ABOUT MY GUEST
In today’s conversation, I speak with Octavius Black – the CEO of Mind Gym, a consultancy that uses the latest psychology and behavioural science to transform how people think, feel and behave so as to improve both the performance of companies and the lives of the people who work within them.
Having read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at The Queen’s College, Oxford University, Octavius went on to work as an analyst at Booz Allen Hamilton, and later became a director of the organisational communications consultancy, Smythe Dorward Lambert.
He co-founded Mind Gym in his kitchen with Sebastien Bailey 20 years ago and floated the company on the London Stock Exchange in 2018, and he has co-authored several Mind Gym books, including Wake Up Your Mind, Give Me Time, and Relationships.
Octavius has written for The Times, Financial Times and The Sunday Telegraph, and together with his team, he seeks to equip ambitious companies with the knowledge and capability to be ready for tomorrow.
Recorded on 26th November 2020.
Nathalie: Octavius, thank you very much for joining me in conversation. It’s exciting to be speaking with you today.
Octavius: It’s an absolute joy to be here, Nathalie.
Nathalie: I’d like to start by asking you what I ask all my guests, and that’s to say that we’re living through an extremely unusual and interesting point in human history right now. What do you think, if you were to guess, is happening in the global human psyche?
Octavius: I think we’re at an incredibly positive place, that we can easily get distracted by the issues that concern us, and those issues are very real. But actually as a society, we’ve moved on enormously. The challenges of famine, of war, of pestilence, all of these things are greatly reduced. Our chances of increased literacy are much higher wherever we are in the world. In many ways we are much, much better off on most objective measures.
The things we worry about, like for example mental health, have probably been around forever. This is the first time we’re actually willing to talk about them and address them. That’s tremendously promising, because it means we can start to help people.
Nathalie: It does seem to me actually, when you’re pointing out this more positive side, that it’s so easy for us to overlook and to forget that we have seen in many cultures a shifting in values, a shifting towards being more open to discussing things that maybe we find difficult, and that previously have held shame. I know that for the research for my new book, one of the things that was very interesting to me was the way in which we’re seeing consumer behaviors shift, presumably as a result of this shift in deeper values, so the ways in which we are maybe starting to ask deeper questions about meaning and purpose, obviously within a modern context.
I wonder in the realm of business, especially with the work that you do in helping people to make better decisions, shaping the way that cultures can change within organizations, what are your thoughts about how a leader or leaders can construct a culture for employees that actually helps to benefit wellbeing and a search for happiness or purpose?
Octavius: Well, purpose is an incredibly important concept that makes us feel that what we are doing is worthwhile. At the core, if you go back to Plato, who talked about what makes up in that case mankind, personkind, and talked about there’s a rational side to us. If I do this, then I will get that. There’s an emotional side. I feel hunger, shame, pity, and so forth. But there’s also this sense of identity called thymos, and the sense of being recognized for who I am and appreciated for who I am. Plato talked about this third element of the human psyche, if you like. It’s incredibly important, and as we’ve got to a stage where our rational minds are quite well tuned, our emotional senses perhaps could do with even more development, but actually the sense of identity becomes incredibly important.
If I feel that I’m doing something that matters, that’s making the world a slightly better place, that will lift me up. Even in lab experiments where you ask people to create Lego figurines, and if you let them see each figurine being assembled, they will carry on making them for longer than if you disassemble one and give them the pieces back again. Great experiment by Dan Ariely. Therefore the fact that I feel my work matters, whether it’s in this task and it’s not being destroyed in front of me or ignored, or whether I’m actually trying to help the world become a bit healthier or flourish in other ways, this is incredibly important for us and our thymos requires it.
Nathalie: So what do you think is the role of leaders or businesses to try and make clear the values that they uphold through the mission statement or whatever protocols they have in place, like a set of business ethics, in attracting people who maybe share those values?
Octavius: I think the interesting thing about corporate values is they end up being much the same. There are nine corporate values that make up over 90% of a company’s values, and they’ll be versions of things like integrity and collaboration and customer focus and performance and teamwork, and so on and so forth.
