The Business Case for Happiness with Matt Phelan

Matt Phelan is an entrepreneur, the Co-Founder and CEO of The Happiness Index. He’s also the author of Freedom To Be Happy: The Business Case for Happiness. In the superb episode you can learn from Matt:

  • How to turn emotions like happiness into business metrics.
  • What the business case for happiness is.
  • The role neuroscience plays in happiness.
  • Why happy people are also the most productive.

Transcript:Thanks to Jermaine Pinto at JRP Transcribing for being our Partner. Contact Jermaine via LinkedIn or via his site JRP Transcribing Services

The Leadership Hacker News

Steve Rush: On today’s show, we explore the notion of, “is crisis caused by communication?” And the reason we’re focusing on this today is there are a number of different things happening globally, where because of communication; situations have arisen that might not have existed in the first place. Here’s a few examples. There was a chip shortage around the world. Now, not a potato crisp or a bag of chips if you’re in the UK, but the electronic chip come under great shortage due to supply and demand issues. And the reason that’s happened is due to supply and demand due to supply chains, and of course, the COVID pandemic has massively impacted on it. But because of the hype that’s been caused by the communication, It has caused manufacturers to overbuy, also causing big motor engineering companies and electronic manufacturers to grab hold of every supply they can. Therefore, rocketing price and reducing the market flow that would ordinarily be there.

Early in the pandemic we saw the same thing happen with supermarkets, where we were told that there would be a shortage of supply. Of course, it wasn’t. Yet many people still bought toilet rolls to fill spare rooms and pasta that would last a year. Most recently in the UK, we have a driver shortage for haulage firms and lorry drivers. Taking our fuel and our goods and services around the country. And as such, the media said there might be a fuel shortage. And guess what? You’re right. Panic buying at the pumps, people filling up cans and cans of petrol, diesel and fuel. Supermarkets going bare, why? Because the media is driving something that perhaps wouldn’t be there had we just carry on our day-to-day life and routines.

So, what’s the leadership hack? Well, if we think about how people respond to communication, if we have a perceived problem or a perceived threat that may not be true, and communicate it early, we could reinforce behaviors that could actually make that problem become a reality much sooner. And it may be the problem that wouldn’t have arrived. Had we rethought our communication strategy and approach. So, the leadership lesson here is, if we think there may be a problem, be sure that there is a problem before you communicate it. Have foundations, have evidence because unintentional communication can send people down a rabbit hole and lead to challenge and adversity. Thank you for those have raised this through our social media platforms with us this week, so that we could bring it to the attention of our listeners. If you also have some stories or insights that you want us to hear, let’s get in touch. In the meantime, let’s get on with the show.

Start of Podcast

Steve Rush: Matt Phelan is the Co-Founder and CEO of The Happiness Index. He’s also the author of Freedom To Be Happy: The Business Case for Happiness, Matt, welcome to The Leadership Hacker Podcast.

Matt Phelan: Thanks for inviting me on.

Steve Rush: Delighted you’re here too. So, tell us, how did you end up running and leading The Happiness Index and what is it?

Matt Phelan: So as with most of these good stories, complete accident, so when I was twenty-five, I started a marketing agency and we used to have a saying that employees come first, not the customer. So, we were the opposite. We didn’t believe the customer came first. And over a ten-year period, we delivered something like thirty-three quarters of growth. I’m a data geek, and I started to wonder whether that was true, because it sounds good, doesn’t it? Your customers will be happy and the business will grow. But as a geek, I’ve got a very inquisitive mind that I wanted to find out if it was true. So, we built a piece of code to correlate at the beginning. Just to understand the correlation. Is there a correlation between employee happiness and customer happiness? And then our customers of our marketing agency started asking for the code. And we said, you can’t have it. It’s a rubbish, rubbish piece of code. We’d be ashamed to show at twenty-one, but like most entrepreneurs we saw more and more phone calls came in. So eventually we realized that there was probably a business here called The Happiness Index. And it went from being an internal tool to being a business entity in its own rights.

Steve Rush: So as an organization, how might I use it?

Matt Phelan: So, you would use it, I would say to start off with, to visualize your culture, to figure out where you are. And once you know where you are, you can start to plot where you want to go. So, we say, it’s an upgrade on employee engagement. It does measure employee engagement, but also includes employee happiness, which we think is subtly and importantly different.

