The appetite for self-help books about how to alter behaviour seemingly cannot be sated. Katy Milkman’s first book stands out from the pile for its lightly worn but important emphasis on the science and data that lie behind the nudges and tricks that can change habits for good.
Milkman is an experienced behavioural scientist who still transmits a refreshing sense of wonder at some of her occasionally unexpected findings. They include, for example, the realisation that while “forming stable routines is key to habit formation . . . too much rigidity is the enemy of a good habit”. It turns out that the “stickiest” habits form when we allow ourselves some flexibility. After a year in which established habits have been disrupted by the global crisis, it is a welcome revelation.
Another, more familiar, lesson is the power of “cue-based plans” that encourage us to follow through on our promises by saying how, when, and where we will practise our new habit. Angela Duckworth, best known for her work on the importance of “grit”, who wrote the foreword to How to Change, calls this the best insight behavioural science has to offer on meeting goals.
Some of these insights may be familiar to readers of other books in the same area — Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit receives a nod, for instance — but the solutions here, from gamification to “temptation-bundling”, have lasting value. That is partly because, as Milkman writes, change is “a chronic challenge, rather than a temporary one” and must be treated as such.
Hard-headed corporate types may wince at the prospect of a leadership book called The Heart of Business, but then business has become more comfortable with wearing its heart on its sleeve in recent years.
Talk of corporate “purpose” has become commonplace since executives began searching for drivers beyond the shareholder returns Milton Friedman told them were their sole concern. But few have interpreted that word in quite the same way as Hubert Joly.
The McKinsey-trained Frenchman ran five companies including Best Buy, the once rocky US consumer electronics chain whose share price rose tenfold over his seven years in charge.
His book has the ambitious goal of offering “leadership principles for the next era of capitalism” but Joly has no time for the myth of the superhero CEO, focusing instead on humility and humanity in business.
Drawing on his own spiritual explorations, from Ignatius de Loyola, a 16th century Basque Catholic priest and theologian, to Kahlil Gibran, a Lebanese-American writer and visual artist, he is candid about how vulnerable perfectionist leaders can feel. But he argues that a refoundation of business is needed, and that it must start “with considering work as an answer to our quest for meaning and fulfilment”.
Joly brings enough examples from his experience to anchor such lofty talk in practical recommendations about how to engage disengaged employees or how leaders can understand what drives them, identify the legacy they want to leave — and then stay the course.
The Heart of Business offers an unusually theological perspective on our working lives, but then Joly’s mission is to make work more human and less soulless.
Evidence-based decision-making. It is a seductive concept, yet one that is very often tantalisingly out of reach. Steve Wexler believes it is because “spreadsheets aren’t enough”, that information needs to be transmitted with meaning and clarity of purpose, a task for which data visualisation is ideally suited.
A seasoned data visualisation evangelist, Wexler has conceived this book not for chart-making practitioners like himself, but for “the 99% of business professionals who don’t create data visualisations”.
The core of the book addresses the age-old dilemma of how to stop all business dashboards being full of boring line, pie and bar charts when that is the limit of most people’s chart literacy. Wexler discusses “xenographphobia” — a “fear of unusual graphics” — and explores the need to determine whether a chart is too complex or an executive too closed-minded to receiving insights from new forms of data presentation.
Carefully selected examples abound, drawn from a wide range of business environments, to make a specific point about chart design that promote greater chart fluency.
The book concludes with a look at how you can change your organisation with data visualisation, where a series of examples document how companies have benefited from adopting a progressive data visualisation strategy.
Like much of what precedes it, the examples in this section serve mostly as carrots — incentives to do things better — but the stick of the book’s bottom line is never far away: “If you don’t develop this ability, your organisation is going to be trounced by competitors [that do].”
Our anxiety levels at work had been on the rise well before the Coronavirus pandemic, but the health crisis sent them stratospheric as workers around the world were mired in stress and uncertainty.
The authors, two of whom are leadership experts, started writing the book because they found that leaders were frustrated about the issue and didn’t always know how to tackle it. Workplace anxiety, the authors write, costs the US about $40bn a year in lost productivity, errors, and healthcare costs.