Actually, what makes for a good and healthy organization is fairly consistent. In the same way as if we were asked, Nathalie, you and I, for advice on how to lead a healthy lifestyle, you’d probably get fairly similar advice: do more exercise, eat fewer brownies, would be the nub of it. For companies, it’s much the same. What companies we suggest to do is worry less about trying to define what it is that makes them so very special and unique, because actually the core of it’s quite similar, but actually getting them living it and doing it. And therefore how do we create a sense of belonging, rather than saying that belonging matters? How do we increase the sense of agency, people having control over their lives and destinies, versus not?
Nathalie: What are some of the key things that you find businesses getting wrong in those areas?
Octavius: Well, in the area of diversity, inclusion and belonging, for example, is that there can be a sense of trying to assimilate people, so everyone needs to be like this. You need to be a big co kind of person, and this is the kind of people we look for here, rather than being much more open to different ways that people are presenting themselves that actually bring enormous value.
We know for example, that there are enormous headwinds and tailwinds we each face from our childhood and the birth experience. We also know that we all tend to overestimate our own headwinds. “You’ve got no idea how difficult it was for me.” We underestimate everybody else’s. “Oh, Nathalie had it really easy. She had loving parents, and da-da-da.” Therefore we end up getting this false sense of being hard done by, and we are less likely to be generous and support others.
Helping people recognize this then allows people to be more open to people who are different from them, and more supportive of those who’ve had tougher headwinds and fewer tailwinds than ourselves.
Nathalie: That’s a really interesting one. I was reading something yesterday, writing something yesterday, about empathic distress, so the aversive state that we experience when we witness the suffering of others. One of the things that came up as being very helpful in reducing this, so to enhance our tolerance of other people’s pain so that we can be more compassionate, is mindfulness meditation. Actually, quite short interventions of up to six weeks can have quite an interesting impact when you’re doing it for the benefit of others within your meditative practice. I’m curious to ask you also what you think are some of the ways or practices that people can engage in to help create the space for that to happen.
Octavius: Mindfulness is certainly one, and another one … I don’t know if you know Martin Seligman’s experiment with depressed teenagers. I’ll paraphrase. One group went through in effect, reframing exercises, kind of CBT around flexible optimism, and the other did not. And you see this massive change in the level of depression of those who went through the CBT and the reframing. So I think there’s something about mindfulness. There’s something about reframing and how you look at situations. There’s something very much about increasing agency, focusing on what I can do rather than what I can’t do, and how we as leaders in businesses and in families help create agency amongst our peers and our colleagues and our loved ones.
Nathalie: To this point of agency, which is fascinating, one of the things that’s really interesting about when we see how people engage with the projects they’re being asked to do, is around the ways in which they engage motivationally. How do you think businesses can better identify and touch upon people’s intrinsic motivations, so getting them to do something where there is an engagement and a joy in the activity itself, so that we can get the best from them and they can get the best from it?
Octavius: I think one of the interesting things about people’s commitment to work is there’s one group of people, working people, who work longer hours, earn less money, and yet are happier with their work/life balance. That group of people, no matter which country you go to or where you do the research, is the self-employed.
Nathalie: Oh, interesting.
Octavius: There’s that sense of feeling a high sense of agency. Therefore what I think business can do far more is to give people a range of choices, to give people options, to coach people and support people so they are better equipped to make better decisions. Most of us think that judgment is important for us, judgment’s a useful thing to have. Most of us think our judgment is quite good, but it could probably be better. If we were as businesses out there helping people enhance their judgment, we’d probably get quite a warm reception.
There are lots of, in the world of psychology for example, heuristics, tricks our minds play, that skew our judgment. We tend to give greater weight to the last of the list, for example. And therefore helping people spot those heuristics and work them out, and therefore stop them having a negative effect, greatly helps improve judgment, and will greatly help enhance people’s sense of agency and improve the quality of their lives, as well as their performance at work.
Nathalie: I wonder with the ways in which we relate to people who are at work, colleagues, partners et cetera, what are some of the ways in which we can help form healthy attachments? Because obviously the relational aspect of work is really, really important for our sense of wellbeing. How would you suggest that an organization go about bettering the quality of the relationships within their internal ecosystem?