Steve Rush: So, how would you describe happiness, Matt? Somebody asked you over a beer, what is happiness? How do you response?

Matt Phelan: Yeah, there’s technical scientific answer, isn’t there? I love your question, Steve. And this is why I’m sort of filling to try and answer, which is, I would say, it’s your happiness of how you experience it is just a window into everything else. Like your wellbeing, how you are in life? I see it as a data point. I know that’s a very geeky way of seeing happiness, but I think your own happiness can be a way of understanding how the rest of your life is. That could be in your personal life. That could be in your career. That could be in your relationship.

Steve Rush: And your hesitance was because you were going down that kind of geeky data space, right?

Matt Phelan: Yeah.

Steve Rush: Tell us a bit about what’s the flip side of that kind of emotional response then?

Matt Phelan: Yeah, so the reason I hesitated is because we collect this information in over a hundred countries. So, I’m in the spreadsheets every day, but what I can share with you is like, everyone’s different, right? So, my happiness is different to your happiness and so on and so on. But there are huge trends that we have that are similar and also different. But if I give you the top four which is, we define happiness as what the heart needs. So, to give the analogy, if you were thinking of a car, we say engagement is the sat nav. So, it’s like the direction. So, it’s the clear direction where you’re going, what the route is going to be. Whereas happiness is that energy that you need to get there. I used to say, it’s the petrol in the car, but it’s, I think it’s electric vehicle week Steve.

Steve Rush: It is indeed, yeah.

Matt Phelan: I have moved to electric. So, I’m trying to find a new, so let’s say it’s the electric in the car. The sat nav is the engagement and the happiness is the electric, is that energy, but the top four are psychological safety, positive relationships, freedom to take opportunities and feelings of acknowledgement.

Steve Rush: And are they consistent in all of the teams that you work with and the organizations you work with? Do you see that those manifest themselves in positive score?

Matt Phelan: So, relationships is always number one. But what is number two, changes per person, per company, per country or region?

Steve Rush: Interesting, yeah.

Matt Phelan: I know you have a lot of North American listeners, Steve. I pulled out an example from the data for you. So, European companies often lumped together. The United States of America and Canada, which we shouldn’t for many reasons, but in our head, we see this kind of like geographical mass. If you take all the American data and all the Canada data. In America that the second most important thing, and I’m going to add engagement now and happiness together. The second most important thing in America is actually an engagement metric, which is a clear direction. In Canada, it’s acknowledgement. So, you could look from over from Europe, you could look over the pond and think they’re very similar in terms of their culture and so on and so on, but there’s a clear difference every time we run that data, I’ve got some views and why I think that is and feel free to jump in Steve and why you think that might be, but that’s what we see in the data, very clear different. So, if you’re an HR Director that indicates that you need a different strategy for the different locations.

Steve Rush: I think it’s probably a few things that kick around there, isn’t there? You have some cultural differences between Canada and the rest of the U.S.

Matt Phelan: Yeah.

Steve Rush: Which could present itself in the results you get. But also, I would imagine that even within Inter-country and inter-regions, there are nuances that are also different, right?

Matt Phelan: Yeah, absolutely. And I don’t want to get political, but I think in America, in the United States of America, your employment is very much tied to also things like your healthcare.

Steve Rush: Of course, yeah.

Matt Phelan: If you think about that, if you think about, I’m in London, if the happiness index failed and I lost my job and my family would still retain their health care. So, acknowledgement can be higher. It’s a bit like the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But if you know that if you were to lose your job and you would lose your health care. Clear clarity on what your role is, is hyper important, Isn’t it?

Steve Rush: Absolutely.

Matt Phelan: So, you think it would be the same for everyone, but we’re human beings and those underlining elements change how we are in the workforce.

Steve Rush: That’s really fascinating. And I guess also organizations make assumptions about what makes people happy, right?

Matt Phelan: Yes, every single day. And we all do it consciously and subconsciously.

Steve Rush: So, what would be some of those assumptions and how right or wrong are they?

