Caroline Webb is a management consultant, Senior Advisor at McKinsey, and renowned leadership coach who has worked with hundreds of organizations to help their employees be more productive, energized, and successful. Award-winning podcaster David Burkus recently hosted her for his Super Connector Summit, a free online event available to view October 30 to November 3. Here, they share the science behind the big ideas that make us better connectors, coworkers, and friends.
David: Your book, How to Have a Good Day, follows me around airports—I’m sure everyone has at least seen the cover. Tell us a bit about how you got to author this compendium on behavioral science about how to have a good day.
Caroline: I’ve been helping people use behavioral science—neuroscience, psychology, behavioral economics—to improve everyday, working life for the last couple of decades. I first had a career as an economist, and then realized that actually working as an economist wasn’t [as] focused on human behavior, at least not back in the ’90s.
Then I worked for 12 years at McKinsey & Company, the consulting firm, doing behavioral change work and doing what I loved—helping organizations become more effective. Within that, I realized I was particularly interested in what made teams and individuals effective, because I was so often trying to create large-scale change, and realized that so much of it came down to the personal, the everyday.
More and more over the years, I found myself doing this very individual, personal work with a group of leaders [and] people throughout the organization. Tiny tweaks to everyday routines have really disproportionate effects on the way people felt about work, the way that they perform. That was the genesis of the book.
“Tiny tweaks to everyday routines have really disproportionate effects on the way people felt about work, the way that they perform.”
David: Can we take a detour for a second? You trained as an economist, I trained as an organizational psychologist. Like you said, you were surprised to see that [economics] is about money and incentives, and not actually about a lot of behavior until Kahneman, Thaler, and behavioral economics.
Students of mine and people at speeches [ask], “Oh, have you heard of behavioral economics?” and I always want to say, “I’ve heard of organizational psychology, what [behavioral economics] actually is.”
Caroline: Absolutely. Behavioral economists are finally realizing that human beings are human beings, and finally getting with the program many decades after psychology did.
If you go back 200 years, economists knew what real people were like. Then there was this period when economists got super excited about the potential for math to model everything in equations. We lost the plot a bit during that period, but thankfully, behavioral economics has brought the discipline a little bit closer to real life, and makes it easier for us to use the insights that researchers are coming up with.
Behavioral economics is helping people rethink how to shift behavior en masse, much less than thinking about, “How can we each as individuals or as teams equip ourselves to be at our best more often?” There’s a long way to go for sure, but the train is moving. That’s something.
“Behavioral economists are finally realizing that human beings are human beings, and finally getting with the program many decades after psychology did.”
David: Your book, How to Have a Good Day, really does that. I’m a cheerleader for taking ideas out of the ivory tower and putting them in the corner office. One place that I’ve noticed behavioral economics or organizational psychology really doesn’t get applied enough is in the space of relationships, connections, networking. That’s been the focus of my research, and a future book that’s coming out, is in applying that science.
You do it really well in the chapter on relationships [in] saying, “You [may] have heard a bunch of advice about how you’re supposed to build rapport or strengthen a relationship, resolve tension, etc., but here’s what the science says and how to apply it.”
Caroline: [There are] a few big principles that sit behind everything. If you can understand those big principles, then the practical stuff flows very, very easily. I’m trying to give people the bigger picture, the framework that allows them to say, “Ah, this is what could be going on in this conversation right now.”
David: Let’s talk a bit about building rapport. We’ve all been in a situation where you have to suddenly get someone to like you in a short period of time. What does the science say on how to build that connection quickly?
“I’m a cheerleader for taking ideas out of the ivory tower and putting them in the corner office.”
Caroline: There’s one big idea, which has been emerging over the past few decades in the scientific literature—the two-system brain. Our conscious brain, what I call the deliberate system, functions in parallel with the automatic system in our brain, which is largely subconscious. It’s what you’re using to listen to me right now, it’s what I’m using to speak to you right now.
[Our deliberate systems] are fabulously intelligent, but there are limitations on what they can do. They can only process a certain amount of information at any given time. We’re constantly subconsciously filtering out an enormous amount of what’s around us to focus our little bit of conscious attention on just a few things. That means we’re constantly missing a ton of signals, a ton of stuff that’s going on around us. We don’t know what we don’t know.
When we’re meeting someone for the first time, we tend to notice the things that [are] already top-of-mind for us. If you go into a conversation and you’re thinking, “Oh, this person looks like a jerk,” then, what your brain is going to make sure you notice is everything that confirms that they are, indeed, a jerk. That’s confirmation bias. It really helps to think, “What are my intentions as I go into this conversation?” Whatever is top-of-mind for you will shape what your brain decides to notice.
Collaborative intentions to have top-of-mind as you go into a conversation are [things like,] “I’m determined to find something interesting about this person.” Or, “I’m determined to be absolutely fascinated by something I [hear] in what they’re saying.” If you do that, you’re less likely to notice the things that are annoying, or the awkwardness that you feel. And, you’re much more likely to notice the nugget of super-interestingness that is in that person. That is a fantastic foundation for rapport.
“How we feel about a person is going to shape what we notice.”