Octavius: There are lots of ways of doing this, but at the core is to help people understand how do I set clear boundaries? What do I do when those boundaries are crossed in some ways? How do I repair a relationship where it’s broken? How do I build a new relationship? These are all skills that we can apply and learn.
The way we frame things, the way we talk about things, the way we connect with people, has this enormous ripple effect. We know, for example, there’s a measure called the LMX, leader-manager exchange, which is the strength of the relationship between a boss, a manager, and the person whom they manage.
This has a tremendous effect on everything else that happens. When the LMX is strong and the boss gives some improvement coaching, it tends to be well-received. When the LMX is weak and the boss gives exactly the same improvement coaching, it tends to be ignored. So this ability to build strong relationships becomes obviously pivotal, this exponential effect on everything else, from coaching to delivering change, to wellness and so on and so forth.
Nathalie: That’s super interesting. I think when it comes to leadership in particular and in the media, there’s been a lot of talk about a shift from what’s called heroic leadership, which is power over others, which is receiving a little bit more heat than maybe it has previously. I think with the pandemic revealing some fault lines between nations led by the more heroic model of leadership and those with a more collaborative approach, some of them notably led by women, I wonder what your thoughts are around the type of leadership that we engage in that’s actually the most generative in the workplace.
Octavius: I think what you refer to that’s really appropriate is the changing work environment off the back of COVID, and the increasing hybrid working that we are all experiencing. For the last 20 years pretty much, businesses have talked about transformational leadership, and this great charisma that’s used in order to inspire and motivate. And actually, management by charisma doesn’t really work on Zoom and Microsoft Teams. You tell a joke and there’s a silence, because everyone’s on mute. And the ability that you can just smile at someone as you’re passing in the corridor or share a joke on the way into a meeting, all those things that were part of the social glue that formed organizations, and part of the ways in which many leaders manage, are no longer appropriate in this environment. Therefore we need very different management muscles.
Some of it’s going to be about greater precision. How do I use people’s times well? We know people are spending more time in meetings. People are going to meetings with more people, and the average length of the meeting is decreasing but the length of the working day is increasing, because of this frequency of meetings. How can we be much tighter in them?
Then secondly, how can we completely loosen them? How can we have those meetings where you’re just having a chat and just a catch-up? And what’s happening is that in the in-person office world, you could blend between the two during a meeting. Now you have to be a lot more intentional.
Nathalie: I wonder if from that perspective, the nodding and smiling to someone in the corridor that you mentioned, or maybe going for drinks after work or whatever it might be, there’s something about being able to just have these points of contact, these light moments, where we are relating with other people, we’re feeling good about where we are, and it gives us a sense of belonging and also a sense of place, and also a sense of culture. I wonder how we can seek to possibly not replicate that, but re-enrich our relationships in a virtual environment with some of the components that enable us to feel part of a wider culture? Especially because now we’re so much more atomized, and the workforce is so much more remote. Are there specific interventions or practices that you’ve seen that have enabled people to create the sense of culture and rapport, even though we’re translated into a virtual environment?
Octavius: There are, but they are weak substitutes, and it would be a great shame if we don’t find a way to return to some in-person connections in the office. So if we can’t find a way of being co-located for two or three days a week, it’ll have a negative impact on belonging, corporate culture, loyalty, and all sorts of factors.
I was working with the CEO of an ad agency just recently. Advertising isn’t tremendously well-paid, but a lot of people do it because it’s fun. There’s a certain “jush” about it. You go into the office and people are wearing the latest clothes, and you’re swapping music ideas and playlists and so forth, and altogether, there’s a kind of vibe about it that makes it feel quite thrilling.
But if you’re sitting at home in your shared flat with three people you met on Gumtree, who you don’t really know, and you’re sitting on your bed with a laptop, you’re thinking, “Well, why am I doing this? Why don’t I go and work somewhere else and earn 20 or 30% more for doing a similar sort of job?” So this sense of … This is in advertising, but it’s true actually of most organizations. There’s something magical about the place and the people we work with and the connections that we have, that are one of the reasons why we choose to work there and one of the reasons that motivate us. And this has been very significantly affected.
