Ever wonder why we have a hard time adapting to change? My guest today on Punk Rock HR, Melina Palmer, has the answer. Melina is a behavioral economist who teaches applied behavioral economics at Texas A&M’s Human Behavior Lab. She’s also the host of The Brainy Business Podcast and the author of the newly released book, “What Your Employees Need and Can’t Tell You: Adapting to Change with the Science of Behavioral Economics.” (Bonus: Get a free chapter at Melina’s site!)
In this episode, Melina and I discuss all things change management and what it means for your workforce. We also discuss what it’s like to be a behavioral economist and how it all relates to the world of customers.
Melina helps people understand the psychology behind how our brains work and influence how we act, choose, change and buy. She’s always been fascinated with people and saw an opportunity to connect her understanding of the brain to how we can improve the workforce.
“It’s fascinating how we’re wired. Not for conflict, but we are wired to approach problems in the way we think they should work, and we don’t realize how we actually make decisions,” Melina says. “But again, it’s so simple. It can be so easy to have better conversations and better engagements and projects at work, and all of these things with really tiny tweaks.”
Punk Rock HR is proudly underwritten by The Starr Conspiracy. The Starr Conspiracy is a B2B marketing agency for innovative brands creating the future of workplace solutions. For more information, head over to thestarrconspiracy.com.
How Do We Decide?
Melina believes people should have a job they love, a manager who empowers them and an environment where they feel energized. She decided to write her latest book just as the Great Resignation was in full force and people were looking at work differently.
She wanted to show how understanding our brain processes information and change doesn’t have to be bad. That’s why she developed a framework for change for her pricing framework.
“It’s called, ‘It’s Not About the Cookie,’ and that is that price isn’t about price; change isn’t about the change,” Melina explains. “It’s about all the stuff that happens before we get to presenting that change or that information, or the price of something has an impact as to whether we’re gonna buy the thing.”
Most of our estimated 35,000 daily decisions are not as conscious and analytical as we might think. Most of the time, your brain looks to habits, past decisions and the status quo. Our subconscious processing does the bulk of the work, making it harder for us to make decisions in the face of change.
“When we think about change at work, we think it’s a new CEO or a merger or a rebrand or a global pandemic or some big thing that we’re having to deal with,” Melina says. “But really, those micro-moments are so important, and a place where any manager can look to make things a little bit easier in those 35,000 decisions can make it so people are gonna be either really receptive to change or really struggling with it.”
Do We Really Work Better on Deadline?
Many of us work on deadlines. We might even think that’s how we operate best. But Melina suggests that this isn’t true. “We may be more efficient, but the work is not better,” she says.
To-do lists shape how our brain approaches tasks. We’re focused less on creativity and more on completing the task, especially as the deadline approaches.
“So it’s important to be taking the time to step back and say, ‘What is actually important?’ If we can only do one big thing this quarter, what would it be?” Melina says. “We also have this tendency — it feels really good to have 10 things on your to-do list, even if you don’t accomplish them ever. We’ve all put stuff on the list again and again and again. And the idea of coming in tomorrow and having only one thing on your to-do list feels bad. We don’t like it. It’s like, I’m not doing enough.”
Why Change Is Hard
Our brains are wired to follow the status quo as a way of protecting ourselves. Change is often feared.
Ingrained habits are hard to change, but it’s not impossible. Being from Seattle, Melina is no stranger to stopping at her local Starbucks to grab a drink. She has found herself there on her way to work even when she’s decided not to go. Melina explains that this happens because her brain recognizes the context and cues, and so her brain automatically thinks that she is going there.
Willpower is often talked about as the answer in these situations, but Melina has a different approach – change your routine, change the context and remove the impulse
“If I take a different route to work that doesn’t go by the Starbucks, I don’t have the same context and cues, and I may not feel that need that I have to stop,” she says, “And I can take willpower — which is very fleeting — I can take that out of the equation, and I can make that decision when I’m in a cold state instead of that hot state.”'It’s fascinating how we’re wired. ... We are wired to approach problems in the way we think they should work, and we don’t realize how we actually make decisions.' ~ @thebrainybiz, author and behavioral economist. Tune in to #PunkRockHR! Click To Tweet
People in This Episode
This episode of Punk Rock HR is sponsored by The Starr Conspiracy. The Starr Conspiracy is the B2B marketing agency for innovative brands creating the future of workplace solutions. For more information, head on over to thestarrconspiracy.com.
