How to succeed at work using behavioural science

Cover Image for How to succeed at work using behavioural science
Gabriella Bergin-Cartwright
Gabriella Bergin-Cartwright

Dr. Grace Lordan is Associate Professor in behavioural science, expert on the determinants of individual success, advisor to the UK Government, and author of the book ‘Think Big, Take Small Steps and Build the Future you Want’.

What are the main factors that contribute to success?

Well, there are three top determinants that can help you succeed at work or any aspect of your life for that matter. The first is your skillset, the second is how you relate these skills to the world, and finally there’s your privilege (which covers things like your networks). So, if you learn certain life skills, you relay them to the world in a way that's impactful and you work on improving your privilege, you will definitely encourage professional success. Despite these factors, it’s still important to be aware of the pitfalls that can hamper your success - things like the Intention Action Gap.

What is the Intention Action Gap and how can it block success at work

Sometimes we might want to do something and have every intention of taking action, but for some reason we don't. That reason often boils down to the Intention Action Gap, essentially procrastination and poor time management, that can hamper your agency to succeed at work or otherwise. How do you overcome these obstacles? If you can understand more about yourself and what the usual blocks you face are towards making the kind of progress you want, you can start to work around them and find yourself on an easier road towards professional success.

Your book is called ‘Think big, take small steps’—why is behavioural science important in achieving success at work?

If you study behavioural science, one of the first things you learn is that we're not rational decision makers. We don't weigh the cost, benefit and risk for decisions and generally adopt just one of two different thinking styles. The first is fast thinking, where you are on autopilot—think day-to-day habits. The other is much slower, more deliberate and involves concentration. As we spend 80% of our time in fast thinking mode, it’s a great starting point to really think about any habits you're engaged in daily that can move you towards your goal. Do you already have good habits that set you up for success at work? If not, can you start introducing them?

Thinking big is often the easy part. The hard part is actually going through with your ideas. I encourage people to move away from the constraints that society or family might place on them, and consider—what if it all worked out? Then it’s about embedding the small steps and habits you need on a daily or a weekly basis to actively move towards being able to succeed at work, or whatever your goal may be.

How do we define the big goals and small steps?

I like to ask people what they’d like to imagine themselves doing in five years. What will they be doing that makes them want to get up in the morning and feel satisfied at the end of the day? We often think about labels and imagine ourselves in a role, like being a lawyer or entrepreneur, but we might not think enough about what the actual day-to-day tasks involve, and that's really what I want people to do.

When you know what the actual tasks involved would be, you have a better idea about whether or not you would feel satisfied. By visualising the tasks it also helps set the scene for what small steps you can take to get there, for example gaining particular skills and highlighting these in your CV. Taking a task based approach, as opposed to focusing on an occupational label, is a really healthy way to not only figure out how to succeed in a new job but to make sure you choose a career you’re overall likely to enjoy.

Once we have the steps mapped out, what strategies can help us stay on track and maximise our chance of success at work?

We've discussed the idea of visualising yourself in the future, but it’s important to take into consideration that you’re not yet there and there’s likely a few steps required to get you to that future self. You need to think about how you can reduce the pain of showing up to meet those professional success goals.

A good thing to try is ‘bundling’. If you’re doing something you find really hard, you can bundle it with an activity that you enjoy doing to create positive association and perhaps even create a reward for yourself. Another tip is to tell someone else what you’re committing to, as we’re actually much more accountable to other people than we are to ourselves.

My favourite one, which I use myself, is leveraging the ‘compromise effect’. This professional success technique invites you to simply commit to showing up for yourself in some way. Instead of a to-do list which is all or nothing, you write down what low, medium, or high effort looks like for success at work, in your homelife and other areas of your life. Then, even if you only do the minimum amount, you can still check it off. Interestingly, it’s been shown that using this method does make you more productive, and actually most people do the medium amount rather than the bare minimum.

This is why taking small steps is much more effective than aiming for huge changes. With small steps, it’s not the end of the world if you miss a day because there's always another day to make an incremental change in the right direction.