We think that there may be almost a kind of delayed effect that during the crisis, we’ve all rallied around and got together and fixed it and got with it. But then as we get into a status of business as usual, but remotely, we start to be less committed and less connected to our colleagues, and more connected in some good ways to our families, perhaps, if we are living with family.
Therefore organizations need to find a way to rebuild this. And yes, you can have virtual drinks, but they’re slightly agonizing experiences. You can certainly have virtual escape rooms, and that may be quite fun. But really all of these things are poor substitutes to actually being with other people, and human beings are social animals. We benefit enormously from this.
Nathalie: I have two questions that arise off the back of that. One of them is what are some of the benefits that come from being able to work virtually and maybe looking at, I don’t know, platforms that enable us to do more than just engage in a virtual chat? The other is around the ways in which business will structure to allow people to physically come in, but also accommodate remote working.
Let’s go with the first one first. Are there specific examples of platforms that have done particular things that you thought, “Oh actually okay, this isn’t a real conference. It might not be a great substitute, but that’s actually ingenious and that’s got me thinking about, I don’t know, the event or the conversation I’m having in a different way”?
Octavius: For example, Miro is a great collaboration tool that allows you to have the equivalent of a brainstorm when you’re sticking up your Post-it notes, and you’re scribbling each other’s ideas and so forth. So I think there are definite platforms that help for the collaboration. I haven’t come across platforms that act as anything more than the weakest substitute for social connection. You can do that in small groups of two or three, but the equivalent of having a party virtually, I haven’t come across anything that comes even close.
Nathalie: No. I’m still waiting for the whole Star Trek holodeck thing to happen.
Octavius: That would be fantastic.
Nathalie: Childhood dream of mine. To the second point then, around the way in which remote working now will impact the physical structuring of businesses in the future, what are your thoughts about how businesses will organize themselves? For instance, do you think that instead of having people coming in five days a week and working back at their desks and it being the same as pre-COVID, do you think these might form physical culture hubs where people can work if they want to? What role do you envision for the physical workspace?
Octavius: I think the role will be to make connections, to form relationships, to bounce ideas, to have fun. The great thing about work can be the joy of it, the laughter that we have, the watching someone over their shoulder seeing a funny video, and you go and look at it yourself and you have a chat about it. All of those things that have been lost in large part as a result.
I think what we’ll need to do is to find ways to bring people together, not just the existing work team, because those are the six or eight or 10 people you see virtually in any case. But it’s all the other people you bump into that you wouldn’t normally talk to. I certainly found between the two lockdowns in London, that when I went into the office, I could in 10 minutes glean information from three or four people that I would never have had, and I wasn’t getting remotely, and able to solve a couple of problems that people have been bothered with quickly and immediately, that again, would never have happened remotely.
We’ll need to organize to bring people together at times, in ways that aren’t just the natural work team, but actually get the interaction and the connections with other people. At the same time, there’s enormously valuable things that can be done remotely. It saves on commutes. It means you can really focus if you’re writing a document or a paper or something like that. Also there’ll be ways to get people together from lots of geographically dispersed parts.
The way we think about talent will alter a bit as well. Equally, if we look at roles that are entirely done remotely, then the challenge is well, why do we need to be in the same country even? Why couldn’t we be somewhere else altogether? I think actually it’s in everybody’s interests, the companies and the individuals, to create a time for being physically in person and recognize and appreciate the benefits of that.
Nathalie: Brilliant. I’d like to take us down a slightly different track now, and I want to ask you about what you think the role is for ethics within successful businesses, especially as people seem to be more concerned and more vocal about issues of sustainability and climate impact and divestment from fossil fuels? What role do you think ethics plays in being a successful business?
Octavius: I think ethics has been central, and is going to become more and more central. The way we present and how we show up will be the determining factor in our reputation externally and also as importantly, in our reputation to bring in and attract and retain great talent, and that if you believe that talent is a key source of advantage, you’ll want to have the kind of company that brings in the sorts of people who will be at the top end of their contributions for your business. Those will be people for whom a clear set of values and behaving with integrity will be very important.
At the same time, what’s really interesting about ethics is we all think we are more ethical than everybody else. We have a very high … We all have a bias. We all think we’re better drivers, funnier, better taste than the average person. But with ethics, the gap is really quite significant. If you ask people a range of ethical questions, they will rate themselves significantly higher than the average. Even people who are incarcerated in prison for having committed a crime think that they are more ethical than most people.
