your brain is automatically, at any given moment in time, scanning the environment around you for possible threats to defend you against and rewards to seek out and discover. I’m not just talking about the physical threats in the world; I’m talking about actually quite existential ones.So anything that speaks to our sense of self‑worth or our sense of social standing can be seen as a reward. You know when you feel like you – someone says, “Oh, you did great in that meeting or I loved how you did this or that,” you can feel that sense of pleasure that we get from it. It’s real and it’s not trivial.
But it goes the other way, so the moment that someone – I don’t know – cuts us off an email chain or interrupts us in a meeting or anything which undermines our sense of competence or autonomy or purpose, anything that undermines our sense of fairness and inclusion and respect, these things are enough to actually be perceived as a threat by our brain.The really important thing to know is that when your brain goes on the defensive against these small things, what’s happening is that there’s less activity in your prefrontal cortex. And what that means, to put it more plainly, is that just as you’re faced with something which might be making you feel out of your depth or annoyed, just as you need to kind of really be on your game, what’s happening is your brain is diverting scare mental energy to this defensive response, which means there is less left over in the higher, more sophisticated part of your brain. The bit that’s responsible for clever thinking, so you actually become dumber just at the moment you need to be smarter.
CFW: Oh my God! How do we get out of this defensive mode? If our biology destines us – predestines us to be defensive how do we overcome that and get out of that mode?
Caroline: I mean it’s great that it exists, right, because it’s kept us safe for millennia, but absolutely, in the workplace you really don’t want it to be something that’s getting in the way of your performance and your wellbeing. So it’s moderately simple in my experience; what you need to do is you need to get yourself more focused on the rewards in a situation than the threats.I know that might sound a bit Pollyannaish but it’s not actually that hard to do. So imagine that something is going wrong at work and you’re really feeling – you notice yourself tensing up, you maybe make a snappish comment or maybe you keep your head down and hope that the trouble passes. These are kind of workplace versions of fight or flight
What you want to do is think about, well, if we know that self‑worth and social standing are rewards for the brain, what can I do to boost those? By focusing on, for example, what you do know about a situation or what you do control, that really boosts your sense of competence and autonomy in the moment.So for example, if things are really uncertain you can say, “Okay, what is mine to control in this situation? What do I know for certain?” Another thing that’s quite interesting is that learning is perceived as a great reward for the brain; it really does boost our sense of competence, and so asking yourself in the middle of something really going pear‑shaped, what can I learn from this? What can I learn from this? It’s one of the quickest fixes I know, as well as the intentional setting and saying what do I want to notice that’s good? The other thing you can do in the moment is to say, “What can I learn from this?”
Another thing that you can do that’s been shown to reduce the state of alert in your brain when you’re feeling challenged by a situation that’s unfolding around you, is to get some distance from it; it’s what psychologists call distancing. And what you do is you essentially do exactly that; you put yourself at some distance from the situation, either in terms of time or in terms of adopting someone else’s perspective. So by asking yourself, “What will I think about this in a year’s time?” That is a wonderful, wonderful way of getting some distance from the situation. What you see when someone is in a brain scanner, is you see that there’s actually a reduction in the level of threat response that’s going on when someone is under pressure.
If you ask a question like, “What would I advise a wise friend about this or what would a wise friend advise me?” These are questions that take you out of the immediate horror of whatever is happening and they just give you a little bit of mental clarity by reducing your brain’s sense that the pressure and the threat is right here, right now. I use those all the time, I have to say.
CFW: Wonderful; now I want to move onto another concept. We hear a lot about multitasking. You write about the concept of single tasking. Could you describe why that is – the relevance of that for the brain?
Caroline: Yeah; it’s another limitation of our super‑intelligence that’s somewhat fragile deliberate system because the conscious part of our brain, although we think we can do many things at once, and actually many of us as women have been told that we can do many things at once. It turns out that actually our conscious brains, our deliberate system can only do one thing at a time.Our automatic system can do tons of things in parallel, so you really can find your way to work while listening to an audiobook if you really do know your way to work. You can brush your teeth while checking your email if brushing your teeth is an automatic task.
