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The Hospital CEO who went Undercover as a Porter

In her book How to Have a Good Day, psychologist Caroline Webb draws on behavioural science to improve our understanding of why we behave the way we do at work.

How to Have a Good Day (Book)

It helps redefine the very tired ‘personal productivity’ canon of business and self-help books, whose main insights after decades and hundreds of books seem to be:

1) Make lists (Dave Allen) and

2) Focus on only a few things and ignore everyone and everything that tries to push you off track (great for collaborative working, dontcha think?)

What Caroline Webb does is recognise that the people we work with are, guess what, people.

How you behave is key

Caroline Webb

Webb spreads the net of personal and team productivity to include not just WHAT you do but HOW YOU BEHAVE.

Of course checklists are useful, says Webb. But then gives us a psychologist’s insight into the little burst of ‘feel good’ chemicals you get when you tick a box, and how that’s addictive and you’ll tick till you’ve finished your list (sometimes) and go home thinking ‘job done’ under Dave Allen-type personal productivity thinking, which is completely self-centred and shallow (that’s me dissing Dave Allen, not Caroline Webb).

Webb introduces the need to inspire yourself and others with reasons, like the ‘personal why’. The neat little story is below as an excerpt. We at the Leadership Hub like this story as it illustrates an aspect of leadership we feel is vital and rarely practised: Leaders need to be where the business is actually done, as often as possible, not shut in their meetings in offices, a distant figure to the rest of the organisation.

(You can be everywhere virtually, by the way, with one of our digital leadership communities that make your top team ‘present’ in all corners of the business, regardless of geography, but that’s just a gratuitous plug).

Here’s the Story:


“….I once heard a nice example of this kind of ‘personal why’ from a community hospital CEO.  David was new to his organisation and still not a familiar face to staff, so he decided to spend a day working under-cover as an anonymous orderly to get some insight into how it felt on the front lines of his organisation.  David busied himself ferrying patients from the emergency room to wards and from wards to operating theatres, learning a little more about his hospital with every step.

At one point, he came across a guy who was prodding a swinging door with a screwdriver.  David asked the handy man what he was doing.  The man looked up and said ‘I’m fixing the hinge so it opens more easily; it’s too stiff so when you’re pushing patients on gurneys through the doors, it gives them a nasty jolt – that’s not going to help them get better, is it?’

Of course, the handy man had been handed a task list for the day by his boss and he was steadily working through it. It could have been dull, a grind, but in his mind the goal was not just to fix the door, it was to reduce harm to patients. Making the connection to something he cared about encouraged him to treat the tasks more like his own, intrinsic goals, giving him more satisfaction and, all the evidence suggests, resulting in better performance too.”

I love the way the emerging behavioural sciences are re-defining productivity for leaders and managers. The further away we move from the self-serving ‘get the monkey off my back and onto someone else’s’, the closer we get to collaborative leadership that serves the organisation, its people and customers, rather than our own career and need to get things off our desks to appear productive and in control.

Because that isn’t leadership. That’s the illusion of control.

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