Octavius: This bias is quite significant. This suggests two really interesting things. First of all, people are always going to find fault with everybody else. They can look at the organization and go, “They have behaved properly, and they haven’t done the right things, and therefore I might take affront from that.”
Then secondly, they’re not going to recognize when they’re doing it themselves. Therefore there are ways in which we can build ethical cultures, which are not the tools that companies tend to use. For example, people think that … A traditional economist will tell you if you fine someone for doing something, they’re less likely to do it, and if you give them a bonus for doing something, they’re more likely to do it.
A behavioral economist, not at all so sure. There’s a great experiment in Israel with childcare centers, where they measured the number of late pickups across 10 childcare centers, and they were basically the same. Then in six of them, they introduced a system of small fines for being late to pick up your child, and actually the level of late pickups, that you think would go down when they introduce the fines like a traditional economist would tell you, actually went up. It more than doubled.
Octavius: Then even more interestingly 10 weeks later, they removed the fines. Again, traditional economic theory would say it would go back to where it was before, but actually it didn’t make any difference. The late pickups carried on the same.
Nathalie: Poor kids.
Octavius: I know, poor kids. But what had happened is the decision had moved from being a social one, “I must do the right thing by the school or by my child,” to a financial one. “I can pay $3 and I get an extra 15 minutes or half an hour’s babysitting, and I’ve got this very important meeting with Nathalie and quite frankly, that’s worth $3.” So you reframe the decision.
When we’re looking at how we get people to behave more ethically, there are lots of things that behavioral science teaches us that will greatly help, but they aren’t traditional things about codes of conduct, whistle blowing hotlines, ethical dilemma training. These do not work. Reducing for example a sense of unfairness does work.
Nathalie: To that point then, I’m curious about what you think might happen with the ways in which we signal our values, our ethics, and also even our status as things change. A lot of the research I was reading was around how younger cohorts of people, so between the ages of about 18 and 40 let’s say, want to work for companies that espouse certain values that are similar to their own, and they’re willing to take a pay cut.
Obviously I’m making a generalization here, but there does seem to be a really interesting trend towards that particular shift in behavior. Given that younger generations are perhaps more interested in working for a company that espouses similar values than the ones they hold, and they are possibly less motivated by extrinsic motivations, such as money and potentially promotions, what do you imagine might become the new signals of status for those demographics?
I don’t know whether you want to think of that in terms of the consumer or in terms of being at work, but if status is not denoted by wealth and authority and consumerism, what might we start to see happening?
Octavius: Well, I think what we’re seeing is a really interesting difference amongst the most financially successful people in society. If you go back to John Paul Getty or Randolph Hearst, their status was to build enormous temples, houses or a Roman villa in California, in LA, in John Paul Getty’s example.
Nowadays you see that the Bill Gateses of this world, it’s about philanthropy. It’s how do I solve a problem like polio or malaria? So I think that we will hopefully see that trickle down through all of society to say that actually, what matters is how are we helping others? How are we contributing in ways to make the world a slightly better place than it would be if we hadn’t intervened? That will show up both in the work I choose to do and the impact of the work I have, and also in how I choose to distort my time. I may be more likely to distort it in ways that help people who have had greater headwinds than me, and therefore to give them a bit of a benefit from my headwinds and support them.
Nathalie: So in that frame then, what qualities do you think will make for great leaders in the businesses of the future?
Octavius: It’s a gloriously rich and delicious question. I’m going to pick a couple, not to say this is any way exhaustive. One of the core attributes that not only will make great leaders, but actually makes us happier, and that’s pretty … There are very few things that universally make everybody happier, but this is one of them, and that is continuously learning. Therefore the great leaders of the future and I think probably the greatest of today, are ones open to new ideas. They’re voracious readers of books, or find other ways to garner new information.
There’s a lovely study on the impact of CEOs who tend to peak at 4.7 years, which is a wonderfully precise number. But what’s interesting perhaps is the reason why. What happens is that when a new CEO arrives, they start to gather information equally from internal and external sources, so clearly listen to their teams and employees, but they also go out to the market to customers and so on and so forth.
