Take a minute and think about a moment that stands out in your memory—a moment that had special resonance and meaning for you. What comes to mind almost immediately for me is my first trip to India and, specifically, a magical evening I spent in the city of Varanasi. I have mostly forgotten the interminable hours spent traveling between destinations on that trip—my mind focuses on the shorter, but far more memorable, peak moments.
In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman demonstrates that our rational, logical minds account for a small part of how we interpret and act upon the world. Instead, our thinking is largely governed by a slew of cognitive biases that help us move quickly through a complicated and complex world—often at the price of being accurate or right. Two of the biases that remain most fascinating to me are “duration neglect” and the “peak-end rule.”
Kahneman suggests a distinction between our “experienced” and “remembered” selves. The remembering self doesn’t care about the length of a pleasant or unpleasant experience. Instead, that self-determines happiness by the “peak level” of pain or pleasure in the experience—and, how the experience ends.
In addition to not being sensitive to duration, in certain situations, we also remember endings more vividly than other parts of an experience and endings have an outsized impact on our experience. I’ve noticed that people who’ve gone through bitter divorces don’t seem to remember the years when their marriages were happy. The end is remembered. Alternately, a mediocre experience with a great ending leaves us feeling better than makes any rational sense.
Kahneman’s larger point is that it is the remembering self, not the experiencing self, who is calling the shots. A college student’s decision about repeating a spring-break vacation is determined by their experience of how their last vacation ended (the peak-end rule) rather than the moment by moment experience of the vacation. “Odd as it may seem,” Kahneman writes, “I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me.”
Think again about the moment that stands out in your memory. If you’re like me, it isn’t a moment that happened at work. In fact, I noticed, when scanning for possible choices, that most of the stand-out moments in my life happened outside of work—when traveling, at special lifecycle events, or in quieter, but equally powerful experiences with family and friends. Few of these moments are associated with the fifteen years I spent at my last company.
After reading the Heath Brothers’ new book, The Power of Moments, I realized that this is often the way things are—but perhaps not the way that they ought to be. Chip and Dan Heath explore the value of moments, and how we use what we know about our “remembering selves” to engineer them—to consciously create these moments (or at least the conditions for them to occur). They argue that, “If we understand what powerful moments are made of, we can be intentional about creating them. And the right moment can have extraordinary power.”
As I read this book, I thought not only about how to create these experiences—but whether this is part of the job a leader—and, if it is, how it shifts our understanding of the leader’s work. Why take on the role of “experience-shaper?” Why care about creating powerful experiences? And, how does seeing oneself in this role shift the work of being a leader?
Dan Heath, in an interview for Wired magazine comments that, “In a lot of organizations, employees go five years, maybe ten years without having a really special moment at work. That is a travesty.”
He also says that actively creating powerful moments has multiple benefits: “It will improve employee engagement, employee retention and employee loyalty. It matters to people when you pay attention to the moments that mean something.” So, one big answer to “why” is highly practical.
Another reason the authors give is not as practical. They argue that the “exceptional minutes and hours and days—they are what makes life meaningful. And they are ours to create.” These moments make life better. They are an end in and of themselves. And, what I also believe the authors are suggesting (and if they aren’t—then I am), is that we ought to be able to bring and experience our entire self at work. Work can be a place where we have extraordinary experiences.
The authors posit four defining elements of powerful moments: elevation, insight, pride and connection. At least one of these is required for a moment to be meaningful. Sometimes, these moments are big—like bringing an entire organization together from around the country to kick off a culture change effort. Other moments are small and personal. A heartfelt and significant act of recognition can result in a powerful moment. A powerful conversation can do the same.
Both in the book and in subsequent interviews, the Heath brothers have highlighted the opportunities that many organizations miss by overlooking obvious opportunities to create memorable experiences. First days on a job are transitional moments, yet they are often filled with paperwork and boring orientations—waiting for your computer to show up and meeting a lot of people, often without a lot of context. “When a life transition lacks a ‘moment,’ … it can become formless.” They contrast this formlessness with the example of John Deere and how it celebrates the first day. As Dan Heath describes in Wired, the company designs the first day with great care:
Employees received a proper induction: someone met them in the carpark and showed them to their desk; they show you a flat-screen TV that says your name and “welcome”; people come and introduce themselves all day and there’s a six-foot-tall banner set up next to your cubicle alerting people to the fact you are new. You are taken out to lunch by your boss and you receive a package on your desk which informs you of the company’s history and their aims, making you feel connected to the company’s mission. It was an experience that made the employee feel like they belonged and the work they did mattered, and that people were paying attention to them.
Using Chip and Dan Heath’s terminology, this is an example of elevation, connection, and even pride. When we start thinking in moments, designing key transitions to be memorable seems obvious. In addition, we can also look for ways to make every day experiences stand out. We spend most of our time in meetings—where opportunities abound for creating meaning—if we start looking. However, “the more routine something is in general, the less memorable it is. If you want to have a memorable meeting, for instance, then you’ve got to break the script somehow and disrupt the usual flow from what people expect from a certain experience.”
How do we break the script in a meeting? One way that struck me is ensuring that we include opportunities for meaningful, memorable conversation. The Actionable Conversations Platform is a great example of how to do just that—and it’s all about creating stand-out moments. We remember significant conversations far better than the review of our day-to-day agenda items. By engineering those significant conversations, we can create those experiences and help to punctuate the day-to-day with the memorable.
Lest this seem like a lot of work, keep in mind that possibly the most powerful moments at work, that combine pride and connection, are often the smallest and least difficult to engineer. They are moments of recognition–where we stop and meaningfully acknowledge another person’s achievement—be it large or small. As Dan Heath argues:
Recognition is mostly a moment of pride, but I think it’s extra powerful because moments of recognition share elements of pride, connection and insight that we identified in our research. In our work, it became clear that people’s defining moments were often citing things that felt small on the surface… Even a compliment that feels small is something that people may well remember in years to come. That’s why recognition is so powerful…it should not be arbitrary or enforced. Effective recognition is nothing fancier than one person saying, “I saw what you did and I appreciated it.”
As we start to think about memorable experiences, it’s valuable to consider the relationship between moments and goals. Chip and Dan Heath point out that organizational goals, especially the numerical ones we set, are not inherently motivating—and lack milestones along the way. We use these goals to set a direction, to hold people accountable—but not to “improve the experience of the human beings who are being held accountable.”
Years ago, when I began to get interested in how our brains worked, and to understand the incredible power of attention, I revised the slogan “what gets measured, gets done” to “what gets attention, gets done.” I think it’s both more accurate and more potent. If we attend to experiences, using the tools that Chip and Dan Heath offer us as well as our own inherent knowledge about what makes an experience powerful, we can and will create more moments. And, if we create more stand-out moments at work, we will build a more people-centric and positive culture.
Thinking in moments requires a shift in mindset. We need to recognize that goals and plans and strategies matter, but are not all that matters. We can tap into the way our brains work, our propensity to remember and be influenced by our peak experiences, and begin to “think in moments” as leaders. I’m confident that not only will we build better cultures and workplaces, but we’ll enrich our own lives as well.