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Putting Behavioral Science Into Practice

Small shifts in actions and words can improve employee performance

Advances in behavioral science are reshap­ing the strategies leaders adopt to succeed in business and inspire employees to high per­formance. Whether we are aware of them or not, the brain has automatic responses that impact how we perceive and react to ideas, people, places and things. Simple adjustments in actions, words and modeling based on fundamental behavioral science principles can help improve organiza­tional, team and personal effectiveness within the workplace.

Economist and McKinsey External Senior Advisor Caroline Webb shows how to apply this science to our daily tasks and routines in her new book, “How to Have a Good Day: Harness the Power of Behavioral Science to Transform Your Working Life.” As co-founder of McKinsey’s leadership practice as well as CEO of Sevenshift, Webb spe­cializes in helping international organizations in the public, private and social sectors shift their culture in more positive directions. Small changes have the power to make a big impact on organiza­tions, leaders and employees, resulting in a more productive, happier and thus, successful environ­ment. Webb answered some questions talks about behavioral science and her new book for YPO.

How do you define a good day?

A good day is about feeling that you are spend­ing time on the right things, so you can look back at the end of day and feel like you’ve made good use of the hours. Then, it’s about feeling good about what you’ve actually done — handling interactions well, being on your game, making a difference. And there is also the question of whether it has given you back some of the energy it’s taking out of you, so the whole thing feels sustainable and repeatable. You only have to have one of those things out of place for it to be hard to say, “Yes, I had a good day.” But the good news is you can make a big change in the way each day feels by recognizing what you’re like when you’re at your best and then being willing to invest in some self-awareness and small tweaks that are easy to build into your everyday routines.

How can leaders help their employees have a good day?

It really helps to understand some basic behav­ioral science research if you are to help your colleagues thrive. For example, it is important to recognize that when people are feeling even mildly stressed or threatened, it’s hard for them to do their most creative, expansive thinking. That’s because when people’s brains are on the defensive, they divert mental energy away from sophisticated nuanced thinking toward basic defensive responses like fight, flight or freeze. Knowing how to get peo­ple out of defensive mode is a real leadership skill, which is not that hard once you understand how the brain works. It usually involves shifting the focus to something that feels rewarding in the sit­uation at hand. It’s also important to think about the long game and not just the short-term push. It is tempting to drive yourself and your colleagues hard when big business issues are at stake, or you are trying to grow fast. But the brain makes better decisions, learns more and comes up with better insights if it gets to take breaks and periodically step away from the task it’s working on. So peo­ple do better work if we encourage them to be as smart about planning their downtime as they are in planning their uptime. It’s all time that helps them toward their goals.

What does behavioral science say about the way leaders make decisions?

One thing that is useful for leaders to under­stand is everyone processes unfairness as a primal threat. So when people feel they are not being treated fairly, their brains go on the defensive, making it hard for them to think as clearly about the situation. Uncertainty also creates a similar threat response. That’s why it’s so powerful for leaders to be as transparent as they can possi­bly be about the reasoning behind their choices, especially when they are difficult decisions. It reduces the amount of uncertainty and perceived unfairness, which makes it far easier for people to respond to what you are saying in a mature way. And research has found that feeling “included” also presents a bit of a reward to people’s highly social brains — so bringing people into the loop further helps them get off the defensive and back to their best selves.

How do you address setbacks?

There are setbacks whenever you are trying to do anything bold. If you are in a phase of your life where you’re learning, that’s invigorating, but it also means you are going to make mistakes. That said, it is really helpful to be a “Jedi master” on the psychological techniques that have been shown to boost resilience and to know how to use them with your teams. In chapter 18, there is an example of a chief executive who applied many of those techniques to help his team think through a difficult situation where there had been finan­cial fraud in the staff restaurant. He helped the team get some distance from the problem, which reduces the level of defensiveness in people’s brains, by asking what they would be proud of when they looked back on the way they had han­dled the situation in a year’s time. He did some “positive task framing” by asking what the ideal solution would look like. He boosted their sense of competence by asking them to reflect on times when they had solved problems like this in the past and what they could learn from that. As a result of asking those sorts of simple questions, he got his team doing their best thinking at a diffi­cult time, culminating in them designing a great new risk management process. They emerged far stronger from the incident as a result.

Learn more about harnessing behavioral science to help yourself and your team have a good day by viewing Caroline Webb’s YouTube interview.

 This article originally appeared in YPO’s “Ignite” magazine.

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