But after a while, they stop with the external, and they start to rely on their loyal lieutenants, and that gives them less good information, and therefore they make worse decisions and their performance starts to decline. The way you become an outlier is to continue learning. I think one of the great strengths that we want to build amongst all leaders of any level is this appetite for learning, learning to learn, if you like. We call them learnertics. A learnertic is somebody who knows what to do when they don’t know what to do.
Nathalie: I like that.
Octavius: That would be one of my first traits for leaders of the future.
Nathalie: Okay. Thinking about the decision-making and leaders and employees, as things become more complex, are there any interventions that you’ve seen that can be particularly effective in helping better decision-making?
Octavius: Yes, lots. I think the first thing that I think we are going to see is the end of the training program as such, or the learning program, this idea that you go away for three days or three days now and three days in six months’ time, and that’s the core of learning. We’re going to see much more learning journeys of continually learning and adapting and trialing and practicing and adopting.
I’ll give you an example for a program that we’ve been running now for 10 years. We run a program called Parent Gym. One of the single factors that most determines a child’s life chances other than their birth situation is the quality of parenting they have. By and large, people don’t do an enormous amount, government, societies and so forth, to help improve the quality of parenting. 10 years ago, we started a program where we run bite-sized distributed, 90 minutes once a week for six weeks on different topics, parenting classes in the most socially-challenged and deprived parts of society.
What we find is that after two or three weeks, people start to change their habits. We had a mother come in and said, “My partner,” many of them don’t have partners, but she did, “said, ‘You haven’t shouted all week. Why is that?'” She realized that she’d been doing one-to-one time with each child, which is one of the techniques covered in the class. As a result, everything had gone a lot more smoothly. We’ve since evaluated this program. Five different studies from four universities have evaluated it, and found that not only does it improve parenting self-efficacy and childhood outcomes, but it also has a strong impact on mental health, where the correlation is as great as that between gender and height. So it was quite significant.
Nathalie: That’s huge. I think some of the conversations that I’ve previously had, you’ve talked about how some of these seemingly quite small or subtle interventions can have quite large impacts, not only in one sector or domain of one’s life, but also in other domains. Do you feel that there are certain contexts that make it easier for people to engage in some of these habit-changing behaviors than others? For instance, through the workplace, do you feel you can sneak some of these in, and then it ends up having this wonderful ripple-out effect?
Octavius: It absolutely affects all of life. The workplace is a great environment, because time is allocated for it. Companies are willing to fund it in order for individuals to benefit from it. So all I have to do is to show up if you like. I don’t have to pick up my wallet and pay for it, and I don’t actually have to usually find extra time for it that I might in the normal working day.
That said, we change much more when we believe it’s in our own best interest. The best way to help someone improve their habits is to find something that really matters to them, and show how changing the habit will help them achieve that. For example, we were working with a postal service. There were the managers of the postal service, the supervisors, who’d often been there 18, 20 or more years. The company wanted them to be better at coaching and helping new arrivals.
But their attitude was a bit like, “Oh, in 18 years, they’ll be as good as me. That’s how you onboard here,” and weren’t terribly interested in this new coaching and onboarding. But when we spoke to them, the thing they most cared about … Most of them had children. They cared about their children. They were very keen their children had a more successful life as they saw it, than them.
One of their moments of truth was homework. They didn’t quite know how to intervene or help with homework when their child was struggling. We ran a series of bite-sized sessions, one of which was called Helping Hand. How do you help someone when they’re stuck? We said, “You know what? You can even practice this on the new posties that arrive in the mail service, and then get really good at it when you go to your children.” They were like, “Brilliant.” The only question was, “I can’t understand why the business is paying for it.”
We ended up appealing to everybody. Their children were better off for better help with homework. They felt better off as parents, and the company was happy because the new people brought in were coached and supported in new ways.
Nathalie: That’s brilliant. I love how well you managed to weave those different motivations together. If I were to ask you then what you envision an exciting, resilient business to look like in the future, if you could dream up your most fantastic idea of what that would be, what would characterize it for you?