Matt Phelan: So, let me run a live case study for you in a real life. There European pan wide retailer, they were focused. The HR team said to us when they briefed us before they did their cultural assessment, that the number one priority is staff retention. Which is a normal thing to hear.

Steve Rush: Yep.

Matt Phelan: When we ran their first cultural assessment. And we cross-reference that with their financial performance data, we found that the managers of the stores that had the highest performing stores financially had been in the business the shortest amount of time.

Steve Rush: Fascinating, yeah.

Matt Phelan: So, the reason that is an important assumption is, the assumption is, retain staff things will be better if we retain our staff. What they found is, the newer managers had happier teams and were performing financially better. So, this is where it’s important to not make an assumption again, the second assumption. So, the first assumption was staff retention was the most important thing. The second assumption, and then the next bit is where you can easily lump into assumptions again, which is, for example, you could think, okay, after five years, the employees get bored or lazy, or you could make an assumption actually after five years, we’ve we just left people alone and actually they need training. So maybe they need to call Steve Rush and think about how they can develop people over the entire employee experience. So that’s where data just gets rid of the assumptions, because you could make so many assumptions on those two things, we’ve discussed there Steve.

Steve Rush: I’d love to get into that whole notion of how you take all of these data points and map that into something that is typically been described as something pink and fluffy. Happiness, it’s an emotion, right? So, how do you shift from taking an emotion and turning into a business metric?

Matt Phelan: Yeah, it’s really hard for me to answer that because I’m so converted the other way, and I deal with this every day, but I’m going to go out and try and take a step back. So, I think the first stumbling block and the first change in people’s mind is a business term called, if you can measure it, you can manage it.

Steve Rush: You hear it a lot, don’t you?

Matt Phelan: You hear it a lot. I believe that to be wildly untrue. And what I would change it for is, and I say this as a measurement company, if you can measure it, you can better understand it, which is a subtle change, right, Steve. But I think we’ve gone down this road where we almost view people as robots. And we think, oh, if we can measure it, we can manage it. But I think, and this is quite a big concept to put out there. But I think the entire idea of management is flawed.

Steve Rush: It’s Ironically made up too. We created management in the last hundred years, it didn’t happen before that.

Matt Phelan: Exactly, and it goes back, this is sort of taylorism and the factory floor stuff, isn’t it?

Steve Rush: Right.

Matt Phelan: So, I think trying to see data as better understand, lead you to seeing data is helping you make better decisions. If we go back to your original question, how is this helping? And this is the second change that I would like to leave people. So, the first is not to use data to manage, but to better understand. The second one is, if we take a piece of data like revenue, generally, if revenue goes up, it’s good, and if it goes down, it’s bad. Emotions are supposed to fluctuate. It’s normal for you to feel happier at one stage in the day and feel unhappy at the other, that’s normal, right? So, trying to artificially get people to be happy all the time is actually not a good strategy. So, the second thing I want to leave your listeners with is to see emotional data, more like a weather report.

Steve Rush: Yeah, and can you forecast it?

Matt Phelan: You can certainly start to, we say, today’s emotions are an indicator of tomorrow’s performance, and that’s why we call it the happiness index, right? So, the reason I think this is useful is that if you’re a board and you’re looking at this data is giving you an indicator of what your future performance may look like. There are subtle shifts, but I think once you start to do that, you start to realize that actually these are important business metrics. They’re not the only business metric. They all have to work together. Just like you have revenue in your P&L. We now have companies as big as half a million employees that are measuring happiness in their board report.

Steve Rush: Yeah.

Matt Phelan: Times are changing, but it takes time to take people on that journey from the sort of taylorism that you say, like we’ve made up in the last a hundred years through to seeing happiness is a really important business metric.

Steve Rush: I totally agree, and productivity is a sidekick for happiness. Happy people are more productive than less happy people. You don’t need data to see that, you can see that around you in any store, in any factory, in any office location, happy people are more productive.

Matt Phelan: Yeah, and one of the things that we plot. We’re doing this on the modern version of radio. So, I’m going to try and draw it in your head for you. Happiness without engagement is unfocused. So, we see this in a lot of charities where they have happy staff, but not engaged.

