In this talk from ProductTank San Francisco, Matt Wallaert, chief behavioral officer at Clover Health, shares psychology-based methods for designing products that inspire people to change their behavior.
You want to be a great boss. You want your company to be a great place to work. But right now, at this very moment, one of your key employees might be about to walk out the door.
She has consistently brought her best game to work and has grown into a huge asset. But her learning has peaked, her growth has stalled, and she needs a new challenge to reinvigorate her.
As her boss, you don’t want anything to change. After all, she’s super-productive, her work is flawless, and she always delivers on time. You want to keep her right where she is.
That’s a great way to lose her forever.
This was my situation more than a decade ago. After eight years as an award-winning stock analyst at Merrill Lynch, I needed a new challenge. I’ve always liked mentoring and coaching people, so I approached a senior executive about moving to a management track. Rather than offering his support, he dismissed and discouraged me. His attitude was, We like you right where you are. I left within the year.
This kind of scenario plays out in companies every day. And the cost is enormous in terms of both time and money. But if I had stayed and disengaged, the cost may have been even higher. When people can no longer grow in their jobs, they mail it in — leading to huge gaps in productivity. According to Gallup, a lack of employee engagement “implies a stunning amount of wasted potential, given that business units in the top quartile of Gallup’s global employee engagement database are 17% more productive and 21% more profitable than those in the bottom quartile.”
And yet engagement is only symptomatic. When your employees (and maybe even you, as their manager) aren’t allowed to grow, they begin to feel that they don’t matter. They feel like a cog in a wheel, easily swapped out. If you aren’t invested in them, they won’t be invested in you, and even if they don’t walk out the door, they will mentally check out.
How do you overcome this conundrum? It starts with recognizing that every person in your company, including you, is on a learning curve. That learning curve means that every role has a shelf life. You start a new position at the low end of the learning curve, with challenges to overcome in the early days. Moving up the steep slope of growth, you acquire competence and confidence, continuing into a place of high contribution and eventually mastery at the top of the curve.
But what comes next as the potential for growth peters out? The learning curve flattens, a plateau is reached; a precipice of disengagement and declining performance is on the near horizon. I’d estimate that four years is about the maximum learning curve for most people in most positions; if, after that, you’re still doing the exact same thing, you’re probably starting to feel a little flat.
Take my own career: I moved to New York City with a freshly minted university degree in music. I was a pianist who especially loved jazz. But I was quickly dazzled by Wall Street which, in the late 1980s, was the place to work. I secured a position as a secretary in a financial firm and started night school to learn about investing.
A few years later, my boss helped me make the leap from support staff to investment banker. It was an unlikely, thrilling new opportunity that required his sponsorship and support. After a few years, I jumped again to become a stock analyst, and I scaled that curve to achieve an Institutional Investor ranking for several successive years.
When I began, I was excited to be a secretary on Wall Street. I was also excited to become an investment banker. And I loved being a stock analyst. Though I started in each of these positions at the low end of their respective learning curves, I was able to progress and achieve mastery in all of them.
Eventually, I became a little bored with each job and started looking around for a new challenge to jump to. Most of us follow similar patterns — our brains want to be learning, and they give us feel-good feedback when we are. When we aren’t, we don’t feel so good. The human brain is designed to learn, not just during our childhood school years but throughout our life spans. When we are learning, we experience higher levels of brain activity and many feel-good brain chemicals are produced. Managers would do well to remember that.
Because every organization is a collection of people on different learning curves. You build an A team by optimizing these individual curves with a mix of people: 15% of them at the low end of the curve, just starting to learn new skills; 70% in the sweet spot of engagement; and 15% at the high end of mastery. As you manage employees all along the learning curve, requiring them to jump to a new curve when they reach the top, you will have a company full of people who are engaged.
You and every person on your team is a learning machine. You want the challenge of not knowing how to do something, learning how to do it, mastering it, and then learning something new. Instead of letting the engines of your employees sit idle, crank them: Learn, leap, and repeat.
Is there someone on your team who seems unusually productive? Someone who gets a huge amount done — without working longer hours?