Octavius: Firstly what I mentioned earlier, which is continuous learning. We’d all be learning. We’d be trialing, we’d be experimenting. We’d be quick to make decisions that things didn’t work, and quick to keep learning new things. We’d therefore come much more with evidence and data. We’d have a very high standard of excellence. I think that one of the things that we can get lost in the popularity of fads like let us say collaboration, is that we lose focus on the quality of the output and the end deliverable. So excellence I would have as a very high factor in this.
I would also have the ability to have very candid conversations, to speak directly to each other in ways that don’t damage or diminish people’s identity and are received in ways where I don’t let it damage or diminish my identity. But also we speak truth to each other, and therefore we can learn faster and move faster and deliver better results.
Nathalie: To that point about being able to be candid with other people and to receive things in a way that’s perhaps constructive, at some point in all relationships, mistakes tend to happen and trust can break. Whether we’re talking about a relationship between people or between a brand and its customers, or between colleagues, what do you feel are some of the most important elements that must be present to be able to repair and rebuild trust when it’s lost?
Octavius: Certainly. Well, I come first to the colleague one, which in a funny way, is the easiest. Part of it is calling it. It’s noticing it. I had a colleague the other day who said to me, “We seem to be working incredibly well, but the last 10 days haven’t been like this, and here are half a dozen examples where we seem to be miscued a bit. I’m wondering if you’ve noticed the same and what you think might be going on.” Then we had a really healthy and fruitful conversation, and we’re now back in the pre the 10-day stage. I think certain things had happened to me, that I hadn’t spoken enough, and we were able to fix that quite quickly. I think that was very emotionally intelligent, to call it in that way and describe it. I think describing what we see is going on and owning the conclusion from that is really helpful.
Then on the other side, be willing to lean in and recognize that the relationship is on both sides, and that having been given that information, to welcome it and to use it and to work together to resolve it. I think there are definite ways as individuals we can help rebuild broken relationships. This is absolutely critical, because it’s an inevitable part of being human that this will happen.
I think the second thing we can do is to be more generous, and endow people more positively. We see someone doing something and we can say, “My gosh, they’re trying to trick me or get one ahead or whatever,” and actually often it’s an act of omission or they haven’t thought about it, or there’s another reason for something that hasn’t occurred. Therefore I think that that positive endowment and generosity is also really helpful.
Nathalie: Another thing that I want to touch on is the concern that many people have about the future of automation on their work, on their career, on the workplace in general, and the impact that this will have on their livelihoods. From your perspective, what are the human qualities that we bring that technology currently can’t replace? What makes humans special?
Octavius: Well, several things we’ve talked about already. I think behaving ethically and making moral decisions is a really hard thing for technology to do. Building relationships, again, is incredibly difficult for technology to do. It can enable it between two people, but it’ll require people to be there.
Judgment is another area where technology finds it very hard in making judgements, particularly those that relate to people. I think there are a whole host of areas where people are absolutely instrumental. But what will happen, as has happened in the previous industrial revolutions and technological revolutions, is that new roles would appear, new skills will exist. Therefore those who either have the aptitude or the ability to learn will end up finding there are new opportunities for them, and they will prosper. The challenge will be those who are either unable or don’t have the opportunity to learn, and are in roles that can be replaced by technology.
Nathalie: Back to your point again about the absolute necessity of lifelong learning.
Octavius: There are few things more important. If you look at longevity, you look at quality of life, you look at happiness, you look at financial security, learning becomes just such a key factor in all of that. Therefore the challenge perhaps in schools is how do we get people to love learning? How do we set our children up to think of learning as something that you always want to be doing and to rejoice in it?
Interestingly enough, when they initially launched cable TV, they tested the idea of a learning channel, and it absolutely bombed in research. When they renamed it the Discovery Channel, the rest is history. There’s something about how we frame these things that can make an enormous difference, but the core spirit of continuous learning is really important.
Nathalie: Piquing people’s curiosity with a bit of interesting language use can make a huge change.
Octavius: Absolutely, absolutely.
Nathalie: If you had to choose one thing, and maybe you want to pick something that you’ve already touched upon, or maybe something else, but if you had to choose one thing that you believe will be absolutely vital to the long-term sustainable success of a business, what would you say? What would that be?
