Everyone wants to be happier at work. But how do we get there? In her new book, How to Have a Good Day: Harness the Power of Behavioral Science to Transform Your Working Life, author Caroline Webb looks at some of the more fascinating recent discoveries that could could help workplaces everywhere become happier spaces. She recently spoke about her book on the Knowledge at Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: Based on the research that you have done, how many people on average are not having a good day when they are going to work?
Caroline Webb: There are a lot of surveys that suggest that around half of the workforce are not particularly enjoying their everyday working life. That’s pretty sad when you think about how many of our hours each day we spend at work. Even for the rest of us, those of us who might love our jobs, deep down the day-to-day can be not as great as the big picture. Small stuff can get us down, even when we love our jobs. I became very interested in what it would take to make everyday life a little bit easier as we go through our tasks and our priorities for the day.
Knowledge at Wharton: Can you give us a little bit of the backstory about how you accumulated this data, and tell us about the themes behind the book?
Webb: I’ve been working with people for more than 15 years now to help them thrive at work. That’s been my day job. It’s a pretty fantastic day job to be helping people to be at their best. I did that first as a consultant for many years, and then struck out on my own about four years ago. The core of it is really one-to-one coaching work, but there’s also working with teams, with boards, with whole organizations to shift cultures in a more positive direction.
“Small stuff can get us down, even when we love our jobs.”
I became aware that when a company is trying to improve its culture, it often thinks about the big-ticket interventions — the big CEO speech or whatever. That stuff is needed, but often, what doesn’t get focused on is the small stuff: How do you handle disagreements? How do you handle days when the workload is very heavy? Often, the way that people deal with things like that is actually what really defines the way that an organization feels.
I became more and more interested in the small space aspects of our lives, and my coaching and consulting went more and more in that direction. This book comes out of years and years of practice.
Knowledge at Wharton: There is so much research trying to figure out how to help people have a good day — and how to make the workday better just in general. Clearly, a lot of scientists and behavioral economists see this as an important piece to not only personal success, but corporate success, as well.
Webb: Yes, there’s so much great research out there being done by behavioral scientists, which is the umbrella term for neuroscientists, psychologists and economists who look at why we behave the way we do. But a lot of it isn’t really making the leap from the lab into real life, so that’s really where my work focuses. It’s translational. I’m interested in translating this amazing research into, what does it mean for how we should handle a conversation like this differently? How we should handle a meeting differently or a to-do list differently? There’s still a long way to go in that practical translation, but I’m hoping my work makes a bit of a dent in it.
Knowledge at Wharton: I’m guessing you have been asked this question a few times: What’s a good day to you?
Webb: The book was really based on asking that question to hundreds and hundreds of people over the years. I used to ask them, “What’s a good day for you? What’s a bad day for you? And what would it take to get more good days?” So I feel pretty confident in giving a kind of general answer that everyone’s different.
I think it is about getting to the end of the day and feeling that your attention and time has gone toward what really matters to you. Second, I think it’s about feeling good about what you’ve done. Third, I think it’s about enjoying yourself — or at least feeling that you’ve bounced back from what’s not been great, so that you’ve got enough energy and resilience in the tank for the next day.
Knowledge at Wharton: You have three themes about to how to make the science work in today’s business world. Could you go into those, please?
Webb: Well, I was trying to create this grand synthesis of decades of work in psychology and neuroscience and behavioral economics, and I was trying to really identify what the three essential big themes were that cut across all of those disciplines and really are useful for us to understand.
First is the two-system brain. The idea there is that we’ve got a “deliberate system” in our brain that takes care of everything we do deliberately and consciously: That’s reasoning, self-control, planning, forward-thinking, all the grown-up stuff. Then, we have an “automatic system,” which takes care of just about everything else. Those systems have strengths and weaknesses, and we don’t really play to those strengths and weaknesses as much we might. And that’s so central to actually having a better day.
