Caroline Webb [ 27 K Views, 200 Likes, 50:26 ] I used to work a lot with companies to help them shift their culture in a more positive direction. And I found that the best way to actually find out what was really going on under the hood was often to simply ask three simple questions. What’s a good day for you? What does a bad day look like? And how do you get more of the good days? So the book is built around the things that I heard, obviously.
MATT BRITTIN: What did you hear?
CAROLINE WEBB: So what did I hear? I heard we want to be sure that we’re working on the right things. We want to be sure that we are being productive in pursuit of those priorities. We want to– because you get to the end of the day and you feel like you’ve tackled only the urgent, rather than the important, there’s a sense of a gap. And you feel, over time, that something is really missing. There’s definitely something about just knocking the ball out of the park on the tasks. But there’s lots of different colors to that. There’s the interaction, the quality of the interaction, is feeling that you’re at your best– even, perhaps, when you’re 12 o’clock on a video conference call. And then there’s feeling that you’re having impact with everything that you’re saying and doing. And then there’s just the kind of topping up the tank, you know? How do you make sure that you’ve got the resilience to deal with the ups and downs, and that you’ve got the energy to leave you, at the end of the day, feeling like you’ve got a little bit left in the tank. So these were the things that came through again and again and again. And it’s less about saying, oh, the job is amazing. Because of course you want to be– you want to be in a great job, of course. But so many people are in really great jobs, and the day-to-day existence is wearing a bit miserable from time to time. Stressful.
MATT BRITTIN: Yep.
CAROLINE WEBB: Yeah, so.
MATT BRITTIN: Maybe we should ask the audience. What does a good day look like? What kind of things make a good day for you guys?
CAROLINE WEBB: Progress, right.
MATT BRITTIN: Progress. Making progress. What else?
AUDIENCE: Good discussion.
CAROLINE WEBB: Good discussion.
AUDIENCE: Work with good people.
MATT BRITTIN: Work with good people. Anything else?
MATT BRITTIN: Have some fun. That’s wasn’t on your list.
CAROLINE WEBB: Energy.
MATT BRITTIN: Energy.
CAROLINE WEBB: I talked about energy. Yeah, I mean, people are– I mean, Google is very, very fun, right? So energy, for you, definitely looks like fun. Energy at the pointy-headed management consulting firm maybe looks a little different. Just saying.
MATT BRITTIN: So you spent some time– and obviously, as you say in the book, and you just said, you’re kind of asking people those basic questions. What’s a good day? What’s a bad day? How could you have more good days? It’s usually a kind of coaching approach, I guess.
CAROLINE WEBB: Yes.
MATT BRITTIN: What, then, led you to bringing that together with a bunch of research and science?
CAROLINE WEBB: Well, I was an economist. And the reason I’d gone into economics is because I thought it was a human science. I thought it was a rigorous way of thinking about human potential. And over time, the human bit of that kind of really faded. I mean, the work got more and more technical. And so I actually went into consulting because I wanted to focus on organizational change. But I never lost the interest in an evidence-based approach, which I guess many of in the room would also support. And so much in the field of human development and coaching and so on– there’s a little bit of an arm-waving kind of feel to it. And yet there’s so much amazing evidence that comes out of neuroscience, psychology, and behavioral economics. It often just doesn’t make the leap from the labs into real life. And I found that I’d be talking to a client about why they might want to think about how to give their team a bit more autonomy, and talking to them about the psychological research on the importance of autonomy as a motivating force, would do more to shift their micromanaging behavior than any staff survey results. Understanding the science and the rigor underneath it. So over time, I just realized that there was a huge opportunity to help people embrace changes which were going to make them more effective– and happier, frankly.
MATT BRITTIN: That might be one of the reasons I found the book interesting, is as Googlers, we’re all about understanding the facts.
CAROLINE WEBB: Yeah.
MATT BRITTIN: And I think there is sometimes, you feel that coaching and some of the things you read about how to perform well are a bit, as you said, arm-wavy. That’s a good phrase. But you’ve drawn on psychology. You’ve drawn on behavioral economics. You’ve drawn on neurology. Can you tell us a bit more about what they call, technically, “the science bit”?
CAROLINE WEBB: Yeah. I mean, these are all disciplines that basically look at how and why we think, feel, and behave as we do. And actually, all three of those disciplines have parts which don’t focus on that. So I look at the behavioral neuroscience, the behavioral psychology, and the behavioral economics. I mean, the boundaries between the three are very, very blurry, if anyone is in this space in this room. I have a friend called Molly who– she’s a neuroscientist. I mean, there’s no doubt she’s a neuroscientist. But she works on topics that are very focused on areas that psychologists have explored for years– altruism. And yet she also has worked in behavioral economics labs. So she introduces herself sometimes as a behavioral economist. So there’s this sort of mass of people who are just interested in really explaining why you might feel tired at 12:00 PM on a video conference call, why that might make you feel grumpy.
MATT BRITTIN: I’m quite grumpy normally, but–
CAROLINE WEBB: Are you?
MATT BRITTIN: But even more grumpy.
CAROLINE WEBB: No you’re not.
MATT BRITTIN: Yep, that’s true. It’s all a front.
CAROLINE WEBB: No.
MATT BRITTIN: OK. So let’s just introduce some of the concepts, and I think people will be familiar with some of them. We’ll maybe go from there to how you apply them. The two-system brain.
CAROLINE WEBB: Yes.
MATT BRITTIN: What is that?