Hey everybody, I’m Laurie Ruettimann. Welcome back to Punk Rock HR. My guest today is Melina Palmer. She’s the host of The Brainy Business Podcast and the author of the book “What Your Employees Need and Can’t Tell You: Adapting to Change with the Science of Behavioral Economics.” On today’s episode, Melina and I talk all about change management and what that means for your workforce.
And if that’s not enough, we talk about what it’s like to be an author. We talk about behavioral economics, and we also talk about how this all transcribes to the world of customers.
So if you’re interested in a very interesting conversation with a woman who teaches applied behavioral economics at Texas A&M’s Human Behavior Lab, well, sit back and enjoy this conversation with Melina Palmer on this week’s Punk Rock HR. Hey Melina, welcome to the podcast.
Thanks so much for having me.
It’s my pleasure. Listen, before we get started, why don’t you tell everybody who you are and what you’re all about?
Yeah. So my name is Melina Palmer. I am an applied behavioral economist. And so the 10-year-old version of that is to say, I am someone who helps people to understand the psychology of how our brains really work, how we act, choose, change and buy.
Well, that’s pretty big and also important in this world. I just want to know before we get started, why do you do what you do?
For me, I think people are fascinating in general, and the more I have learned about the brain over time and how complex it is — but knowing that there’s a science to the decisions that we make, how our brains process information and that we don’t intuitively understand our own brains or those of people around us. But with just a tiny bit of information, everything can work so much better.
It’s fascinating how we’re wired not for conflict, but we are wired to approach problems in the way we think they should work. And we don’t realize how we actually make decisions, but again, it’s so simple. It can be so easy to have better conversations and better engagements and projects at work and all of these things with really tiny tweaks.
And I love helping people to see, having those moments of realization of, “Oh my gosh, I can go do this thing, and I’m going to do this right now.” And I have people from around the world reaching out and saying, “I tried this and it worked. I did that and it worked.” So it’s hard to not keep doing the work that I do because people get value out of it, and I love that.
Yeah, it sounds like you’re very rewarded with what you do, which is a very lucky privilege. So many people in the world of work are dealing with multiple challenges. Either they’re in a career that they don’t enjoy, that they chose for the wrong reasons. Or they’ve discovered later in life that they have a passion for something else. Or they’re not financially rewarded for it. Or they’re working in a job that they should love, but the environment around them is so toxic.
I would imagine that you hear from people all day long about the challenges they face in the workplace, and those conversations must have informed your new book. So tell us a little bit about the world of work and your new book.
Yeah. So definitely understand all of the issues and problems people are seeing right now. And to me, in a paraphrasing of Adam Grant, “People deserve to have jobs and careers that don’t suck.” Everyone should have a job that they love and a manager that empowers them and where they’re able to feel energized at work, and it really is possible.
And so in writing this book, “What Your Employees Need and Can’t Tell You,” I was looking around in the era of Great Resignation when I was writing it and knowing that this was the time that people should be able to understand change in a different way, to be able to understand how our brains process information, and that it just doesn’t have to be bad.
And so the framework I use for change management is the same I use for pricing strategy. It’s called, “it’s not about the cookie,” and that is that price isn’t about price, change isn’t about the change.
It’s about all the stuff that happens before we get to presenting that change or that information or the price of something has an impact as to whether we’re going to buy the thing. Whether we’re buying in on some idea that’s being sold to us or we’re buying a physical product, it’s all the same stuff really going on inside of the brain.
And so helping people to think about change in a different way is really important. In this way, if you think about — so person listening, you, listener, how many decisions do you think you make in an average day? So if you think, like yesterday, how many decisions did you make?
I think the average listener would say thousands.
Sure. Yeah. And maybe we’d say 2000, 5,000, 10,000. Research shows that the average person makes 35,000 decisions every single day. So, most of those clearly need to be done on habit, and they’re done through subconscious processing because we aren’t cognitively aware of all of those 35,000 decisions.