For example, the deliberate system gets overloaded really quickly, and has huge capacity constraints. If we understand how that works, it becomes much easier to see how we can get overloaded so easily, and what it takes to lighten the load on our deliberate system. For example, having a to-do list that has three things on it rather than 23. You know, these things actually help us think more clearly. So, recognizing that we have a two-system brain and playing to the strengths of each system.
“What doesn’t get focused on is the small stuff: How do you handle disagreements? How do you handle days when the workload is very heavy?”
The second big theme is the discover-defend axis. The idea there is, your brain has a couple of different modes. One is defending you against threats, and the other is going out and seeking and discovering rewards.
These modes result in quite different approaches to life. When you are in defensive mode, you are quite tunnel-visioned. You’re closing down: It’s fight, flight or freeze. What happens in defensive mode — and we know this when we’re put on the spot — is it becomes harder to think straight. What’s been found is that there’s actually less activity in the prefrontal cortex when people are even mildly stressed. In other words, when we’re on the defensive against some kind of threat — and it can be as small as being cut off in a meeting or being put on the spot — it’s enough to actually make us seize up slightly and not be able to think straight, just at the moment when we want to raise our game.
Knowledge at Wharton: Dealing with that in the workplace — being put on the defensive — is certainly something that most people would like to be able to avoid, but it’s almost become the norm in terms of being in an office.
Webb: Absolutely. A lot of my work focuses on how to get people into discovery mode, where you’re focused more on the rewards than the threats in a situation. For example, if you’re dealing with a really tough discussion topic, you don’t have to be soft about it, but you can get people to think more clearly and, indeed, yourself more clearly if you first ask, “What’s our ideal outcome here? And what’s our first step towards that?”
Competence and purpose are inherently rewarding for the brain. If you can get the brain to focus more on the rewards than the threats in the situation, then you’ll get to clearer thinking.
The third big theme is the mind-body loop. It’s interesting, because what it says is the way we treat our body has an immediate impact on the way that our brain functions, rather than just a long-term impact. We know that over time, if we keep fit, there are all sorts of health benefits that flow from that. But what’s fascinating is that sleep, exercise, mindfulness — these things have an immediate effect on how clearly we think and how well we feel.
Knowledge at Wharton: It seems we’re in a time when more people understand that exercise of some kind has to be an important ingredient in your daily life.
“What happens in defensive mode — and we know this when we’re put on the spot — is it becomes harder to think straight.”
Webb: Yes, I’m really cheered by that. And I am someone who has never been a gym bunny. I played a lot of team sports when I was younger, but it gets a lot harder when you’re older to fit that in. So for me, it was really transformational to realize that just going for a brisk walk for 15 minutes was enough to boost my mood and my focus. And I did that knowing the research that underlies it. I have this rickety elliptical machine in my office — it’s really not a high-end thing — but when I was writing the book, I learned that if jumped on it for 10, 15 minutes whenever I was feeling stuck, I would have the breakthrough that I needed.
Seeing it as an immediate boost to your ability to think and to feel good is really the big shift. It doesn’t have to be much — a few jumping jacks, a little bit of a walk, and that’s enough.
Knowledge at Wharton: In the book, you make it clear from the beginning that if you don’t have your priorities straight, you’re fighting an uphill battle right from the get-go.
Webb: Yes, absolutely. When we think of priorities, we think of, perhaps, goals or to-do lists, and there’s some science there that tells us that actually, the way you articulate your goals really matters to whether you are able to achieve them. One example is, we tend to achieve goals more readily if they are articulated as doing more of a good thing rather than less of a bad thing. For example, “I will stay focused today during this meeting,” rather than “I will not check my phone.”
It turns out there’s something about the discovery-defense modes that gets triggered there. If you are focusing on negative language, then it seems to trigger more of a defensive response. We perform better when we’re in discovery mode. There are all sorts of little things like that that are quite interesting that most people don’t know — but even more than that, what’s perhaps even less well known is that when we carry a certain set of assumptions of attitudes into any interaction or any task, it’s going to affect what we perceive. That’s because our brain can only actually perceive consciously part of what’s going on around us at any time. What we tend to see is whatever matches what’s already top-of-mind for us. This is one of those “head explodes” moments, where you think, “Oh my gosh. I thought I was perceiving reality pretty objectively.”