CAROLINE WEBB: So we have lots of systems in the brain that interact, lots and lots. And actually, a systemic approach to describing the way the brain works is much more the way that neuroscientists now talk about the brain, rather than a specific piece of the brain doing one specific task. There’s almost no part of the brain where you can say, this part of the brain does this. So we take a systemic approach these days. And two big systems– the names I give them are deliberate system and automatic system. So the deliberate system is the part of the brain that’s responsible for you listening to us right now. So it’s conscious attention. It’s conscious reasoning. It’s self-control. It’s what’s stopping you from standing up and saying, I don’t agree! Or frowning when you’re actually trying to be really positive in a conversation. It’s emotional self-regulation. It is also planning and forward thinking. So it’s all the grown-up stuff, basically. The problem is that it’s quite limited in capacity. So it can only do one thing at a time. It’s comparatively slow.
MATT BRITTIN: Can I check? So is it true that it can only do one thing at a time?
CAROLINE WEBB: Yes.
MATT BRITTIN: So multitasking is multi-failing, is it?
CAROLINE WEBB: Multi-failing. I wish I’d spoken to you before I wrote the book. That’s a good phrase. Yeah, multi-failing.
MATT BRITTIN: The second edition.
CAROLINE WEBB: Yeah. [LAUGHTER] So, yeah. So the brain. So the conscious, deliberate system can only single-task.
MATT BRITTIN: And that applies in both genders? Just to check.
CAROLINE WEBB: Yeah, you know, that often– [LAUGHTER] That often comes up. Yes, absolutely.
MATT BRITTIN: Yeah?
CAROLINE WEBB: Yeah.
MATT BRITTIN: That’s good to know.
CAROLINE WEBB: And– and there’s fascinating research that suggests the more confident you are that you can multitask, the worse you are at it. Because you’ve lost– yeah, I know. Because you’re all thinking, you’re sitting there thinking, yeah, but I’m the exception. I’m the exception. And actually, there’s some evidence out there on supertaskers. There are a few people whose brains are different. But I– I never like mentioning it, because as soon as you do, a bunch of people in an audience like this think, yeah, I’m a supertasker. [LAUGHTER] But the truth is it’s a really small proportion of people. It’s a tiny, tiny proportion. And for most of us in this room, when we try to do more than one thing at once, our deliberate system is actually switching attention from one thing to another. It’s doing it so fast, you didn’t realize it, but in those switches, you lose time and mental energy. Which is why you actually are slower in performing a task, and you make between two and four times as many errors when you multitask. So, yes. Where were we?
MATT BRITTIN: So we were talking about the two-system brain.
CAROLINE WEBB: Deliberate system.
MATT BRITTIN: I wanted us to talk a bit about that, and then what implications it has– yeah. So what’s the other one? The reptile one?
CAROLINE WEBB: So the automatic system. Well, it’s not just that. I mean, it’s the unsung hero, because we’re not conscious of it. So by definition, it’s below the level of our consciousness. And it’s doing so much to lighten the load on the deliberate system. It’s filtering out most of what you see and hear around you, to make sure that your deliberate system, which can only process part of reality, only gets to see or hear part of reality. Which means the automatic system is editing everything that you experience.
MATT BRITTIN: So this is the thing– those who’ve seen the video on YouTube, where you’re asked to count the number of ball passes. Have you seen this one? And at the end of the video, it says, so did you see the gorilla?
CAROLINE WEBB: Yeah.
MATT BRITTIN: If you haven’t done that, it’s really worth doing. That’s what’s going on there– [INTERPOSING VOICES]
CAROLINE WEBB: That’s what’s going on all the time, in fact. So there’s another study, which is an homage to that study, which had a bunch of radiologists at Harvard go through a stack of lung scans. Sadly, genuine lung scans. And their job is to spot abnormalities. On the last of the lung scans, there was a picture of a gorilla printed. How many of the radiologists saw the gorilla?
CAROLINE WEBB: Well, it’s not far off. 83% of the radiologists did not see the gorilla, even though eye-tracking devices showed that they look directly at it, and even though the gorilla was 44 times the size of the average lung nodule. Why did they not see the gorilla? Because the automatic system decides what to filter out based on what you’ve decided is already important, what’s top-of-mind for you. So whatever you’ve decided is your priority, your aim, whatever is your attitude or your assumptions, will shape what you see and hear consciously. Head explodes moment, right? I mean, this means that you are all experiencing only part of reality at any given time.
MATT BRITTIN: I’ve started to lose it. [LAUGHTER] So–
CAROLINE WEBB: Stay focused. Stay focused.
MATT BRITTIN: So there’s an awful lot of science, and some of it quite recent, I think, around understanding those things. But what are the implications of that particular body of work for how we understand how to have a good day?
CAROLINE WEBB: Yeah. Yeah. And I suppose this is what I try to do. This research has been out there for quite a long time. But the implications are quite practical and quite real for us. It means that if we take a moment before– and it really only has to be like five seconds– before we go into a meeting or a conversation, or even a task, and say, OK, what’s most important to me? What really matters in this? Check in with your attitude and your assumptions, because you know that’s going to shape your reality. And then decide, well, what do I really want to notice in this? So imagine you go into a conversation with someone you think is a bit of a jerk. I mean, I know that would never happen here, right? Imagine you’re going into a conversation with someone who you think is going to be a bit grumpy, let’s say. And, yeah, well. And you know that going in and assuming they’re going to be a jerk means you’re going to see everything that confirms that they are a jerk. If you decide to notice every opportunity for collaboration, or sign that they are actually a human being, you’ll see and experience the conversation differently. So that’s what I call setting intentions, because you have to give these things a label. That’s the label I give it.
MATT BRITTIN: Now setting intentions and that concept, is it confirmation bias, where you’re expecting to see something, and therefore you pick up all the instances? Just like when you hear a word for the first time, and it suddenly seems to be–
CAROLINE WEBB: Everywhere, exactly. Absolutely. And the umbrella term for the fact that we only perceive part of reality is selective attention, for those of you who like this sort of thing. Selective attention. And there are a bunch of different biases that sit underneath it– inattentional blindness, confirmation bias, being two of them.