But as soon as you have two tasks that actually compete for conscious attention it’s really hard because you think that you’re juggling them beautifully but actually you’re slowing yourself down by about 30 percent and you are making between two and four times as many errors. It could well be worse than that but I know studies that will go as far as saying that. One nice way of describing it is if I get you to say – you can do this along at home if you like – if I get you to say one, two, three, four, five, six, seven as fast as you can – go on; have a go.
CFW: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven.
Caroline: Okay; and then I get you to say A, B, C, D, E, F, G as fast as you can.
CFW: A, B, C, D, E, F, G.
Caroline: And then I get you to do something which should take about the same amount of time put together and I get you to say A1, B2, C3 and so on.
CFW: A1, B2, C3, D4, D5 – much slower.
Caroline: Oh my gosh; you’re doing great though because actually many people just freak out once they start to actually try and blend the two. What’s happening there is that two things that you can do really quite quickly and efficiently when you’re tackling them separately, become much slower when you try to mix them up and that’s effectively what we’re doing when we’re scattering our attention between email and conference calls and conversation and reading and so. We think we’re doing them in parallel but we’re not; we’re taking longer.
CFW: Yes; that leads right into my next question which is the degree to which we are constantly connected with our devices. How do we use that connection or that relationship with technology in a positive way to have better days, rather than feeling enslaved?
Caroline: Yeah; I’m not [unintelligible 00:21:31] about technology. When I started work I didn’t have a computer and it was – every major breakthrough, including the BlackBerry, CrapBerry was something that massively improved my professional life, but the truth is that with always‑on devices we are really causing a massive challenge for our brains because we are faster and smarter and more creative when we are not splintering our attention across a gazillion different things. So I think it’s about – you’ve probably heard this being said before – but it is about boundaries and it is about recognizing that you are going to be faster and smarter on your most important task of the day or your most important conversation. You’re going to be more charming and more – you’re going to be, again, smarter in that conversation if you are not distracted by your phone, or indeed your laptop, but it’s very often our phones, isn’t it in reality?
And so being clear about the fact that actually you’re going to get things done more quickly if you put your phone away, if you put it on airplane mode, if you close down your browser tabs and you’re going to get your email processed more quickly if you actually batch it and blitz it in those batches, than if you graze across them all day.Everybody wants to get their emails done more quickly. Well, it’s clear that you’re going to ask your brain to switch attention so much if you’re looking at your email all day that you’re going to take longer on it overall. So the more that we can think about, okay, well, I’m going to really blitz my email two or three times a day and when I’m doing my most important task I’m going to find a way to really give it my full attention. You’re going to see your productivity really rise.
CFW: That sounds very promising. Let’s talk about our impressions of others. You talk in “How to Have a Good Day” about the fundamental attribution error and I’m wondering if you could tell us more about that and why it’s so important to challenge it.
Caroline: It’s such a great name, the fundamental attribution error; it’s like the best branded bias in psychology, and the way it works is that if I turn up to work and I’m cranky and slow I know it’s because I didn’t sleep well last night. But if you turn up and you’re cranky and slow I think that you are a horrible person and hopelessly inefficient. I don’t think that obviously, but I’d be inclined to think that. Instinctively that’s an assumption that I’m going to make, sadly, because when we think about ourselves we know that bad behavior is mostly caused by bad circumstance, bad things are happening to us, but in other people we tend to attribute bad behavior to bad character and that’s the attribution error.
It matters a lot because it means that we are assuming bad intent on the part of people around us when they cut us off in traffic or when someone excludes us from an email chain or whatever. And if we assume that there is bad intent, my goodness, the world seems like a much less enjoyable place to be. So it’s not just a question of challenging the fundamental attribution error so that you can be nicer to other people, it’s also actually a rather nice way of actually making you feel better about the world. To really recognize that, for most people who are behaving badly, the chances are something has caused it and it could be something really minor, but it still could be enough to make them behave not at their best.