But it’s a bit like when you buy a new car, and then you suddenly see every car on the road that is that exact model, because it’s top-of-mind for you, that’s what you see. There’s real power to being more deliberate about setting your intentions before you go into anything during the day, because you will see more of it. If you go into a conversation expecting someone to be a jerk, you will see everything confirmed that they are, indeed, a complete jerk. And you may miss moments where they smile or where they’re more conciliatory or more cooperative. That’s really profound, and most of us don’t realize it, and it can make a big difference every day.
“If you go into a conversation expecting someone to be a jerk, you will see everything confirmed that they are, indeed, a complete jerk.”
Knowledge at Wharton: So once you get that “jerk” mentality in your head, it’s really hard to get it out, right?
Webb: Yes, and it’s subconscious. What we don’t realize is, we’re then filtering out everything that suggests the world is a nicer place than our attitude going into the day suggests.
Knowledge at Wharton: You also talk in the book about relationships, both the good and the bad, and also something I think is important, but that’s not talked about enough — that your success also really reflects on other people, and is able to help other people have success, as well.
Webb: Yes, absolutely. Very few of us are hermits sitting in a cave on our own. Our success depends so much on the people around us, and not just our success, but also our happiness and our feeling of connectedness. Researchers have shown that the quality of our relationships is one of the most reliable predictors of our view of how happy we are and how much we feel good about our lives.
It’s super important. It’s so easy if you’re a very technical, analytical person to think that the relationship stuff is soft and doesn’t really need as much focus. But it can be transformational just to know a few things about, for example, how to get other people out of defensive mode and into discovery mode, so that they’re behaving more like their best selves. I think one of the most powerful things to know is that autonomy is an enormously motivating force.
We know it when it’s taken away from us — when someone treads on our toes, we feel terrible. But that has a big implication for how we handle and deal with other people, even if they are peers — to give people space to contribute and provide input rather than telling people what to do. It suggests that there’s a huge premium on really being a better listener, that there are certain benefits to coaching rather than telling, there are certain benefits to really giving people space to think. And it’s not always people’s natural style in working with coworkers.…
Autonomy can be really in the small stuff. For example, if I’m running a workshop with a group of clients, I always try and make sure that if we’re running over time on one part of the day, just simply asking people, “Do you want to continue or should we take a break?” It can be really small ways of inviting people to feel that they own part of what’s going on. Once you realize that it can be as small as asking people’s advice — “Well, what do you think about this topic?” — it becomes a lot easier to imagine how you might build it into your natural interactions with people, without necessarily needing to shift the whole culture of an organization.
“It just makes you feel good if you feel like, “I was listened to and I made a difference.”
Knowledge at Wharton: You also talk in the book about the fact that people should think about having an impact — somehow, some way, in their job, in their company — almost every day.
Webb: This is about feeling that you have some usefulness. When I was talking about what a “good day” is, feeling good about what you’ve done is partly about having great interactions, it’s partly about doing your best thinking, but it’s also about feeling that those conversations and that thinking isn’t wasted. A lot of that comes from whether our communications are really landing the way that we want, whether we’re able to make change happen, even if it’s in tiny ways. And having the confidence to really come across as our best selves, perhaps, when we are not feeling that confident. And those are topics that we often think about if we’re in advertising or marketing. We think about, “How do we influence the customer?” We don’t think about it quite so much in, “Well, how do I write this email so that it really gets the effect that I want?” Or “I’d like my colleague to stop spilling coffee in the kitchen.” I mean, it can be really small stuff, but actually understanding what it takes to make change happen can make you feel pretty good at the end of the day. It can make you feel that, “Oh, yeah, OK, I actually made a difference.”
So when I say impact, it doesn’t have to be necessarily on kind of a grand scale. It just makes you feel good if you feel like, “I was listened to and I made a difference.”