MATT BRITTIN: And then another concept– so we’ve got the two-system brain and the neurology behind that. Another system– the concept you talk about is defending and discovering.
CAROLINE WEBB: Yes.
MATT BRITTIN: What is all that?
CAROLINE WEBB: So you know when you’re freaking out and you’re not thinking as clearly? That’s that. I mean, that’s essentially what we’re talking about. So our brains– the automatic system, apart from filtering out reality so that our deliberate system doesn’t crash in the face of all the information around us, it also keeps us safe. And one of the ways it does that, it has a system which responds to threats. And what happens is that it perceives a threatening environment, it launches something which you probably know of as a fight-or-flight response. It turns out there’s also a freeze response, which is where you’re kind of trying to figure out what’s going on. And when you do that, when you’re in that defensive mode, when your brain is responding to keep you safe, it’s diverting some attention, some energy, from your prefrontal cortex to this basic defensive response. So the result is, as you’re faced with a threat, you’re actually getting slightly dumber, even when the threat is as small as having your toes trodden on a little bit, or being faced with a task that just feels a bit insurmountable. So if we can become a lot more attuned to when we’re in defensive mode and have a few tricks to get ourselves out of defensive mode, we make ourselves smarter when we really need to.
MATT BRITTIN: So I found this really interesting in the context of work. Because you’re often in a situation, in a meeting or something, where you feel, whoa. I haven’t got credit for what I’ve done, or they don’t understand.
CAROLINE WEBB: Yeah.
MATT BRITTIN: And you can see yourself going into it. When you’re conscious of it, you can see yourself going into that mode. And you’re saying then, you’re getting dumber.
CAROLINE WEBB: Yeah. It’s a shame, right? Because it’s often at the moment you most need to rise to the challenge.
MATT BRITTIN: So what can I do when I’m in that situation? This is me, midnight.
CAROLINE WEBB: Hypothetically, yeah.
MATT BRITTIN: There’s 15 people at the other end. They’re all joking and they’re not paying attention to what I need to get done.
CAROLINE WEBB: Yeah. Well, I think there’s one thing generally that you can do in meetings and conversations, which is to say– and it’s a really super quick way of getting out of defensive mode, is to say, what’s the ideal situation here? And what’s my first step towards that? So if you’re feeling underappreciated, it’s just having to go-to question in your pocket. Like, OK, what do I really want to have happen here? What’s the ideal situation? And what’s the smallest first step towards that? I think that really helps. I think another general thing I would say about getting yourself out of defensive mode is if you can sprinkle a few rewards around yourself, then that is a very good way of engaging–
MATT BRITTIN: What is that, chocolates? What do you mean?
CAROLINE WEBB: Well, do you know, it kind of– so the reward system does respond to food and other very physical–
MATT BRITTIN: This is the other end from defend. This is now into discovering.
CAROLINE WEBB: Right. So this is discovery mode. So this is where your brain is more focused on rewards than it’s focused on threats. So rewards– of course, yes. I mean, chocolate is– it stands there.
MATT BRITTIN: That works.
CAROLINE WEBB: Yes. But obviously in the work context, more profound rewards are more powerful. So thinking about the fact that we are very social animals, a sense of connection and belonging is very rewarding to us. Thinking about the fact that we’re intellectual animals, a sense of interest and novelty is very powerful. So a great question, to give yourself one of those rewards, is to say, what can I learn from this? When you’re in that moment, what can I learn from this? It stimulates the neurochemistry or reward by saying, OK, I’m going to find something interesting in this. And just by doing that, you can often do enough to pull yourself out of defensive mode.
MATT BRITTIN: Oh, definitely. For me, anyway, being aware when that’s happening is really helpful.
CAROLINE WEBB: Yeah.
MATT BRITTIN: I can say, OK, I can see what’s happening here. I’m getting dumber. I need to stop. But then also when you’re in the position of sometimes putting somebody, inadvertently, in a defensive position, you can try to pull them out of it by offering a reward. I’ve noticed people doing this. There’s people here, in meetings, who are really good at saying, yeah, you know, Matt made a great point earlier, and blah, blah, blah. I’ve no idea what point I made, but I just feel good.
CAROLINE WEBB: Absolutely. Absolutely.
MATT BRITTIN: And so I’m like, great, yeah, I’m going to agree with that.
CAROLINE WEBB: Another category of rewards is absolutely–
MATT BRITTIN: It’s true, isn’t it?
CAROLINE WEBB: –making people feel good.
MATT BRITTIN: It works.
CAROLINE WEBB: It really does work. It works because another category of rewards is sort of about our self-respect. And big things that sit under that– competence. Autonomy. Having a sense that you know what you’re doing, and you’ve got space to do it. So, absolutely. Showing appreciation is one of the quickest ways of getting someone out of defensive mode and into what I call discovery mode.
MATT BRITTIN: Yeah. Anybody who’s a parent will know that.
CAROLINE WEBB: Yeah, yeah. Well done. Well done.
MATT BRITTIN: That was great.
CAROLINE WEBB: That was great.
MATT BRITTIN: Now put your shoes on. [LAUGHTER] And then the third piece– so we had the discover and defend, the two-system brain. The third piece that you make great play of is really the connection between our mind and our body. And again, sort of obvious, but you kind of expect, somehow, at work to be able to perform fine regardless of sleep and exercise and so on. Well, that’s what this is about.
CAROLINE WEBB: Absolutely. So I think we all know that when we’re underslept, we’re not as smart. And I think we know that it’s hard to be witty when we’re– when we’re short of sleep. We know, in some sense, that there is a connection. But we so often treat our bodies as if they’re just kind of nice-looking containers for our brain. You know, that maybe we look after ourselves purely for aesthetic reasons. And actually, the evidence is just mounting, year after year, on just how– so for example, you’re a sportsman. It turns out you don’t have to be a rower in order to get the cognitive benefits of exercise. 20 minutes is enough. 20 minutes of aerobic activity of some sort. Oh, but it turns out, actually, even 10 minutes is going to boost your focus and attention and your emotional resilience. Oh, it turns out, actually, you can break it up into even smaller chunks. So the research is becoming very, very encouraging for people– you know, busy people who find it hard to fit this stuff into their days.