Super-productive people are in every industry. The most productive software developers write nine times more usable code per day than the average developer, according to research by Michael Mankins. He also found that the best fish butcher at Le Bernardin Restaurant in New York can prepare three times as much fish as the average, the best blackjack dealer keeps their table playing five times longer, and the best sales associate at Nordstrom sells eight times more clothes.
How do they do it? That’s what their coworkers usually wonder. We wanted to know too.
We collected data on over 7,000 people who were rated by their manager on their level of their productivity and 48 specific behaviors. Each person was also rated by an average of 11 other people, including peers, subordinates, and others. We identified the specific behaviors that were correlated with high levels of productivity — the top 10% in our sample — and then performed a factor analysis.
Seven consistent clusters emerged that identified the skills that the most productive people regularly practiced:
Set stretch goals. Think about your last day off. Did you decide to do some projects around your house or apartment? Maybe you puttered around, doing a few small tasks in a random way. Or maybe you selected a major project to tackle and were amazed at how much you were able to get done in a day.
A big project encourages you to pick up your pace and eliminate all distractions. There is some great magic that occurs when people become riveted by the thought of achieving a stretch goal. The people in our study who got the most done made setting stretch goals a habit.
Show consistency. We all know people who are 100% reliable. If they say, “It will be done,” it will get done. In our study, the most productive people did not see their productivity ebb and flow over time; they didn’t procrastinate only to pull all-nighters later on. Instead, they figured out how to consistently deliver results, week after week and month after month. There was a cadence and a rhythm to their work that seemed to keep them going.
Have knowledge and technical expertise. Few things kill productivity faster than a lack of knowledge or expertise. When you know what you’re doing, you don’t have to sacrifice quality for speed. You can get things done both quickly and well. You don’t need to spend time searching online for a good tutorial, or asking a colleague for advice. The most productive professionals in our study didn’t hesitate to ask for help when they needed it…but they didn’t need it that often. They also intentionally acquired new skills and worked to expand their expertise. That helped them be skillful, exacting, and quick in their execution.
Drive for results. Most people are willing to accept responsibility for accomplishing goals and to work at a reasonable pace to achieve expected results. But there are a few people who have a great desire to accomplish results sooner and quicker. They are overjoyed to be able to check something off their to-do list. They’re competitive — and they compete not only with their colleagues but also with themselves. They like to set new records for performance and then beat their own best.
Anticipate and solve problems. The most productive people are great problem-solvers. They come up with innovative solutions and accomplish work more efficiently. They also tend to anticipate roadblocks and begin working on solutions in advance, and so avoid some of the problems that other people run into. Social psychologists call this mental contrasting — thinking about what you want to achieve and what might get in the way of your achieving it — and have found that it helps people achieve their goals.
Take initiative. For many people, the hardest part of getting a job done is starting. The most productive people start quickly, and they never wait to be told to begin. They ask for forgiveness, not permission. And indeed, their bias for action can get them into trouble sometimes — they might start executing a project before all parties have bought in, say. But their bosses rarely complain, because their results tend to speak for themselves.
Be collaborative. So far it might sound like we’re describing a person who is a brilliant individual worker but can’t work well with others. But that’s not what our study showed. In today’s complex organizations, very little gets done by someone acting alone. Everything is highly interdependent. The most productive people in our study were highly collaborative and worked well with others. They didn’t have to spend a lot of time soothing ruffled feathers, because they didn’t ruffle many feathers in the first place.
If you want to be more productive yourself, take a look at this list and ask if there’s something you can improve. Do you struggle to get started? Could you be more consistent? If you’re a manager trying to help one of your employees get more done, ask yourself if there’s something here that could help. Maybe your employee is working hard but doesn’t have the skills they need to really increase their productivity. Can you help them get those skills? Can you help them set motivating stretch goals?
The most productive people might seem to get it all done through magic — or cutting corners — but as it turns out, extreme productivity is just a set of skills. Skills that more of us can acquire and use.