Because if you go back to defensive mode, when someone is faced by something that makes them feel even slightly undermined in terms of their self‑worth or social standing and their brain goes slightly into the defensive mode, and there is less activity in their prefrontal cortex, what that means is it’s harder for them to be nice and smart and sharp.It could be the smallest things that could be making them behave badly, and the last thing you want to do is actually then escalate the situation by being annoyed, or at least you want to manage your annoyance by giving them the benefit of the doubt and saying, “I wonder what could have caused this?” Then the chances are that you’re able to lower the level of tension between you, rather than escalating it.
CFW: It seems like something that negotiators should be well aware of; the fundamental attribution error?
Caroline: Oh yeah; absolutely, but can all benefit from just that tiny little bit of curiosity and just saying, “Okay, this person is being a jerk. Okay, I wonder what could have caused that,” and you don’t even have to become – you don’t have to get into their psychotherapy. You don’t have to start to unpick what might have happened to them in childhood. Just thinking, I wonder whether they are under slept. I wonder whether they’ve got a family thing happening; just the most basic shift in the way that you’re seeing them will convey itself to them in all sorts of subtle ways. We’re highly contagious in our emotions so if you think someone is an idiot, whether you say it out loud or not, research suggests that your mood will sync up with theirs within five minutes.
So if you are feeling strongly that this person is a pain then you’re going to be adding to the tension in the conversation. If you decide to adopt the more benevolent kind of idea about what might be going on with them – you know maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not – but it’s going to shift your demeanor so that the interaction between you is likely to be more productive. So you don’t have to think they’re a saint but if you want to have a better conversation it’s super‑helpful to actually adopt this good person, bad circumstances idea.
CFW: So it really does require giving people the benefit of the doubt –
CFW: – rather than getting sucked into what you call contagious emotions – I like that.
Caroline: Yeah; it’s funny isn’t it, because benefit of the doubt – my God, our grandmothers told us that, right?
CFW: Right; and neuroscience supports it.
Caroline: Right; exactly. A lot of these ideas, ancient wisdom has had a lot of this right for quite a long time; it’s just that we now understand some of the neurochemistry that sits behind it and perhaps makes it a little bit more compelling to us, that actually there is a good reason why we should do this.
CFW: Could you tell us, Caroline, about some of the examples of either people or organizations who have implemented the advice in “How to Have a Good Day” and what types of results did they experience; maybe a case study?
Caroline: Well, you know, I’m a little bit different to some of the people in this kind of space of non‑fiction books on how to be happier and more productive in your life because I’m a practitioner rather than an academic. So the book is not about celebrity examples; it’s actually real people that I’ve worked with every year in all sorts of different walks of life so it’s hard to pick my favorites because every little chapter in the book is illustrated with a real example of someone who I think has really nailed it, you know; who has just absolutely got this, whether it’s conveying confidence in a presentation or someone who has figured out how to manage tensions in their relationships. There are fantastic examples, I would hope, of each of those.But there are one or two people who always come to mind when I’m asked a question like that. There was a wonderful woman called Roz who runs an enormous part of the health system in a particular country, and she’s so thoughtful and so self‑aware about all of the topics we’ve just talked about.
That doesn’t mean that she goes around and talks about, oh, my brain is like this right now, my brain is like that. You don’t have to talk about the science. It’s helps to understand the science but she’s really great at translating these ideas into practical techniques that she can build into her working life. She’s really good at thinking, for example, I know that my folks are really stressed and stretched right now, how about I get their brains out of defensive mode and into discovery mode more often by starting every meeting by reviewing what successes have we had in the last week and what can we learn from that, and that’s just a really elegant, small thing.And she’s full of things like that; just really tiny things that she’s built into her routine from morning to night that have become so habitual that she’s really a living example of the whole book at this point.
CFW: Wonderful. Well, Caroline, we could talk on and on. We’ve unfortunately run out of time but I think people will get a lot more information from your book, “How to Have a Good Day.”