Learning from behavioural science: How to foster productivity

When we think about ways to make our team more energised and productive we often focus on the ‘big’ things: a pay rise, a team-building event, an employee awards programme. But a recent article in the McKinsey Quarterly suggests that it’s often small shifts in leader or manager behaviour that can make the biggest difference to how people feel and perform.

Thanks to a growing body of research into behavioural science over the past few years, we now know a lot more about what it takes for our brains to perform at their best, what kind of learning is likely to be the most ‘sticky’ and what helps us build resilience at work.

But as Caroline Webb, author of a new book ‘How to Have a Good Day: Harness the Power of Behavioural Science to Transform your Working Life’ points out, many aspects of the way we manage modern day working life are not conducive to creating happy and productive teams.

We are glued to our phones and tablets 24/7, regularly forgo our lunch breaks and, in some “high performing” organisations at least, drive people until they crumble under the pressure and favour competition over collaboration – all of which are completely counter to what neuroscience tells us about how to build creative, innovative and engaged teams.

These are ways of behaving that it can be hard to break – we’re all guilty of checking mobiles when we should be focused on something else. Long hours for many organisations is just simply ‘the way we do things around here’. But there are things that you as a manager or leader can do to translate the research into positive action on the ground.

1. Discourage multi-tasking

We tend to think of multi-tasking as a positive thing. The ability to get lots done and keep all the balls in the air. The reality, however, is that it’s not big or clever and we need to stop doing it! Our brains are not wired to multi-task well.

In fact, when we think we are multi-tasking, all we are actually doing is rapidly switching from one activity to another. This stimulates production of the stress hormone cortisol and increases adrenaline, ultimately leading to stress, muddled thinking, mistakes and poor decisions. As a manager, think about how you can encourage people to focus on one task at a time – making it clear, for example, that they are not expected to be constantly available or to respond immediately to emails or messages. Encourage people to speak out when they have too much on their plate rather than trying to do it all at once – and set a good example yourself, by having times when you are visibly ‘off-line’ in order to get something important done.

2. Encourage regular breaks

Presenteeism is one of the scourges of modern working life. Sadly, there are still many working environments where leaving on time is frowned upon and if you’re not working through your lunch hour you’re seen as not committed to the job. Encouraging people to take regular breaks is, however, really important if you want them to perform well. Working at full steam for long hours without any respite can lead to a decline in the quality of decision-making and ‘group think’ – not to mention exhaustion. As a manager, make it clear that it’s OK to take regular breaks, encourage people to take a walk outside and get a breath of fresh air and avoid scheduling meetings back-to-back so that people have time to renew and refresh in between. Watch out for employees that regularily work long hours, or forgo holidays. They may feel they are doing the company a favour, when in fact they need time to recharge.

3. Focus on the positives

Previous Cezanne HR blogs about performance management have expressed the value of focusing on what people are doing well and how they can do more of it – rather than emphasising those areas they are less proficient at and need to ‘fix’. There’s sound scientific evidence for bringing this approach into the way we manage people in general. When we are focused on ‘threats’ (such as criticism or a post-mortem about what we did wrong), the brain goes into defensive, ‘fight or flight’ mode, leading us to “snap, sulk or skulk in the workplace”. As Caroline Webb points out, it can take surprisingly little to put someone’s brain into defensive mode. “This can create vicious circles in the workplace when, for example, people feel daunted from the start, triggering an instinctive defensive reaction that makes it harder for them to solve the problem at hand”. This doesn’t mean that, as a manager, you should gloss over the tough stuff – problems do have to be tackled. But try making a practice of starting meetings on a positive note and accentuating what’s working well, so that people don’t immediately start tensing up and worrying about the difficult issues. Helping to paint a picture of the ideal outcome can also encourage people to take a positive stance and focus on what needs to change.

4. Help people work it out for themselves

The flip side of defensive mode is ‘discovery’ mode, where people’s brains are more focused on reward of some kind. This might be the opportunity for recognition, a feeling of belonging to the team or the excitement of learning something new. The research suggests that one way to make the brain feel particularly rewarded is to reinforce people’s feelings of autonomy and competence. This is counter-intuitive to the way many managers work. If someone says they are struggling with a task, issue or project, our natural reaction is to offer advice or point them in the right direction. The problem with this approach is that the person can subconsciously interpret it as criticism (as in, why haven’t you tried this?) and as a result their creativity and will to tackle it is supressed. Next time a team member comes to you with a problem, try giving them the time and space to talk it through without interrupting or making suggestions. You’ll be surprised how often this approach results in the individual working it out for themselves – boosting their self-confidence as a result.

5. Make sure everyone feels included

Humans are social creatures – and the McKinsey article suggests that if managers want their teams to thrive, they need to help people meet three “deep social needs”. These are: the need to belong, the need to feel valued and respected, and the need to feel they are being treated fairly. So, if people are worried they are going to be left out of a new project, concerned about how they fit in, or feel their efforts are not appreciated, they are likely to resort to unhelpful or even hostile behaviour. As a manager, it’s important that you try to create an atmosphere of inclusion. Think about ways you can help team members get to know each other better, provide plenty of opportunities for people to collaborate on projects and make sure that individual, as well as a team achievements are highlighted and celebrated.

You can read Caroline Webb’s article in the February 2016 issue of McKinsey Quarterly here.

The book ‘How to Have a Good Day: Harness the Power of Behavioural Science to Transform your Working Life’, is published by Crown Business, February 2016.

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