Or we have to just trust that the world’s not changing on us and we rely on past behaviors and past decisions that we’ve made. Like, I’m going to choose to get out of bed this morning and put on my slippers knowing that I put my slippers there, they’re there. We have a framework, right?
Absolutely. Yeah. So the bulk of our decision-making is actually done based on things that have worked well for us in the past. That’s how our brains work. And that subconscious processing likes to do the bulk of stuff because the conscious takes more time and effort and uses up calories and takes too long.
So we like to make decisions this way, which is why we have an affinity for the status quo and things that have worked for us and that we’re familiar with because our brains are programmed for that.
So when we think about change at work, and I’m talking about change — we think it’s a new CEO or a merger or a rebrand or a global pandemic or some big thing that we’re having to deal with. But really, those micro-moments are so, so important and a place where any manager can look to make things a little bit easier — in those tiny 35,000 decisions — can make it so people are going to be either really receptive to change or really struggling with it.
And so the book really looks at this new way to think about change, understanding our brains and understanding situations at work and how we can make change in everything easier.
Well, I’m curious about some of those micro-moments. Because they are micro-moments, they’re easy to miss. So can you give us an example of a micro-moment that a manager can catch that an employee would feel so good about that would change the employee experience?
Sure. So I have a few of these micro-shift moments in the book, kind of sprinkled in so you get little wins along the way. One of them, I would say, is to think about you probably want to have a sense of trust on your team. Most would say that’s important to me, I care about that.
And so if you think about having the sense of trust, and then imagine when you’re doing your virtual meetings, let’s say — do you have a blur background on or an obviously fake background, or can people see the space that’s around you?
So with a blur or the fake background, because our eyes actually 70% of our sense receptors are in our eyes, and our eyes are scanning the world around us constantly three times per second on average. So even though it’s not your intention, you are implying “I don’t trust you enough to see the world around me” three times per second as that person’s eyes are moving around, and it can be a distraction.
It’s a simple thing that if you do say, “Hey, it’s not perfect in here, but I trust you enough to be able to see and be a part of this world that we’re all in together,” that little shift could make a difference. And especially if you were to bring it up in the way of saying, “I heard this thing on a podcast about trust in the brain and trust is so important to me on this team and I want to be open with you.” And I know it’s not perfect, but that opens up a vulnerability loop. There’s a whole lot of stuff going on in there, but that one little change can make a big difference.
Well, that’s really beautiful. You said earlier in the conversation, and you quoted Adam Grant, that employees deserve to have a job that doesn’t suck. And who would disagree with you, except for maybe all of history and all of capitalism? The employee experience has never been centered up until just now.
And there’s no real proven case that putting employees first makes you more productive or more profitable. I mean, we have anecdotal examples, but for most of human history, when you put profit first and shareholders first, companies are more successful. So I’m all down with this paradigm shift.
I love it, I’m a human, I want humans to win, but I just wonder if we are making some assumptions about capitalism that can never be true. I don’t know. What do you think about that?
I think that there actually are some really interesting examples that show where this can and has worked when you give employees the ability to be more intrinsically motivated and finding things that they’re passionate about. I really love Daniel Pink’s book “Drive,” and I quote it in the book and talk about it a bit.
And within that there are some examples of say 10% time Google and being able to have just sort of free-minded time that was done at 3M. And knowing that things like Post-It notes came out of just free-thinking time, that wasn’t part of anyone’s job.
And when we think of 3M, I would say the top product that they sell is Post-It. That’s what we think of with them, and they have a huge amount of value that’s come from that. Google Gmail is something that came out of that 10% time.
And lots of other examples of products that they have created over time that was in that space where you empowered employees to be able to do whatever they wanted to and not be heavily tracked by managers saying, “They’re not doing what they’re supposed to, and they have to report back and tell me what they did with their time,” and saying, “No, that’s not what this is about. This is about being able to explore what works for you.”
And when you look at how expensive it is to hire employees, so replacing employees is incredibly expensive both in time and monetary resources and stress on existing teams. There’s just a huge amount that goes into that.
And if you have members on your team that love to be there and care about the ins and outs of what you’re about, and they’re passionate and they live your company, there’s so much more value in that. I think we can point to companies where we’ve seen team members that do amazing things — that do bring in a lot of revenue for those companies — and could make an argument that there are lots and lots of examples of that if we choose to look For them.