Steve Rush: Yeah

Matt Phelan: But we also see the flip, which is highly engaged and unhappy, which is, you get this in a lot of organizations where they think they have a thriving culture when really what they have is a competitive culture which can show up some good metrics. But under the surface, lots of nasty little things are happening. It’s going to eventually hold back the growth. So yeah, if you imagine it as a full box quadrant, we want the top right box to be where people are happy and engage is what we’re trying to work towards.

Steve Rush: And you also, I know from the time that we’ve met before, you apply a lot of neurosciences, so this isn’t just about data, we’re talking about data and science and the people skills coming to this. So, what role does neuroscience play when we look at happiness?

Matt Phelan: Neuroscience is massive for us because if we think again, we’ve sort of looked at the history or business and taylorism, and so on and so on. If we look at the history of psychology, a lot of psychology is based on observation. Sorry if people eating their breakfast, but also dead brains. That’s where we got a lot of our understanding of the body and how we work, observing people in the workplace and also dissecting their bodies, which, sorry, if you are eating a breakfast that I’ve really offended you.

Steve Rush: Or any of the meal at any of the time, of course, being a globally diverse podcast.

Matt Phelan: Really good point, isn’t it? You should be allowed to be upset while eating your dinner as well. But I think what neuroscience just from a technical perspective is, it allows us to go under the hood and see what’s happening in a body in real time. So that a huge leap forward, but before everyone turns off the podcast. The reason I love it so much, let’s say you’re, let’s keep with a car, let’s say you in a car later, there’s a road rage incident, what neuroscience does is it helps you question why you acted in that way? Like, why did that person make me feel angry? Or when I had my meeting with my boss, why did I feel unsafe? Neuroscience is really just helping us understand the emotions. We divide it into four, how you instinctively feel, how you emotionally feel, how you actually feel and how you feel in a reflective basis. Which we think is really important. Businesses tend to be bad, understanding emotions and the instinctive behavior and focus on rational and reflective. But I think it goes back to that. If you can measure it, you can manage it quiet. It’s easier to measure and manage rational and reflective beings, but guess what, Steve, there’s no human beings out there that are holy. We’re all emotional and we’re all instinctive. And personally, that’s what I think makes us beautiful.

Steve Rush: Well, the emotion reaction comes first anyway from a neuroscience perspective, we’ll have an emotional reaction, which we either then can rationalize or not rationalize. And that’s where we hit that kind of fight, flight, freeze or appease moment.

Matt Phelan: Yeah, and that’s why we say from a neuroscience perspective, there’s no such thing as too emotional. So, if your boss made you angry, your emotional responses is how that makes you feel. Anger is just something you’re feeling. What you do with that anger is like the good or the bad thing. Because if you feel angry at your boss and then you punch them in the face, that’s illegal, right? In most countries. If there is country where it’s not, please tell me, Steve, that’s bad behavior, right? Punching your boss in the face is bad behavior, but it doesn’t change the fact that you instinctively and emotionally felt like that. And that’s why we see emotions like happiness as a data point. Because if your boss makes you feel unsafe, it’s important to step back and think, why does my boss make me feel unsafe? Maybe this is time to get out of here or speak to someone else or change role. But from a neuroscience perspective, telling someone they’re too emotional is like telling a parent that they love their children too much.

Steve Rush: That a great analogy. Yeah, love it. So, here’s the thing. Can you ever be

Too happy?

Matt Phelan: Yes, the answer Steve.

Steve Rush: Oh Okay!

Matt Phelan: To be happy all the time is a mental health issue as severe, as being unhappy all the time, which people are often shocked when they hear that. But our emotions are supposed to fluctuate and the fluctuation is what is important. This is kind of why I wrote my book. Self-help books, good to a certain degree, right? But if you have a chemical imbalance, which means you’re unhappy all the time. You need to go and get help to get out of that. And it would be the same if you were happy all the time, that would be a condition there that you would need help with. We took a lot at the moment about incongruous, did I said it right?

Steve Rush: Yeah, yeah, you nailed it.

Matt Phelan: Incongruous emotion. So, and incongruous emotion could be your mother dies, but you feel happy. So, you feel happy because she was in pain for five years. And you feel that she has had a release, but you feel guilty that you feel happy. The emotion that you feel happy, you can’t help how you are feeling in that moment. But what happens is, you can then end up feeling bad. Your rational brain can tell you to feel bad because you think you should be unhappy because your mother just died. So, these are all complex subjects, but it’s important to know that it will fluctuate. And the reason I bring up the incongruous bit, sometimes people end up on a downward spiral because they feel unhappy and they get annoyed that they’re not happy.