I don’t often start essays about leadership with insights from French novelists, but in this case it seems appropriate. “The real act of discovery,” Marcel Proust wrote, “consists not in finding new lands but in seeing with new eyes.” Today the most successful companies don’t just outcompete their rivals. They redefine the terms of competition by embracing one-of-a-kind ideas in a world of copycat thinking. Which means, almost by definition, that the best leaders see things that other leaders don’t see.
That’s not as easy as it sounds, especially for leaders who have spent years at the same company, or in the same industry, or as part of the same discipline. Without ever intending it, experienced leaders often allow what they know to limit what they can imagine going forward; their knowledge can actually get in the way of innovation. Which is why, to summon the spirit of Proust, it’s so important for leaders to see their company and industry with fresh eyes — which means looking at their work in new ways.
Art, it turns out, can be an important tool to change how leaders see their work. One fun exercise to encourage experienced leaders to challenge established ways of seeing took place recently in Providence, at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, in an annual event called Cops and Docs. The program, which has been running for 10 years, gathers highly accomplished medical professionals and highly trained police officers, people who in their jobs have to quickly make sense of the world around them, size up problems, and devise effective solutions to complex (often life-threatening) problems. Over the course of the evening, mixed groups of cops and docs looked at paintings, sculptures, and other works of art, and shared their answers to a pretty basic question: What do you see?
Needless to say, what participants saw was a function of the jobs they did and the experiences they’d had — which explains why different people reached such different conclusions about the same pieces. Here’s how one article summarized what participants took away: “Make careful observation a habit. Learn to describe what you see. Allow a different interpretation of the observation. Understand that one scene can have several plausible explanations. Avoid tunnel vision. Exercise creative thinking skills.” Those are great lessons for doctors and detectives — not to mention executives, entrepreneurs, and leaders in any field.
As it turns out, Cops and Docs is not the only program that uses art as way to move accomplished leaders out of their comfort zones. Amy E. Herman, a consultant and educator trained as a lawyer and an art historian, has created an intriguing program, called The Art of Perception, that gets to the heart of the all-important difference between looking and seeing. In it, she takes police detectives, FBI agents, even high-ranking Secret Service and CIA executives to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Frick Collection, and other well-known museums and galleries. These grizzled observers of crime and terrorism, trained in certain ways to look for clues about murders and identify threats, instead set their sights on works by Picasso, Caravaggio, Edward Hopper, and other masters. The exercise is “not about looking at art,” Herman explains to the participants. “It’s about talking about what you see.”
Or, much of the time, what you don’t see. Time after time, skilled leaders miss critical elements of a painting that send an important message, overlook signposts in a scene that speak to what’s taking place, or can’t figure out how to describe what’s right in front of them. “Don’t be afraid to change your perspective,” she urges her participants, who report that the new ways of seeing that they develop through these museum visits have opened their eyes to new ways of evaluating evidence on the job. “In New York, the extraordinary is ordinary to us, so in training we’re always looking to become even more aware as observers,” a deputy chief explained in one of many approving accounts of the program.
Amy Herman’s program, like Cops and Docs, is an elegant departure from the tired routines of leadership, a fun and clever use of art to sharpen skills and clear heads. But there are simpler and more “businesslike” ways to achieve the same eye-opening ends. Years ago, in Fast Company, we profiled a highly creative leader at Royal Dutch/Shell named Steve Miller. One of his techniques was to assemble diverse teams of colleagues — longtime veterans, corporate newcomers, marketers, technologists — put them on buses, and tour various locations across Europe, where his business unit was based. They’d visit Shell operations, customer sites, and other settings. “Then we got back on the buses and talked about what we’d seen,” Miller explained. “ We all wrote down our impressions, and when we got back, we went over what we’d learned from the visits.”
Needless to say, what people saw was a function of who they were and what they specialized in. And what everybody learned together was far richer and deeper than what any individual would have learned on their own. That’s the real point, of course, whether the subject being observed is a timeless piece of art or a customer facility. For leaders who want to see with new eyes, remember that how you look at something shapes what you see — and you see more creatively when you look at the world with other leaders who have different backgrounds and experiences.