MATT BRITTIN: And it can be as simple as just getting up and walking around, not having meetings that last more than 45 minutes or an hour, that kind of thing?
CAROLINE WEBB: Yes, I love that, by the way. So I have been advocating for quite a while this idea of setting meetings that are shorter than hour or shorter than the half-hour. And I just saw recently that you have the Speedy Meetings that’s now in Google Calendar. I mean, hats off.
MATT BRITTIN: It books short meetings. Doesn’t mean to say the meetings end up– it’s all nudge, I think.
CAROLINE WEBB: Yeah, it is a very, very helpful nudge. Because what we also know about the deliberate system is that it– it gets better at taking decisions when it’s had a break. So the longer that it is since you’ve had a break, the less good the quality of your choices and decisions are. That’s been shown with judges sitting on a parole board. It’s been shown with–
MATT BRITTIN: So you’re better off going before the judge earlier in the day, are you?
CAROLINE WEBB: Definitely.
MATT BRITTIN: OK.
CAROLINE WEBB: I mean, just in case that’s ever relevant.
MATT BRITTIN: Could be useful.
CAROLINE WEBB: And if you’ve got a big day–
MATT BRITTIN: That’s certainly my job.
CAROLINE WEBB: If you’ve got a big decision that you need to make, make it after a break, rather than before a break. If you need any reminding that taking breaks is important, remember that your brain is doing a lot of encoding and consolidation in the period where it steps away from a task. Downtime is not laziness. Downtime is actually like a pit stop for a racing car.
MATT BRITTIN: And is it real, the notion that I get all my best ideas when I’m in the bath, or when I’m walking or cycling, that kind of thing?
CAROLINE WEBB: No, it is real. I think there’s a lot of, still, research into exactly what goes on, something called the default mode network in the brain. I said there were lots of systems. So everybody in neuroscience it interested in the fact that there is this part of the brain that is active when we’re not apparently doing anything. There’s definitely plenty of evidence to suggest that when people step away from a task and then return to it, we come back with fresh insight. So I have a waterproof pad in the shower– which, I know, I’m probably revealing too much. anyway, there we are. I have a waterproof pad in the shower because that time–
MATT BRITTIN: That’s where the ideas come to you.
CAROLINE WEBB: That liminal space, yeah.
MATT BRITTIN: Liminal? What does that mean?
CAROLINE WEBB: In between things. Yes.
MATT BRITTIN: Spaces in between things. OK, that sounds good. And then, so taking all of these things together, and all the observation of all the kind of crazy organizations that you’ve worked in, you’ve sort of tried to draw out some general tips, ideas, thoughts, on how we can have a better day. So what are the key concepts? You’ve mentioned some, but tell us a bit more about– you know, what’s the toolkit?
CAROLINE WEBB: Well, I always struggle when people ask me that. Because I did try to make this book a book that covers everything. So there are so many tips and so many pieces of advice in there. I do think that this setting intentions thing is really at the foundation. Because if you can shape the way that reality feels, you know, that’s pretty great. I mean, it can change the way that every conversation feels.
MATT BRITTIN: Can you give us a sort of story or an example of that? Just bring that to life. So what does that mean?
CAROLINE WEBB: Yeah, well, actually, this might involve someone you know. I don’t know whether you knew him or not. So the time that this came home to me was– I had a meeting– I was on a project I didn’t want to be on, basically. I don’t know if any of you have ever had that situation happen to you. I was on a project that I knew was a good thing to do, but I wasn’t excited about it. And I was working alongside a colleague called Lucas. I call him Lucas.
And he was gung-ho about the project.
And he was, if you can picture, kind of tall, wiry, German, well-dressed. Very excited. And it was the first day that we were meeting the clients. And we were in this long, dark room with low ceilings, but less pleasant than this, obviously. And it was a video conference room. And I realized that the clients weren’t even there. They were on-screen. It was a kick-off meeting with the clients, but they were actually not even in the room. I was grumpy about being there. I thought it was a terrible, terrible set-up to start the project. And I struggled, I have to say.
I thought it was a bad meeting.
I saw lots of people frowning, lots of kind of disagreements. And I thought it was such a bad meeting that I really felt like I had to call it out and speak to Lucas about this terrible start to the project. And when I did that, I had this really strange conversation. And it basically went like this. I thought that was a terrible meeting. This, this, this, then this happened. I don’t know what you’re talking about, Caroline. This, this, this, and this happened. He’d seen progress. He’d seen smiles. He even reminded me of times that people had laughed. I had no recollection of it. I mean, none. I mean, we had different personalities, so there was a little bit of that, but no. It was– it was a huge eye-opener. And it was actually after that I really started thinking about applying the science, to actually– what would it actually look like, to think about selective attention?
MATT BRITTIN: So the smiles and all that, that was the gorilla for you.
CAROLINE WEBB: That was the gorilla.
MATT BRITTIN: You were looking for all the negative.
CAROLINE WEBB: I was looking for all the negativity. I was looking for every frown, every confirmation that I was right, that this was a terrible idea, probably a dumb project, and by the way, could I have some more coffee? You know? Yeah. So that was actually a big wake-up call for me.
MATT BRITTIN: And so given that experience, what would you have done differently? What do you do differently now?
CAROLINE WEBB: Yeah, so what I do differently is I do this little routine. I mean, I would’ve said my real aim here is to make a contribution to the warmth and connection that’s possible here. Because I was being put on the project because I do all the people stuff.
