How Personal Well-Being Leads to Event Success

Author: Michelle Russell       

Andrew Sykes presents at a 2018 business event in San Diego. Sykes believes the 11th habit of high performance companies and individuals need to adopt is self-care. (Courtesy Habits at Work)

Until we’re able to change an important narrative in our workplace culture, writes Andrew Sykes in his new book, The 11th Habit: Design Your Company Culture to Foster the Habits of High Performance, companies and organizations will struggle to succeed. The accepted narrative — that we need to serve our customers and our organizations at the expense of ourselves, he writes with co-author Hanlie van Wyk — needs to be replaced with the line of thinking that we serve our customers and the organizations we work for by first investing in ourselves.

According to Sykes — who founded the Behavioral Research Applied Technology Laboratory (BRATLAB) and has consulted for decades with clients including Shell Oil, McDonald’s, and British Aerospace — that means tending to our own health, happiness, and security, and fostering that ethic in our business environments. In other words (spoiler alert), the 11th habit we need to adopt is self-care. Surprisingly, that’s at odds with the whole notion of work/life balance, a “myth,” Sykes writes, which “requires us to think of ourselves as two people: our work selves and our home selves. The concept is that while these two selves each have needs
and wants and time that should be balanced, they should remain separated.”

While we seem to take for granted that work will spill into our home lives, the opposite — that we bring our personal lives to work — is not widely accepted. “Speaking to colleagues or managers about our health, personal finances, and relationships lies somewhere on the scale between awkward and inappropriate and even illegal. … Until we create a culture in our workplaces that recognizes there is only one you,” he writes, we are robbed of “the opportunity to support each other and our employees for our mutual benefit. Our humanity is being left at home when we head to work, and we all pay the price.”

Convene spoke with Sykes, who presented a session at PCMA Convening Leaders 2019 last month in Pittsburgh, about how to embrace self-care — in our own workplaces and in the ways we design business event environments.

What led you to write this book?


“The 11th Habit: Design Your Company Culture to Foster the Habits of High Performance,” by Andrew Sykes and Hanlie Van Wyk

It is our view, after 15 years of research, that how people show up to work very strongly determines the business outcomes that the company gets. And what we mean by that is, most people show up in some form of less-than-optimal energy, meaning they’re either stressed out about their finances or their family or something that’s going on in their life, or they are tired or exhausted — maybe burnt out, in the worst case. They generally have not slept enough, and there’s a massive and continuing state of disengagement in businesses around the world. Or said more simply, we think that people show up less than fully healthy, happy, and financially secure, and that those gaps between how people show up and how they could show up have a very direct impact on their performance and the cost of being at work.

But it’s difficult to see the impact because there’s no line item on a financial statement that says, “The cost of someone being tired today,” even though it may lead to accidents at work, or shoddy work, or deadlines missed, or discontent between employees. The problem isn’t one of measurement, and therefore, it doesn’t get the attention that it deserves. And, in our view, the biggest, single, untapped source of competitive advantage is having the team that is best prepared to perform. In other words, if you have two accountants, and one who shows up full of energy, free from stress around life, finances, and work, and they are really engaged with their job and happy to be there, they will do a remarkably different job compared to someone who’s stressed out, exhausted, and worried about life. Yet we assume those two people, if they have the same resume, are likely to do the same amount of work with the same [level of] quality, and it’s just not true.

You make the point that yet it’s those people who log in those long hours and make personal sacrifices that tend to be rewarded by organizations.

Yes, and perversely so, because they are often working harder but not getting a better outcome. They’re often sacrificing their health at the altar of the company, which, in fact, costs the company more, versus people who take some time off to attend to their own health. We think the fundamental problem is we have this almost Calvinistic, Protestant view that sacrifice of ourselves equals being a heroic employee, versus the mindset that investing in myself is the work I do in order to serve others best.

Your book is intended for leaders of organizations or teams. What can you do if you’re not in one of those positions and work in an organization for which self-care is not a core value?

Well, the first thing I would say is that you’re not alone, because, frankly, I think that is the case in almost every organization I’ve ever come across. But that, secondly, what you should focus on is your commitment rather than other people’s expectations. If your commitment is to [make] an extraordinary contribution to your customers and company, then even though other people will be judging you by hours worked, the courageous decision is focus on yourself first in order to produce the output that you’re committed to. It’s an interesting phenomenon of social life that people tend to copy the example of those around them. And, although everyone says senior leadership needs to be on board to create a culture change, we humbly disagree that that’s sufficient to get the job done — what’s also required is people on the ground choosing to act differently as a contagious model for those around them, including the people to whom they report. We think culture change is both bottom-up and top-down and either on their own is insufficient.

Why do you call self-care “the 11th habit”?