Octavius: I would talk about the way in which we help set people up to succeed. You set people up to flourish. We build on people’s strengths. We recognize that you’re different. Like me, we’re all different from each other, and that has great value in and of itself. Therefore we find ways to create the right environment, the right psychological safety, the right capability to allow people to be their best selves. If they aren’t the right selves for the organizations we are, we’re very frank and honest about it, and we help them find ways to go somewhere where they can be their best selves.
As individuals, we take responsibility for that too. We say, “What can I do to be my best self? What do I need to adapt and change and learn to flourish in this environment?” And that we see the responsibility of successful organizations being distributed across everybody, rather than it’s the leader’s job or the manager’s job. I think we’re quick to find fault with others, but we’d be better off looking first to ourselves.
Nathalie: That sounds like a complete overhaul and therapy for everyone.
Octavius: I think many of the great leaders are doing it already. It’s definitely the way modern businesses are heading. There are five psychological conditions for a modern company that you want to create. The first is agency, that we’ve touched on. The second is hope. Hope is a really strong correlate with all sorts of performance factors. The third is belonging, which again, we’ve touched on. The fourth is purpose, and the fifth is joy. As a modern company, what you all want to do is to create those five conditions as much as possible. There are lots of ways of doing that.
Nathalie: If you want to do that with Mind Gym, just want to give you a little cheeky shout-out, what’s the best place for people to start?
Octavius: We run experiences, both bite-sized live workshops and digital experiences, and they’re all integrated together all over the world. We run about 500 live courses a month at the moment, mostly delivered virtually because of the current working environment. Then we also have … We I think have had three million people now come to a Mind Gym experience.
Octavius: All over the world as well, we have coaches in 40 countries, and we’re helping companies help their people become more successful and more productive and happier and flourish, and all the things that we’ve been touching about during this program. I think that the core of this is that behavioral science will become the mainstay of how businesses make the most of their people. Out with management science, in with behavioral science, and as a result, better, healthier people and organizations.
Nathalie: Brilliant. I’d like to end on a two-part question, and you can drive this into any direction you would like. When you imagine the future and the best possible version of what that could be, what kind of world is it that you most would like to build?
Octavius: Our mission, when we set up Mind Gym right at the beginning, was to help people use their minds more effectively so they can get more out of life and give more to others. That is what we are here to do, and we do it predominantly in the world of work, because that’s where you can get to lots of people quickly and have a big impact. But it applies obviously much more broadly, and we have as we mentioned, Parent Gym. We might do Mind Gym in prisons or anywhere else as well.
So what I’d like to do, the contribution we would like to make, is to help people make better choices by understanding how their minds work, the consequences of decisions they make, and therefore improve the quality of their lives and the quality of the lives of the people who they connect with. Therefore we see this as a kind of a mass movement, if you like, a kind of social affect of individuals, recognizing that we choose how we think far more than we realize, and that by making better choices, we can improve the quality of everything around us.
Nathalie: If there’s one thing that people listening could do, one step that they could take to help move us towards that direction, what would you suggest they do? Where would they start?
Octavius: Listening. I would take to listening, understanding, taking time to recognize where others are, and to notice what is going on, would be a great place to begin. I’d obviously encourage reading lots of psychology books. There is even a Mind Gym book called Wake Your Mind Up. We got to number two on the Amazon, behind Harry Potter back in the day. It would be remiss of me not to mention that. We’ve written some other books as well. There’s one called Give Me Time and there’s one on Relationships, and those three are published everywhere but the US, and then there was a new book published in the US which is like an assimilation of those three.
We’re very excited about understanding behavioral science and making it really… The first chapter of the first book is called Don’t Read This Book, partly because if you tell someone not to do something, what are they likely to do? But also because there’s a questionnaire at the beginning and you fill it in saying what you care about. Then it tells you which chapters that you’ll most enjoy. So I think there’s lots of doing things in a counterintuitive way.
I think the joy of this subject area is that so much of what really makes a difference isn’t what you think will make a difference. We aren’t rational, but we are actually quite predictable as human beings, and therefore let’s use the science of that predictability to make better choices and better decisions.