MATT BRITTIN: They used to have people who only did people stuff, because everybody else was so bad with people, didn’t they? Remember that?
CAROLINE WEBB: That’s right. And I’m an economist, right? So I was being put on there as the people person. So, yeah. I should’ve refocused. I would have refocused, and I did, in subsequent meetings. My aim here is to bring what’s missing. I would have checked in– and I do check in– with my attitude. If I’m really grumpy, I check in. I say, OK, is this going to serve me? Because it is going to shape what I experience. And I say, mmm, no. Can I park it? Is there a way of challenging any assumptions? And the assumption would have been to challenge, it’s a terrible way to set up a client project to have a video conference. But yeah, but maybe we would have taken a month longer to meet in person.
MATT BRITTIN: Yeah.
CAROLINE WEBB: I mean, it seems obvious now, right? But if you come in with a certain mindset, you perceive everything in a certain light. So now, every day, I mean, before I come on stage, I think, OK, what really matters? You know, where am I at? What do I want to notice? And the thing I probably do most often is when I’m feeling a bit stressed, if I’m on my way into work, I’ll say, OK, let me notice two or three good things. Because then once that’s top-of-mind, then I’ll see more. So that’s a really good way of resetting your mood.
MATT BRITTIN: That’s really interesting. OK, so I want to come to you, and have any questions or thoughts? Or like therapy, like any little things. I feel like I’m in therapy now, so I’m slightly–
CAROLINE WEBB: You can talk about a friend’s situation, if you want to.
MATT BRITTIN: But while you think about that, another thing that struck me is this concept you have of sort of assuming the best of people in situations.
CAROLINE WEBB: Oh, yeah.
MATT BRITTIN: I talk a lot about this with our teams. It’s very easy in our organization, which is multifunctional and multifaceted, to just go, oh, if only those guys over there could get their shit together, then I’d be fine. And why on Earth are they doing that? They must be idiots. And then you sort of have to remind yourself– and we remind each other– that actually, everybody’s good and smart, and they’re probably doing that with good intention.
CAROLINE WEBB: Yeah, well-intentioned.
MATT BRITTIN: The impact on you might be different. So just talk about how to handle that.
CAROLINE WEBB: Yeah, that’s a good point. So there’s something in psychology called a fundamental attribution error. It’s a great title. I mean–
MATT BRITTIN: Fundamental– I’m going to write that down. Fundamental attribution error.
CAROLINE WEBB: Yes. It’s often capitalized, as well. Fundamental Attribution Error. So remember your deliberate system doesn’t have much capacity. Remember that your automatic system is trying to keep things simple as much as possible. One of the biggest simplifications it makes is it says, OK, if you’re not getting stuff done today, it’s simpler for me to assume that you’re just no good than it is to say, I wonder what might be going on with her? It takes less mental energy.
So the fundamental attribution error describes the phenomenon that when we aren’t firing on all cylinders, we think about the situation and the circumstances that’s created that. When we see someone else who’s not firing on all cylinders, we say, OK, you’re no good. And it’s simple, but it’s also easy to challenge, which is just simply to say– the phrase I use is, “Good person; bad circumstances.” It’s to get into the habit, when you see someone who’s doing something dysfunctional or isn’t where you want them to be, is to say, OK, good person; bad circumstances. Which looks, in practice, like– what on Earth could be creating this?
And you can have some fun with it. Because the story that you make up doesn’t even have to be true to shift your behavior towards them. Which is likely, then, to not put them so much on the defensive, which will improve their behavior. You get into a nice virtuous circle.
MATT BRITTIN: That sounds intriguing. So tell me, what’s a story you make up about somebody? Without being too revealing.
CAROLINE WEBB: No, I mean, if you’re dealing with someone who’s really difficult, then thinking about, I wonder what kind of childhood they had? And having some fun with that, you know? What can possibly have created this attention to the font size on this slide? What happened to them in school at 11? And as soon as you start thinking about that, you’ve got a slight smile on your face, and then you’re feeling better about– you know, you’re chuckling to yourself about some teacher throwing a pen at their head or something. And then your demeanor shifts. And then you end up in a different place, because they’re less– Because if you’re aggravated, you’re going to put them on the defensive, which will mean that all of the functions of their deliberate system will decline. So self-control, thinking– they’ll become dumber and less nice to be around.
MATT BRITTIN: So by assuming the best, you can help other people be their best, as well.
CAROLINE WEBB: Yeah. And that does sound a Pollyanna-ish. I mean, I have had people say, oh, you’re just trying to say that everyone’s amazing. I’m not.
MATT BRITTIN: So how do you have to have these kind of situations where somebody’s showing up and– what were you saying? Good person; bad circumstances? How many times does that happen before you go, actually, bad person. Good person; bad circumstances. Good person; bad circumstance. Good person; bad circumstance. Oh, fundamentally, they’re bad.
CAROLINE WEBB: You know what? Whatever. Yeah. So actually, there is a section in the book for that.
MATT BRITTIN: Oh?
CAROLINE WEBB: What I say is sometimes it takes too much effort to dig the good out. And there does come a point where it’s helpful to just minimize your exposure. And if you can’t do that, then to think systematically about, how do you reduce the sense of threat to them? You know, what are the ways that you can make them feel more competent, more autonomous? And you do this with people who are senior to you, right? How do you make them feel good? How do you make sure that you’re being super clear so that– uncertainty is a threat to most people’s brains. How do you minimize uncertainty? So there are a number of really quite tactical things you can then flip into.
MATT BRITTIN: If you have somebody who you’re stuck with, who you just have a sort of fundamental underlying problem with, you’re saying, like, manage that as best you can.
CAROLINE WEBB: Yes, absolutely. And there’s lots that we know about reducing a sense of threat. And as I say, there’s basically a list, a checklist you can go down.