Yeah. I love all of those examples, and I love that employees are having a great experience there and it is providing shareholder value. So it’s win-win in those examples. The Gmail example made me laugh, though, because I don’t think a Gmail is a win for society. I look at my Gmail and I’m like, put those employees back on the clock, wind that back. But I do take your point that it can be a win-win for both an organization and the workforce. One of the things I think about, especially in your book, is how we put the onus on managers to find these micro-moments to have these shifts and thinking to really put employees first, but often, managers forget that they’re employees, too.
So what’s the role of managers really recognizing that they have their own needs, their own careers, and they need managers sometimes, or at least advocates and champions, as well?
So the book is broken into three parts. So the first part is stuff about our brains about change and managers. Part two, we look at different scenarios at work, and then part three is the framework. At the end of part one, when we’re talking about the brain, I have two chapters.
The first one is called “Change is All about You,” and the next one is “And … It Has Nothing to do With You.” And I know my publisher had said like, “OK, so we want a chapter to start with and … really?” And said, yes. They’re supposed to go together.
What do publishers know? You’re disrupting publishing right here. I love it. So tell us about those two chapters.
Yeah. So with that change is all about you, which I think can either be something that feels debilitating or it’s really empowering. And to say the way we present information can impact the way people hear it and whether they like it or not, and that’s so awesome.
You can make a little shift and it can make all the difference. Like I said, there was that piece about your blurred background, but also I have an example in the book about a manager — I got an email at 10 a.m. on a Thursday that said we need to talk. Be in my office at 2, which is the scariest email of all time. And I spent four hours stressing and prepping and being ready to go and the message there was, “Hey, I’m going to be out of the office tomorrow, and I’m putting you as my out-of-office contact and my email responder.”
Oh my God, never has something so small been made so big.
Right. And so, over time, I learned that this was the person’s style, it wasn’t about me, but in the few moments that she saved in writing a quick email while in a meeting to try to get my attention, I lost hours of productive time.
And so if we’re a little bit more thoughtful about the way we position and put things out into the world, it can make a big difference. If that would’ve just said, hey, I’m going to be out tomorrow, do you have some time to connect at 2 p.m.? Easy, simple, simple shift. And so I talk about this as burnt popcorn.
We’ve all had that bag of burnt popcorn in the office, and it’s all anyone can talk about. Think about, if your communication is coming off as burnt popcorn, how you can adjust it? And it has nothing to do with you is — there’s the golden rule of treat others the way you want to be treated, the platinum rule, treat others the way they want to be treated.
The problem is people don’t know what they want, which is why the book is “What Your Employees Need and Can’t Tell You.” And we’re really bad at predicting what it is that’s going to make us happier. And so understanding these rules of the brain in the way you present information and how you receive information.
So like you said, you as a manager are also an employee. You are going to get information about a change, and then you have to pass it along. And let’s say about a merger or something — a big corporate shift that’s going to be happening months before you’re able to talk about it. You have confirmation bias, focusing illusion problems where you think, “Oh my gosh, they know, they know.”
And you’re just so stressed about this and if you allow yourself to focus on it, you end up creating this weird toxic environment because you’re processing the information wrong. So you need to take your time to have your moment and come to terms with things, and then think about how you’re presenting that information and know that whether you like the idea or not, you need to get on board, have your moment. And then look at how those people you’re communicating with — what do they need to know to get to the next step in the process? And know that it shouldn’t be about how you feel about it. It’s about them being on board with the next step.
Well, I like this vision of leadership, and I think one of the things that happens when someone assumes a position of leadership, especially when they’re young in their career, is they start to act like Jack Welch.
They start to act like a general. They start to give out deadlines. And I know one of the things you’re passionate about is really debunking this idea that people work best under a deadline. So can you tell me more about that?
Yeah, absolutely. So all of us, I think at one point or another, have said that we work better under a deadline.
Or our bosses have thought that about us.
Right. And we’re wrong. It’s not true. We may be more efficient, but the work is not better. So we are wired to, we have all the time in the world. You’ve been given a project, you have six months and you think, “Oh, I’m going to be so creative. I’m going to come up with a new report and I’m going to do this and I’m going to do that.”