Steve Rush: And it makes it worse.

Matt Phelan: Yeah, certain event. The other way can happen as well. So, to answer your question. Yes, you can be too happy, which I think does surprise a few people when they hear that.

Steve Rush: Yeah, it does. And, I guess the reason that might surprise people is, because it’s easy to notice when people are less happy than when they are happy, right?

Matt Phelan: Yeah, and I think we need to bring up an elephant in the room on this one, Steve.

Steve Rush: Let’s do it.

Matt Phelan: Which is toxic positivity.

Steve Rush: Oh, go on…

Matt Phelan: We made this mistake when we first started The Happiness Index, which is, as soon as we built that software in our old company, we made happiness a target. As in, we said, we want our staff to be on average eight out of ten or above happiness. What I learned from doing that is, it’s a terrible idea and don’t do it. And the reasons it’s terrible idea, and don’t do it, is that if you saw someone in the office or down the pub, and they looked unhappy, it’s the equivalent of telling them to cheer up. If you tell somebody who’s unhappy to cheer up, the only thing that’s ever going to happen is, they’re going to get unhappy.

Steve Rush: That’s true, isn’t it? Very true.

Matt Phelan: Yeah, and it goes back to that, seeing it like a weather report, you can’t tell the rain not to rain and the sun not to shine. It’s just natural, this is what’s happening. So, all you can do, if you see someone unhappy is to be there and try and understand what’s driving that emotion. And if you can help then great. But if you can’t, your job, like we’ve all learned is to be there to listen. And actually, just the process of listening could actually really help people. But you need to get permission before you go into fixed mode because I think it’s an entrepreneurship thing and there’s also gender differences in this element, but I’m definitely somebody who likes to jump into fixing.

Steve Rush: Yeah.

Matt Phelan: Before I’ve been given permission that this person actually wants me to help. That’s definitely one of my own developments as leader that I’ve had to work on.

Steve Rush: And in terms of getting balance over the last eight months, two years, where we’ve gone through this crazy world, that we’ve been all experiencing, how has that kind of presented itself in terms of people’s happiness during and through the pandemic?

Matt Phelan: So, I’m going to use a word from the island in geography back in the day, which it’s been a kaleidoscope. I’ve just been waiting to get that word in really.  

Steve Rush: Yeah, I think it’s the first time anybody use that word on our podcast. So, congratulations, well done.

Matt Phelan: Thanks Steve, I’m going to send it to my mom. So, she’s proud of me, but I think in reality, it’s just been different. It’s been different for everyone, but there’s huge themes again. So, similar to what I was saying about global emotions, some people are happier. For example, introverts many introverts have preferred working from home. Because they don’t have people like me walking around the office, asking them how they are.

Steve Rush: Of course, they get their energy internally. So, they don’t need to be surrounded by other people to get their energy and focus.

Matt Phelan: Absolutely, some people have really struggled. I’ve really missed human connection myself. The relationships bit is definitely key, really important for me. The top level, the world was way unhappier in the last two years than it’s ever been recognized of unhappiness, just to get that on record. But where we’ve seen is, we’ve seen people want to communicate times for the normal amount.

Steve Rush: Wow, that’s a lot, isn’t it?

Matt Phelan: Yeah, which shows that the digital world is great. But it leaves you with what we call an emotional deficit. So, I think the digital world, I don’t want to get too much into hormones today, but I think the digital world really drives your dopamine. Like that reward signal thing that you get from all the social.

Steve Rush: Instant gratification.

Matt Phelan: Yeah, I think we get that a lot from tech and that’s not by accident. The Mark Zuckerberg of the world know how to design platforms to do that for us. But there’s a huge piece missing on connection there that sitting around the fire, having a chat, all that sort of stuff, you can get bits of it from the digital world. But ultimately, I do think there’s a real-world stuff that we need.