MATT BRITTIN: That’s in the book.
CAROLINE WEBB: It is, apparently, yeah.
MATT BRITTIN: Anybody any questions, suggestions, scenarios, or advice that they need? If you can take the mic, then great. If not, just shout out.
CAROLINE WEBB: Hello.
AUDIENCE: Based on what you said about multitasking and how we can’t really do that, what are your thoughts, or do you have any data, on people’s effectiveness in meetings where nowadays, everyone’s got a laptop and a phone, and sort of doing multiple things at the same time. Is that working? Or is it–
CAROLINE WEBB: No, it really doesn’t. And there’s a challenge, because a lot of people, and I’m sure many of you, like to take notes on your devices. If you– I mean, I’m a great fan of airplane mode. I’ve long been a fan of using technology to deal– to improve our relationship with technology. You know, I did a podcast earlier on this week where the discussion was exactly that. Is technology bad? And I was like, no, technology is neutral. Every time technology advances, like the post office, and the phone, and even back as far as the printing press, people say, oh my goodness, this is disastrous. It’s going to ruin our relationships and our ability to concentrate. But then what happens is that we get better. We learn how to use the technology.
So I think that if people are in meetings, it is really helpful to have them close their laptops. If they do want to take notes on a device, to put it on airplane mode. I actually have a– I use a smartphone daycare box– or smartphone creche, in the UK– which I invite people to put their phones in. I was running a workshop on Tuesday where I just put this box, and I wrote “Smartphone Daycare.” And the people afterwards said, we didn’t put our phones in the box, but it gave us the prompt to just leave them in our bags.
MATT BRITTIN: Interesting.
CAROLINE WEBB: And it was enough to just remind people that there was a different quality of conversation that was going to happen if we weren’t constantly distracted.
MATT BRITTIN: Yeah. How much more stupid do we get when we’re trying to multitask?
CAROLINE WEBB: Well, between two and four times as many errors is pretty bad, right?
MATT BRITTIN: Two to four times as many errors?
CAROLINE WEBB: Yes. Yeah.
MATT BRITTIN: Wow. OK, that’s interesting.
CAROLINE WEBB: Yes.
AUDIENCE: So I know Caroline. I’ve been at some of these workshops she’s talking about, so I’ve employed a lot of these techniques. It’s good to refresh myself. I wondered if you could talk about authenticity a little bit, and transparency. Because I think we all– a lot of us strive to be very authentic in our leadership. And yet some of these things can seem a little bit cerebral. And so when you’re having these interactions, how do you kind of balance out wanting to be authentic with sort of doing all this microprocessing in your head about what’s happening?
MATT BRITTIN: Good question.
CAROLINE WEBB: It’s a good question. I think whenever we stretch ourselves to do something new, there’s something about that that feels inauthentic– by definition. As soon as you try a new technique, or a new way of running a meeting, or a new way of planning a project, it feels a bit– mm– uncomfortable. And when we were kids and we were trying to learn to ride a bike, we pedaled and we pedaled and we fell of. We pedaled and we pedaled and we fell off. We kept on trying until it worked out. In the days before the fact that you could get song lyrics on the internet, you used to try and learn the song lyrics. You’re way too young to know what I’m talking about, but–
MATT BRITTIN: I remember that.
CAROLINE WEBB: You remember, yeah. And you’re like, you’re listening, you’re listening, and you’re trying to write it down. The persistence we had as kids was gorgeous and remarkable. And everything we know about neuroplasticity suggests that repetition really is what strengthens neural pathways associated with a new behavior. So there’s a little bit of that moment where you’re trying something new and it is going to feel inauthentic, because it’s new. And I suppose what I would say is at that point, stay focused on your good intentions. Don’t worry if it doesn’t work out the first time– or the second time or the third time. Ask yourself the rewarding question, which is, what am I learning from this? What am I learning from this? And the rewarding question, which is what’s working about this? And what can I do more of next time? So I suppose I’m encouraging you to hold that space where things feel a bit inauthentic and know that that’s part of the learning process of any sort.
MATT BRITTIN: That’s fantastic. Because basically, you’re saying we’re all developing, and therefore you’re always going to be trying new things.
CAROLINE WEBB: Yeah. And I think everyone in this room is the sort of person who wants to learn new things. And there is that sort of discomfort when you’re out of your comfort zone. And I believe that the sorts of questions that you can ask yourself about, what am I learning, what worked about that, helps you not to get into your terror zone.
MATT BRITTIN: Terror zone. Anybody else? Any other questions?
AUDIENCE: Hi. Thanks very much. So a lot of what you talk about is what we can do as individuals. And I wondered if you had top tips, when you were talking to either teams or even organizations, of what the top tips for a group are, basically.
CAROLINE WEBB: Yeah. It’s a really great question. I did write about the individual, because I do think that it’s very hard to be a great leader unless you’re managing yourself as effectively as you’re managing your teams and your organizations. I quite strongly believe that all of the techniques that we’re talking about today can be used with teams. It does take a little bit of a step to decide that you’re going to run a meeting, perhaps which you run every week, in a slightly different way, and thinking, oh everyone’s going to say, why are we starting by talking about what the ideal is, and what the steps are towards that? We just need to fix the problem. But I strongly believe that all of these techniques can be applied. In fact, they become much stronger and much more powerful when they become team norms. And I think you guys are very experimental. You’re willing to try new things, and you’re known for being very exploratory in figuring out what can help people be at their best. So I would encourage you to try these things in your teams, to see what changes in the quality of the discussions that you have.
MATT BRITTIN: That’s great. Other questions or thoughts? So I have a question about productivity, just as Dave’s trying to make his way to the microphone. You talk about productivity in the book. We haven’t really touched on that. How can we all be more productive, apart from not multitasking.
CAROLINE WEBB: Single tasking!