How does time management factor into success at work?

It's a cliché, but time is the most precious resource we have. It's the only thing you can't create more of, so it’s important to use it wisely. There are three different types of time use. The first are what makes us happy in the moment, the second are things that invest in our future self, and the last are the time sinkers— essentially, time wasters. I encourage people to do a weekly time audit and write down what you spend your time doing, then look back and figure out what the time sinkers are and take steps to remove them.

The second thing is to compare what you’re spending time on and what it brings you in return. For example, if you’re over investing in being happy today, but sacrificing your long-term happiness or compromising success at work in some way in order to achieve short-term happiness, make some trade-offs by engaging in activities that get you closer towards your bigger goals.

How can we create the right environment for success at work?

Context really matters. The people you surround yourself with will have a direct impact on your productivity, well-being and ultimately your success at work. behavioural scientists have also found evidence to support that our physical environment really can impact how productively we can work.

For example, plants are good in an office as they help with airflow. Lighting is important too; if you want to be creative, a room with dim lights is better but if you want to be focused, you should have strong lights on you. Research on colour shows that red helps give you confidence and makes you feel dominant—so if a lack of confidence is holding you back from professional success, then buying a red painting or having something red on your desk might actually help you get there.

Can you explain how biases and self-narratives can hold us back from achieving the professional success we want?

If you feel that you're being discriminated against or held back, think ‘what can I actually control within the situation’? Taking one example, something that affects a lot of people is what’s known as ‘anticipated loss aversion’. Research shows that thinking about something that might happen can be perceived as a life experience in itself – it causes anxiety in the same way as actually living through the experience. Yet, the real experience is usually much less worse than anticipated. What's really interesting about anticipated loss aversion is that it can really hold us back if we allow it to stop us from putting ourselves forward for things we want, like a promotion, which in turn impacts our likelihood of success in that area.

How can you succeed at work in a non-supportive environment?

When it comes to creating success at work when you don’t feel like you have a lot of support, informal networking is really key. Identify the type of people who you would want in your personal boardroom. If you find people who are diverse with respect to the skillset they offer, then they’ll bring you into their networks, introducing you potentially to more supportive individuals. In Think Big, I talk about asking for the help you need. There's even evidence to suggest that if you ask for something today and receive a no, the second time you ask, you're much more likely to get a yes. In that sense, a lot of professional success comes from perseverance and not letting obstacles completely block you from continuing on your desired career path.

What’s the best way of asking for support at work?

Time is precious, so keep emails short. Make it as easy as possible for the recipient to say yes to whatever you’re asking. The person on the other end is human and they have needs as well, so try to frame your request in a reciprocal way. You have a number of skills that they could probably use, so help them to understand the mutual benefit of helping you out. Even if there isn't a gain for them immediately, think how it might add value for them in the future. Just the fact that you've thought about their feelings and constraints will make it more likely they say yes.

How can workplace bias get in the way of success at work?

If you’ve encountered bias at work, it’s important to make sure the relevant people in your organisation are aware so they can take action. From a practical level, the first thing to address is getting meetings right. Meetings are where teams come together and it’s here that employees see the different power dynamics both between their peers and their leaders. It becomes clear whether everybody around the table gets equal opportunities, visibility, and a voice in order to progress their careers, or not. If you as a leader are making sure this is the case, it provides an excellent foundation.

Another area to be aware of is how employees view a good interaction at work. This doesn’t mean being friends with all your colleagues—what’s important is that there are enough people with different perspectives and backgrounds to be able to have diverse discussions. By pushing each other, within safeguarding boundaries, you create a more productive and innovative workforce which is a great environment for personal success at work.

Finally, what are the three most important takeaways for people to succeed at work?

First, remember to Think Big and Take Small Steps. Second, do a time audit and get rid of the time sinkers. Finally, work on your resilience, so that when you do have negative encounters in life you're able to bounce back faster.

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