David: This makes me think about the conundrum [that is] Googling people before we meet them. Anybody who has a Facebook profile would [likely say,] “Please do not judge me by that, because that’s not the totality of who I am,” but that is going to be top-of-mind when we go into these meetings.
Caroline: Largely, it’s good that we go in with a sense of what might be interesting about a person, but we have to be aware that how we feel about a person is going to shape what we notice.
Another big scientific idea worth being aware of is that, at any given moment, our brains are scanning the environment for rewards to discover and possible threats to defend against. Defensive mode is when your brain is more focused on threats and is launching some kind of fight, flight, or freeze response. [When this happens,] you’ve got less cognitive capacity to play with. In other words, [even] slightly negative stress makes you dumber. Being nervous about someone that you’re meeting is potentially going to make you less intelligent and less interesting.
Getting your brain more focused on the rewards in a situation is so helpful, and the brain finds self-worth and social standing the most rewarding. You might be nervous, but focus on, “Okay, what’s fascinating about this? What’s interesting about this?” [That] gets your brain more focused on rewards than threats.
You can do the same [for others] by simply asking genuine, real questions. Studies have shown that people find it incredibly rewarding to talk about themselves, and we don’t get much of a chance to do it. Just asking someone, “Tell me more about that,” is so rewarding to the other person’s brain, that you will make sure that they are at their very best, and they will feel great about speaking to you.
“Even slightly negative stress makes you dumber. Being nervous about someone that you’re meeting is potentially going to make you less intelligent and less interesting.”
David: Dale Carnegie was right. This is one [of his principles]—you could [have] a conversation and ask nothing but questions about the other person, and when you leave, that person will [say,] “That was the most interesting man I’ve ever met.”
Caroline: Absolutely. A lot of what you and I work on feels like common sense, things that have been said before by our grandmothers. What’s interesting now is that the science is coming in and explaining, “Why is it that someone thinks you’re so amazing when you ask them a question about their views on a topic?” Why do people love that so much? It’s inherently rewarding for their brains. That is a great association for them to have [about you,] that you’re a curious and open-minded person.
The thing is, when you are meeting a person, you want to impress them, so you ask them a question about a topic and then say, “Okay, now it’s my turn to talk.”
David: [But] reeling back from talking about yourself and forcing yourself to be interested in the other person is so difficult to do. You’ve got to tell the narcissist that lives in all of us that you’ll walk away better if you remember to keep it about them.
“Dale Carnegie was right. This is one [of his principles]—you could leave a conversation and ask nothing but questions about the other person, and then when you leave, that person will [say,] ‘That was the most interesting man I’ve ever met.’”
Caroline: There is something about the quality of the questions we ask, as well. A lot of the questions we ask are very factual questions, like, “Where did you grow up? Where do you live? What do you do?” These don’t get to people’s motivations or emotions. There is something very special about questions that say, “Oh, what made you choose to live there? What is it that you most like about the job that you do?” That’s a very different style of question than the factual question.
David: You bring up a really interesting point. At least in North America, one of the first questions asked when you’re introduced to another person is, “What do you do?” How do we redeem that question?
Caroline: Practically speaking, [it’s about] the question that comes after that—”What do you most like about the work?” That’s when the conversation really opens up. The interesting stuff lies the next level down, and it’s not hard to get to it.
“The interesting stuff lies the next level down, and it’s not hard to get to it.”
David: You’ve had a super interesting career from training as an economist, working at McKinsey, to now as an author and speaker. [You’ve] built up a network of contacts that a lot of people would be envious of. It makes me wonder, if you were starting your career again and you had to begin to network, to make connections, what’s the first thing you would do if you had to do it all over again from scratch?
Caroline: My commitment to building relationships and sustaining them has been absolutely transformational at a couple of points in my career, where it enabled me to get elected a partner at McKinsey, and enabled me to get the book out into the world.
I went to an event last night that I wasn’t in the mood to go to, and I was conscious of my mood. I tried to think, “What is it I’m going to find fascinating about this? What is it I’m going to find really interesting about each person I talk to?” It was a kind of transformational evening. I met people that I know are going to be friends for life, and I met people that I know I’m going to work with.
The sense that, “It’s always worth it,” is what I would tell my younger self. Also, when you want to reach out and get support from someone, one of the best ways of doing that is to ask their advice rather than just go straight in and ask for their help. It makes people feel valued.
“What can you give? There’s always something you can give.”
The other thing is reciprocity. When people are trying to build their networks, they think about what they can get from a relationship. We’re deeply wired to value reciprocity. If you’re in a car and someone pulls out in front of you, and you let them go, and they don’t thank you, you feel that it’s a violation of the sense of connection we should have as human beings. “I let you do something, and you should thank me.”
There’s a flow that is really invaluable between us. What can you give? Not just, what can you get. As I’ve gotten older, I know that when someone comes to me and says, “Hey, I’m interested in your work. What could I do to help? Are there any projects I could volunteer on?”, I have a very different emotional response than when someone just says, “Can I pick your brain?”
I would tell my younger self to learn as early as possible to think, “What can you give?” There’s always something you can give.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To watch David and Caroline’s full conversation, or learn from 50+ other world-class experts, tune into the Super Connector Summit here.