MATT BRITTIN: Single tasking’s the best thing?
CAROLINE WEBB: Oh, it’s– [INTERPOSING VOICES]
MATT BRITTIN: But there’s also– you mentioned something about the sort of switching costs between tasks, as well, which is interesting. So like doing batches rather than doing individual emails, that kind of thing.
CAROLINE WEBB: I think as far as you– yeah, that’s another good point. So when we’re talking about single-tasking– we’ve talked, so far, about going offline, staying offline. But actually, there’s another way that you can reduce the switching costs. You really have read the book. This is wonderful.
MATT BRITTIN: I really have read the book. I don’t do this when I don’t read the book.
CAROLINE WEBB: I know, but it’s wonderful. It feels– yeah. So the other thing that you can do to reduce the amount of time your brain is switching from one thing to the other– actually, let me try something. Can I try something with the audience?
MATT BRITTIN: Yes. Yes. They’re not me.
CAROLINE WEBB: Yeah, yeah. That’s all right.
MATT BRITTIN: Don’t put me in the threat zone. Put them. You’re in the fear zone now, audience. Get in the fear zone.
CAROLINE WEBB: You don’t have to get up or do anything much, I promise. So if you say 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 as quickly as you can, on my mark– and with some energy. One–
CAROLINE WEBB: OK. Then you say A-B-C-D-E-F-G, similarly energetic.
CAROLINE WEBB: Fantastic. So crisp. Like a cult. Wonderful. [LAUGHTER] OK. Now I’d like you to mix the two up. I’d like you to say A1, B2, C3, D4– which should take, basically, the same amount of time. OK? Go.
AUDIENCE: A1, B2, C3, D4– [LAUGHTER]
CAROLINE WEBB: I love the fact you just gave up. [LAUGHTER]
MATT BRITTIN: Epic fail. Why?
CAROLINE WEBB: Why? Because you’re switching from numbers to letters to numbers to letters. And so the advice that comes out of that is the more you can batch similar types of tasks together, the quicker you will get through them.
MATT BRITTIN: Oh.
CAROLINE WEBB: So for me, I like to– I like to think about different zones in my day. Doesn’t always work, because obviously, you have unexpected stuff. But being a late-night person, I actually find that my peak time for creative, thoughtful work is actually the afternoon. You will never see that anywhere written down, because all of the advice is tuned for early-morning people. But I know that, and so I do my meetings and calls in the morning. And it doesn’t always work quite like that, but that’s what I aim for. And then I also have email blitzes in the morning and the afternoon. I stay online, except when I’m going offline to do my deep thinking. But I really blitz my email, morning and evening. And that just reduces the time it takes.
MATT BRITTIN: Top tip.
AUDIENCE: So much of what you talked about is having a good day at work. Obviously the other part of having a good life is what goes on outside of work. What are the key things you’ve discovered which you think are transferable to life outside of work and difficult social situations? Personally thinking of the school gates, which seems to be the most toxic environment I’ve ever encountered. [LAUGHTER] You know, what–
MATT BRITTIN: You have got children, just to be clear. [LAUGHTER] Just to be clear.
AUDIENCE: Yeah. I wasn’t browsing, no, man. What– in the terror zone here, by the way.
CAROLINE WEBB: Excellent.
AUDIENCE: What could I transfer, and particularly help my good lady wife with, who seems to experience that more than I do?
CAROLINE WEBB: It’s a great question. Actually, you know, the book at one point was called “How to Have a Good Day at Work.” But because it became so obvious that all of this advice is just as relevant with your families and your friends, we reframed it, actually. The examples in the book are about professional situations, but “good person; bad circumstances,” incredibly helpful in family situations, right? Someone is behaving in a certain way, and you think, OK, well, what might have happened with them? And actually, I have to say, lots of my clients say that they test things out on their children before they start to use them with their colleagues. So there was a particular pattern I started to see of men talking about their relationships with their teenage daughters. And specifically, they often homed in on the advice about giving them autonomy. Which, of course, doesn’t look like just saying, you know, just do it you want, darling. But asking them questions, rather than telling them what to do. Saying, what do you think is the right way to go about this? What makes you think that? What would be another approach? And the fact is that the things that we’ve been talking about today are very deep and very universal. So the power of autonomy works even with a 13-year-old girl, or a 15-year-old girl. Hard to believe, perhaps. But these things are very translatable.
MATT BRITTIN: Recognize that. Is that– any follow-up?
AUDIENCE: I’m very happy with that. Interestingly, I often try some of these things at home, and my wife’s stock response is now, “Don’t try and Google me.”
CAROLINE WEBB: Oh my gosh, that’s funny.
AUDIENCE: But yeah, I’ll keep trying.
CAROLINE WEBB: You need to find someone else. Try it on your children. [LAUGHTER]
AUDIENCE: She’s much more pliable, yeah.
CAROLINE WEBB: There’s a client of mine who is an Italian guy, and he has a small child. Very small. And his wife was concerned that he wasn’t speaking as early as they were hoping. And so Francesco said, I’m going to try this approach of really listening and then playing back what the child is saying, and then adding one or two new words into what I’m saying. So using what they’ve said, but then adding a few words. So giving this child a sense of competence because you’re using the same words, and then sort of just stretching them slightly by adding in a few more. And it did accelerate the little one’s language acquisition after that point. I think these things are so fundamental and so basic. So yes, have a go.
MATT BRITTIN: Thank you.
AUDIENCE: Thank you.
MATT BRITTIN: Thank you. Any other questions? I want to talk a little bit more about the mind-body energy thing, if we can. We talked a bit about productivity earlier. Are there things that we can notice about ourselves, or others, in that respect? And how do we keep up? You know, the energy that we need– particularly here, I think– is quite high. It’s fast-paced. There’s lots of change all the time, et cetera. How can we deal with that?