And then you wake up one day and realize it’s due Friday, and you make a lot of decisions, but they’re proven to be less creative. If you were thinking, “Oh, I’m going to come up with the new way to hold this meeting, and I’m going to do a better report, and I’m going to do this and that,” and you spent a lot of time thinking about it.
But then when the meeting’s two days away, you say, “OK, I’m just going to go ahead and stick with the report we’ve always done. I’m just going to turn it out. I know it’s not good, but I can do better next time.” We think about ourselves in the future, our brain lights up like we’re thinking about a completely different person.
It’s really easy to commit future Melina to doing a better report next time. And then when the rubber hits the road, it’s me again. I’m going to keep kicking that out if I don’t have this kind of awareness. So when we have a lot of deadlines, when we have a lot of competing information, we have a lot of busy work, we are, again, less creative.
We’re more likely to be rooted in that status quo and that stress and time pressure makes it so that it’s difficult to be creative and to care about the bigger picture. We get really myopic, it’s just not good for business.
Well, but what’s the alternative? Because I think the whole world of capitalism is built around arbitrary or important deadlines. Bonuses go out by March 15, or we need to meet the board of directors on October 1, whatever it is, there are always deadlines. So is there a different way to think about those deadlines that might help us creatively and productively?
Yeah. So it’s important to be taking the time to step back and say, what is actually important? If we can only do one big thing this quarter, what would it be? We also have this tendency, it feels really good to have 10 things on your to-do list, even if you don’t accomplish them ever.
And we’ve all put stuff on the list again and again and again, and the idea of coming in tomorrow and having only one thing on your to-do list feels bad. Like I’m not doing enough, something is wrong here. But if it’s the right thing and I can get through in this sort of tortoise and the hare mentality, I’m going to do one thing today, and that’s the most important thing, and then I can get some other stuff done.
So when we have 10 things on the list and we get through three of them, we then think, oh man, maybe tomorrow will be better, but feel a little bit bad. And now we have 17 things on tomorrow’s to-do list, and it just snowballs. We never really make that much progress. If you have one thing on the list, and you get the same three things done, you are a superhero. You’re amazing.
And it can be a snowball of positive there. So when we reduce the things that matter and people are all aligned on the priority, we know that this quarter, this is the thing that matters, and we’re focusing on projects that are aligned with this. And maybe when we get really good at that, it can be one project we’re able to get through in a month.
Instead of having 10 projects that stretch out over two or three years, we can really focus on one thing, get it done, and then move on to the next and the next. It’s actually much more efficient and effective if you work on less things, but the right things in the right order.
No, I’m 100% with you. As an athlete, I have learned to do less and do it better. I don’t need to train at 80% five days a week, and in fact, that strategy is going to burn me out. And when I need to perform at that high level, there’s no way I can do it. I love having a behavioral psychologist on the show because I think I’m wired differently.
I’ll just give you this example. I was giving a talk the other day, and the person before me was late and so I only had 40 minutes instead of an hour. And they’re like, “Oh my gosh, are you going to be OK?” And I’m like, “You’re darn right I’m going to be OK, because I’m getting paid for 60 minutes and I only have to do 40 minutes worth of work. I’m thrilled.”
So am I the outlier in the business world because I love to do less? I love to show up and do less, but do it better. Must just be me and like 22 other people in this world because everybody else I know is the example that you gave. They have 10 things on the list, they’re scattered, they give extra, and in giving their extra, it actually dilutes their worth. Do you know what I’m saying?
Absolutely. Yeah. And I would say you are an exception to a common rule, and there are probably areas of your life where that doesn’t fully fit. That you’ve maybe worked to be to this point. And maybe you had a shift in mental framing at some point. Maybe not.
For sure. I mean, I always tried to overpromise, overdeliver, right, wow the clients. And in that I burnt myself out so badly and it eroded everything — my health, my fertility, my marriage, my world.
And I just felt like if I needed to do something and make a commitment, I needed to do less of it, but do it better. Then it turns out behavioral psychologists like you were like, “Yeah, right on.” So I love that framework. I love that you’re an advocate for it.
I’m so struck, though, by how people can’t change even when they’re given good information. Like, if you change your behavior, you’re going to be a superstar at work. If you do one thing, you’re going to be amazing. I know our brains are broken or wired differently, but why is change so freaking hard? Can you please tell me?