We spent 15 years trying to convince companies that they should invest in people’s health, happiness, and security first, and mostly companies and people don’t care about their health, happiness, and security until it’s too late — or similar to the old saying, that it’s the 11th hour when people get to do things. And what we found — and it may be our biggest insight in the last 15 years — is that for both companies and people, in order to earn the right to help them obtain their health, happiness, and security, you first have to help them be awe- some people in the world. And the 10 habits that we focus on in business, turn people into magnetic human beings that are really successful at work. And if you help someone be that, then you can help them also look after their health, happiness, and security. We wish it was the other way around — that companies and people would attend to this 11th habit as their first — but we don’t think that it’s the way the world works or the way people think.

Would you say this lack of self-care in the workplace is more pronounced in the U.S.?

I would say that America, like in many things, leads the world in this area, though, in this case, it’s not a great thing to be leading the world in. I think a few interesting things come together in America. One is, by definition, being a country of immigrants. We are people who are used to struggling and working hard and have this amazing work ethic, because that’s what it took to survive in the new world that was America at its birth, and I think this pursuit of the American dream has people working harder and longer in the service of whatever we think the promise of the American dream might be for us. And it’s not an accident that Americans take less leave than almost any other country, and we are amongst the most productive — but I don’t think that our productivity is so much about our hours worked as it is about the ingenuity of our people.

And I also think Americans are a very charitable country, in the sense that we are really committed to serving other people: our kids, our companies, our customers, and in some people’s lives, their creator or their view of a higher power. They all seem to be people or objects that we put ahead of our own needs. Now I’m not saying other countries don’t have the same phenomenon. I do think it’s a global phenomenon. In Asia-Pacific, there’s even a stronger version of that, which is that the collective is more important than the individual. The driver may be different elsewhere and the environment may be different elsewhere.

Switching gears a bit, self-care tends to take a back seat for attendees at conferences and conventions — long hours, lots of sitting, lack of control over meals, etc. How can they be better designed?

That’s a great question, and I think the first realization is, just like with companies, most of the efforts at health and wellness for people sit apart from the work, almost an apology for the impact that the work has, like: “We expect you to work from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., but, don’t worry, we’ve got a wellness program for when you’re stressed out and we hope it helps you at night.” And so that’s never going to work because people have families to go to and they have a life to live, and so our view is you have to build work to be fundamentally healthy from the ground up. And I have the same view about conferences, that rather than saying, “Well, we have this morning yoga class you can attend separate from the conference,” or “We have a number-of-steps competition that happens around the conference,” my question would be: How can you build healthy habits into the sessions themselves?

There’s nothing that says you can’t start the keynote with two minutes of squats that everyone does, and that may seem weird and unusual, but with a little bit of imagination, it can be not only a lot of fun, but the payoff is enormous because we know from the research that how much people remember is directly related to whether or not they did a small burst of exercise just prior to a learning opportunity. What you care about in your conference is people attend a great keynote and remember it and do something with the material. It almost obliges you to prime them to be ready to absorb the material and remember it, and exercise is one of the best ways to do that, and so is making sure that they don’t show up hung over.

I’m not advocating for killing the fun because there are benefits to networking and I’m sure alcohol lubricates that very well. But I would rather plan for a grand finale on the last night. [Instead], the way many conferences happen is that on night one, everyone drinks too much and day two is poorly attended and people are struggling to get through the day. But the question I always hold in mind is: Are we designing our event so that at the end of every day, people leave informed and educated and having a great experience, but also just a little bit healthier than when they arrived in the morning?

If you leave it to people to choose healthy, they’re likely not to, so you need to make it the default — like the food is healthy, period.

Social context is something you address in the book. How can that be harnessed at an event to create beneficial networks as people come together?

The first thing to notice about the social context is smart people follow the example of those around them. The greatest role that the social context can play is to make what’s unusual easy for other people to do because, as soon as there’s a core group of people, say, doing squats at the beginning of a keynote, it removes embarrassment for other people, it gives them direction, and it just makes it easy. As an organizer, I would be thinking, what habits do I want my 50 people [on my team] who are in attendance at a thousand-person conference to practice, to model for attendees? I think that many event organizers view their team on site as making sure that their logistics work, and maybe they could consider there’s another role.

Might that other role be to work as what you call “change agents”? And might there be an opportunity to have repeat attendees do this as well?

Exactly right. I would distinguish two types of things: change agents, who are brave volunteers who lead by example, and then champions, who might be your repeat customers, who are your early adopters and who get on board and who make it safe for everyone else to participate. Other language that might work is that the leader and the first follower are both necessary people in a movement. Without the leader, there’s nothing to follow. Without the first follower, there’s no movement.

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