CAROLINE WEBB: I do think that– well, I mentioned breaks earlier on. I do think being smart about planning strategic breaks is important as you look across the day. I do think taking every single opportunity to do a tiny bit of physical exercise– I mean, for me, honestly, I’m not a gym type of person. So walking, walking as fast as I can, going for a walk around the block, even going for a walk up to a different floor.
MATT BRITTIN: So can I check in on this? So there’s something about just, like, moving which helps you kind of process things and stuff.
CAROLINE WEBB: Yeah.
MATT BRITTIN: Then– but you’re also sort of saying exercise, which is a notch up, it’s not just that. There’s something about elevating your heart rate and your breathing that’s more than just moving.
CAROLINE WEBB: It can be. I mean, you know, the evidence is really encouraging in this. I read this paper where the scientists were saying– it was actually quite sort of colloquial language for a research paper, saying, more exercise is better than less, but less exercise is better than none. Just this general sense that any activity is useful and stimulating. So the problem is often when you kind of– especially this time of year, and you have these sort of New Year’s resolutions. The risk is, you’ve set them here. And when you fail, you get this feeling of threat and disappointment. It’s the opposite of reward. And then the reason that that’s an issue is that reward is motivating. That’s the way the reward system works in the brain. So you have a small success. You feel good about yourself. You feel motivated to try the next thing. So I would always encourage people to set very small, manageable goals. What is it that I actually think I can really do today? And then achieve that, feel great, and then do a tiny bit more, if you want to. But it’s always much better to do that, from the perspective of neuroscience, than it is to start big and work back.
MATT BRITTIN: Now, we’re getting close to being out of time. There’s so much we haven’t touched on. But one other area that we’ve touched on a bit, and we haven’t gone into so much depth on, is the relationships that we have around the place, and how what you talked about, in terms of the way the brain operates and so on, affects relationships. What are the things that you’ve learned and that you advise us in that area?
CAROLINE WEBB: Well, we’ve touched on a lot of the things that are relevant. So your intentions will shape the way you perceive people. The extent to which you present a threat to them, or reward to them, will make a big difference to their behavior. But there are other things in the mix. There are very sort of fun and strange things in the mix. I mean, you all know, if we come on stage and we had been really visibly grumpy and stressed, what would have happened? There would have been this ripple effect where you’d all have been, like, what– what’s happened? What’s going on? Same thing if you’re in a meeting and someone grumpy comes in. It just kind of settles this cloud over the room. So research suggests that you’re absolutely right, that within five minutes, people’s emotions sync up, even when you’re not working on the same thing. And even when you don’t even talk to each other. There’s lots of disagreement in the behavioral sciences about why this happens. Because–
MATT BRITTIN: So it definitely happens, facts, but we don’t know why.
CAROLINE WEBB: But it definitely happens. I mean, so there are some who believe it’s mirror neurons. Problem is, mirror neurons haven’t been found in human beings. The research has been done in monkeys. There’s some–
MATT BRITTIN: Sorry, hang on. That sounds interesting. So monkeys have got something we haven’t?
CAROLINE WEBB: No, we almost certainly have them, but the research involves invasive explorations which have not been done in humans.
MATT BRITTIN: Right.
CAROLINE WEBB: Right. So–
MATT BRITTIN: Is that something about telepathy, is it? Or–
CAROLINE WEBB: Yeah. I mean, you’ll read a lot in the popular press about mirror neurons, and the existence of mirror neurons. The truth is that you can really wind up a neuroscientist very quickly by talking about mirror neurons.
MATT BRITTIN: OK. Great.
CAROLINE WEBB: But even without that– [LAUGHTER] Yes. Even without that, we know from psychology, years and years of research, that there is something called theory of mind. We have this ability to empathize. We have this ability to perceive the possibility someone else has a mind different to ours, after the age– well, there’s a particular age, as a child, where you start to imagine someone is different to you. Some executives have never quite got there, but yes. There’s definitely this idea that we are built social animals, we are built to sync up with people around us. So just knowing that the way you go in to a conversation has an enormous effect on the people around you. And there have been times when I’ve been in a meeting that’s going south. And there’s a point where I think, well, I can get irritated or worried about this, or I recognize that I can be a little bit of a force for good at this moment, whatever the science is underneath it, and say, OK, what do I want to radiate into the room? And just try and bring something to mind that actually puts you in that state–
MATT BRITTIN: This whole thing about, you know, if I smile, then I become happier, that’s true, isn’t it?
CAROLINE WEBB: Yeah, it is. I mean, again, there’s this sort of two-way flow in the central nervous system, which is quite weird. So when we’re happy, we tend to smile. When we relax, we tend to breathe deeply. When we’re confident, we tend to stand tall. And it seems that the relationship goes the other way around, as well. So when we mimic the activities associated with being happy, relaxed, and confident, we– again, debate on exactly how this works– our brain interprets that as a signal we can be happy, confident, and relaxed. And so smiling, yes. A little bit of– you know, finding a reason to smile, even if it’s a bit lame, can quickly end up–
MATT BRITTIN: Now I’m very self-conscious now.
CAROLINE WEBB: No, yeah. I know. Hey.
MATT BRITTIN: There’s some great training I think some people have done called “Taking the Stage,” which we run it, which is brilliant. And it’s actually partly about that.
CAROLINE WEBB: Is it?
MATT BRITTIN: It’s like, how do you kind of fake presence, which then gives you the confidence to–
CAROLINE WEBB: Right. Quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
MATT BRITTIN: Yeah, exactly. It’s really, really powerful.
CAROLINE WEBB: Absolutely.
MATT BRITTIN: Powerful stuff. OK. Well, look, I mean, I think we’re almost completely out of time. Thank you, everybody, for coming and joining us today. It’s a great book. I recommend the read.