Well, a big piece is because we’re trying to do too many things at once, and because the brain likes the status quo, and anything that is change takes some time. So when we think about those 35,000 decisions and so much that’s being done by the subconscious processing. And you’re trying to use willpower, and you’re not really understanding the problem, and trying to have 10 priorities at one time, because we have an optimism bias — we think we’re better, faster, stronger than everyone else. So we should be able to get through these things faster. We hear it, but we don’t really hear it. And our brain, again, likes to keep us safe. So with the willpower thing, and talking just a little bit about habits. So I love a chai tea latte. I know they’re not good for me. I know this.
I mean, are they not good for you? I have a —
They’re good for my psyche, right?
Yeah. Yeah And chai is amazing, so come on now. Yeah.
Right. But the Starbucks chai, I know there’s a lot of sugar in that. It’s not great for me, but if I try to say — let’s say there’s a Starbucks on my way to work. I live in Seattle, there’s a Starbucks everywhere. So there’s one on the path that I always take and I say, today I’m going to be better.
I’m like, “Melina, I’ve changed. I’m not going to do this. I don’t need to stop today,” but my brain knows when it sees the logo or has context and cues driving down the road to know that the chai is close. And if I think I’m going to use willpower when it’s all those same things leading up to me, I’m already in the drive-thru and saying again, “Tomorrow I’m going to do better, but today I’ve got a little bit of extra time. I got that important meeting, I need this.”
I can logic all of that. If I take a different route to work that doesn’t go by the Starbucks, I don’t have the same context and cues, and I may not feel that need that I have to stop. And I can take willpower — which is very fleeting — I can take that out of the equation, and I can make that decision when I’m in a cold state instead of that hot state. And it can make a huge difference in what I end up doing, but again, I can’t do that for everything.
No, no. And you can’t be avoidant for everything. I mean, you can’t just avoid your boss who triggers your anxiety, although many of us try. So yeah.
Right. Yeah. So if we focus on a few things, the right things, and know that it will take time — and it is easy in understanding how it works. The application isn’t necessarily the easiest, because it takes some effort, but you can absolutely have a difference.
Like you said, that shift in your mindset, that I’m sure took some time. It wasn’t just like you woke up and said, “Ta-da. Today, I’m this way.”
No, no. I mean, my DNA is lazy, but absolutely it took me years to cultivate this approach to work. But I like what you’re saying. I mean, it’s a process, and there are different strategies that we can use. And that’s the beauty of your book, really talking about the different strategies we can all use to be more effective at work, better communicators, better leaders and better self-leaders.
So if you had to leave us with a thought about your book, a reason why as a manager or an employee we should pick it up. What’s in it for us?
Well, if you would like to have work and relationships with the people around you that don’t suck, that seems like a big win and a reason to be able to do that. But just to have truly everything around you can be just a little bit easier. Seems like it’s worth the time to read and get the little wins, and I promise it’s not boring.
Well, we’re so excited to have all of your information in our show notes, but if people want to look you up real quick and find you, where could they go to learn more about you and the book?
Thank you so much. The best place for everyone to go would be my website, thebrainybusiness.com. You can find my podcast and books and ways to connect with me there.
And also for all of your listeners, now that you’ve heard a little bit, you’re excited and you’re just on the fence, not quite sure, you can get the first chapter of the book for free if you go to thebrainybusiness.com/punkrockhr.
You can go and get that first chapter, give it a read, see if it feels like a fit for you. And if so, then you’re welcome to move forward from there.
Amazing. Friend of the podcast, great behavioral psychologist and amazing marketer, Melina, thank you so much for being on the show today.
Of course. Thanks so much for having me.
Hey everybody, I hope you enjoyed this episode of Punk Rock HR. We are proudly underwritten by The Starr Conspiracy. The Starr Conspiracy is the B2B marketing agency for innovative brands creating the future of workplace solutions. For more information, head on over to thestarrconspiracy.com.
Punk Rock HR is produced and edited by Rep Cap, with special help from Michael Thibodeaux and Devon McGrath. For more information, show notes, links and resources, head on over to punkrockhr.com. Now, that’s all for today, and I hope you enjoyed it. We’ll see you next time on Punk Rock HR.