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 help workplaces everywhere become happier spaces.
Glassdoor: What’s your perspective on what employers can do to help their people have good days at work?
Caroline Webb: The small stuff really matters. Companies often launch big initiatives to create a positive culture at work, and many of those are important (and fun). But so much of the way it feels to work at a particular organization comes down to everyday norms – the way managers handle disappointments and mistakes, team patterns around responding to endless emails and managing heavy workload, how much people get to share a smile with colleagues or feel good about themselves on the average day.
These sorts of things end up defining so much of how we feel about our workplace – more than the free lunch or the cool furniture.
I think the good news is that research in behavioral science actually makes it pretty clear what managers can do to create the kind of day-to-day working environment that allows people to thrive. It’s mostly easy and it’s all teachable. For example, if managers set some team norms that mean people don’t have to reply to all emails immediately, evidence suggests that people will be less stressed and they’ll work faster and smarter on their most important tasks.
Managers could try cutting meetings a few minutes shorter than the standard hour, to give people’s brains some processing time before the next one – something that’s also been shown to improve impact. When something goes wrong, they could develop a team habit of asking “okay, what can we learn from this?” And so on. These sorts of tiny tweaks are worth trying because they’ve been shown to improve the brain’s cognitive and emotional functioning, helping both performance and wellbeing at work. So yes, I admit it – I wish that more companies equipped their managers with a little Behavioral Science 101!
Glassdoor: You mention that it’s key to find a way to focus more on the rewards than the threats [in a given situation] to get to clearer thinking. How can businesses amplify the things we find rewarding and minimize the things we find threatening to help their people be more productive?
Caroline Webb: Good question. When we think of “rewards” in the professional context we usually think of things like money or promotion. And you can’t pay people bonuses every day, obviously. But actually the average human brain finds self-worth and social connection at least as rewarding as cash, and it doesn’t take a lot to boost those. Let me give you a couple of examples.
Our self-worth gets a lift from anything that makes us feel a bit more competent, independent, or purposeful in what we’re doing. That’s why it’s so powerful for a manager to give highly specific praise – not just saying something general and forgettable like “you’re doing great, that was great” before launching into “and here’s what you could have done better.” Instead, make it clear precisely what someone is doing right and what they can learn from that: “When you spoke in that meeting, I really liked the way you combined hard data with real stories to make the case for our project. You could see from people’s faces that they really got what you were trying to say when you shared those anecdotes you collected. I think it would be great if you could carry on doing this in the other presentations we’re doing in the next few weeks.” They’re likely to remember this, act on it, and feel good about it. There’s an art to giving praise that actually makes a difference to people’s self-worth, and it’s all about this degree of specificity.
Meanwhile, people’s sense of social connection is enhanced whenever they feel included, fairly treated and respected. The implication for managers is not just about making sure that people get their voices heard and contributions recognized – though that’s important. It also means it’s surprisingly helpful for leaders to explain the thinking behind any difficult or unpopular decisions that they’re having to take. There may be important reasons for them to be discreet about some of what’s going on, and that’s fine. But the more that leaders feel able to share within those constraints, the more their colleagues will feel as if they’re being treated as human beings even if they don’t like the way things have worked out. And all the evidence suggests that will lead to a more constructive reaction to whatever’s going on.
Glassdoor: We’re curious to hear your off-the-cuff thoughts on Glassdoor – how has it helped people have a Good Day at Work?
Caroline Webb: You give people a chance to get beyond the news headlines they’ve read about a company, and find out more about the way its day-to-day culture really feels before they even walk through the door for an interview. That’s got to be helpful in allowing candidates to apply to companies with more clarity and focus, and in turn I imagine it’s a useful feedback channel for companies interested in uncovering an unvarnished view of what it feels like to be on-the-ground in their workforce. And as I said earlier, I think this discussion is so valuable to us all – because after all, our days are where we spend our lives. If we can make the everyday stuff feel better, life gets better.
Want to learn more about how to make your teams – and yourself – happier at work? Download Glassdoor’s Culture Codes of Best Places to Work.
About the Author:
Caroline Webb is CEO of Sevenshift, Author of How to Have a Good Day, andSenior Adviser to McKinsey & Company. Follow Caroline Webb on Twitter and Facebook, and find more information at carolinewebb.co. Order your copy of How to Have a Good Day!