Through varied examples from both a worker and leadership perspective, the book describes how anxiety can manifest itself and what organisations can do to first recognise it and then tackle it.
Part of the problem is that many anxious workers cover their tracks. This is what the authors refer to as Duck Syndrome — a term coined by Stanford University — where employees, often high performers, appear to glide effortlessly and calmly like a duck on the water’s surface. But underwater the ducks are paddling like mad.
So what to do? Through nine chapters, the authors set out a path that starts with helping employees deal with long-term uncertainty that affects them every day. Here, leaders and organisations need to communicate in a direct and transparent way. They cite examples such as General Electric, where chief executive Larry Culp apparently has fostered an environment in which “employees can raise tough issues and know they will be addressed honestly and directly”.
Frequent one-on-one communication is also essential, while to deal with overload, managers should be helping workers break down their work into manageable chunks.
While a certain proportion of information in the book is not altogether unknown, the authors do well to bring everything together into a clear evidence based plan. The issues addressed can be complex and not always easy to implement. But the real question is that despite this book’s insights, are companies really up for fixing the system, rather than trying to “fix” the individual?
After a year of work meetings via video, this book is a welcome and practical guide to the ways in which we need to rethink how we interpret on-screen and inbox behaviour.
Put simply, in person rules about body language do not apply in virtual spaces. In Digital Body Language, Erica Dhawan, a trainer and consultant, explores how communicating without in-person body language cues and signals can create widespread misunderstandings and conflicts. These problems can develop into anxiety, fear, distrust and paranoia in both our workplaces and our social lives.
The book is split into three parts, with the first part describing what digital body language is — including practical examples of how physical body language has been “translated” into the digital sphere. Dhawan points to the politics of who sits where at meeting tables: when these hierarchies are no longer physically present, they play out on email, in the placement of names in the To, Cc and Bcc lines.
In person we show excitement by speaking quickly, smiling and even jumping up and down. In digital body language, we would convey that feeling with the use of exclamation marks and emojis.
Dhawan provides examples of how to read and use a variety of digital signals and cues such as punctuation and emojis. This might be especially useful for older employees — the etiquette around emoji use can be confusing. Developing a common digital body language will help everyone — while also opening a path to better ways for all of us to relate to one another and create a sense of inclusion and belonging.
We seem to be in a “moment” in societal and publishing terms, with the concerns and potential of mid-life workers becoming much more talked about — topics such as the impact of the menopause were not written about until very recently, but this (among many other topics) is one of the areas tackled in a direct way by Jane Evans and Carol Russell. While the world probably doesn’t need more mid-life empowerment books written by well-off white women (although we keep getting them), this one is down to earth and is co-authored by two friends, one white and one black.
Evans, who is white, has had a bruising few years: “Since 2015, I have been to places no female advertising creative ever goes — let alone comes back from, such as the jobcentre and being coached’ by one of their business mentors; applying for housing benefits . . . and spending a few days in the Maudsley Psychiatric Hospital in South London.” When authors blithely write about resilience, Evans is living it. And Russell, as a black actor and writer, faced not just age-related discrimination but invisibility from the start of her career, which has inspired her to make her own path to success. “Women of African descent cannot continue to be inaudible if all women are to rise.”
The pair include strategies for getting back to work — this would be a great book to give to a mid-life woman who wants to get back into the workforce — and how to campaign for the potential and experience of older women to be taken far more seriously by ageist employers. It offers snapshots of the lives and experiences of impressive women in the public eye (Diane Abbott, Cindy Gallop). Invisible to Invaluable is chatty, personal, and might be too folksy for some readers. But it is packed with testimonies about the pervasive racism, misogyny and ageism that the authors and their friends and colleagues have encountered.
That’s not to say the book is depressing. Far from it. Like many women in their 50s and beyond, Evans and Russell are happy to speak truth to power. It’s very refreshing and jargon-free. As they say: “Wisdom and experience make a winning combination.”