Steve Rush: Yeah, I agree. And given all the research and data points, you get, you’ve gathered data from all over the world. Has there been any pockets of happiness or sadness that spikes, or where’s the kind of happiest place to live right now and where would be the place that we might want to avoid?

Matt Phelan: So, this comes up a lot because the nordics always come out as the happiest place. But actually, I think if I’m really brutal with the analysis, I think all human beings, I don’t think there’s a happier country and a less happy country. There are facts that do come into it that we can’t ignore like war and famine.

Steve Rush: Of course, yeah.

Matt Phelan: There is no doubt that if you’re in Afghanistan at the moment; that it’s going to be impacting how you feel. But if we just take a normal situation, I think in reality, there’s measurement differences on it. So, I really encourage everyone to go back to what is important to you and your environment and what’s around you because. Denmark and so on, always come out really high, but guess what, Steve, I have to deal with the situation that I have in front of me, which is what I always encourage people to do. So, it’s great to be inspired by other countries and other locations, but I think it’s more important to look internally and look around you in your own facility. Otherwise, if you heard of that Roosevelt quote, it’s like comparison is the thief of joy.

Steve Rush: Yeah.

Matt Phelan: And you can easily do that. Like when I went out to Copenhagen, I loved going for a swim in the harvest that they have there. But I can’t do that.

Steve Rush: And here’s the other thing that was really interesting bit of a data point overlay on that. Denmark the highest taxed country in Europe, you pay more tax out of your earned income than in any other country in Europe. And in fact, I think in the Northern hemisphere.

Matt Phelan: And I think we talk about that a lot. I talk about that with Jens Nelson. Who’s our representative in Denmark and there’s a mindset shift. They don’t see tax as the thing that’s being stolen out of your back pocket after you’ve done your work.

Steve Rush: Interesting, yeah.

Matt Phelan: There is something that is contributing to society and good. They see it as good; we would need a podcast just to get into the cultural.

Steve Rush: Oh gosh, that’s a whole other show, right?

Matt Phelan: Yeah, we’d be back to King John and the Magna Carta to understand that from a UK perspective, maybe that’s the follow-up Steve would do King John and the Magna Carta and happiness.

Steve Rush: And then we’ll have to of course involve the Romans who started all the thing.

Matt Phelan: Totally.

Steve Rush: Yeah, so you created a fantastic community by the way, called happiness and humans community.

Matt Phelan: Yeah.

Steve Rush: And you always have this question that you’d like to pose and it’s what makes you happy. So, I’m going to ask you the same question. So, what makes you happy Matt?

Matt Phelan: Oh, thanks for asking me, Steve. It’s where I got the title for my book, which is Freedom To Be Happy. So, freedom was in those top four that I mentioned earlier on happiness, but for me, it’s by far the number one thing. like for me, I see life as an adventure. I didn’t come from a wealthy family or anything. So, I do have to earn money to pay the mortgage and stuff like that. I do have that side to me, but I can’t work anywhere for a second if I don’t have freedom to be myself. And it’s really higher in that perspective. So, that’s all parts of life. That’s in my relationships with friends, with my family, with my work colleagues, like I need to know that I can leave at any point. If I was told to come on this podcast, it’s very childish. I wouldn’t have come on, but because you invited me, I came on. I know it’s a very subtle difference.

Steve Rush: It is.

Matt Phelan: I probably need some therapy to work through it, but for me, it’s freedom.

Steve Rush: Lovely, awesome.

Matt Phelan: And you, I have to ask?

Steve Rush: Oh, I knew you would do that. So, I’m trying to just articulate this because I’ve not thought about it and I should have done so it’s kind of schoolboy error. I think it’s around environment for me. So having happy and calm people around me makes me happy. When there is anger and disruption and chaos, that makes me really unhappy. And I react emotionally in those environments differently.

Matt Phelan: Can you feel that, Steve?

Steve Rush: Oh, hugely. I can feel it even before it happens, so I can sense in a room or in an environment, mood shift and change very, very quickly before it presents itself in the either physical or verbal way.

Matt Phelan: I think that’s one of the most important aspects of the COO role. I think a lot of people, when I think about the COO in an organization, I think that person is one of the most organized people in the business, which is also true. But I don’t think you can have a COO that can’t sense that because the COO has so many interactions with all the different teams.

Steve Rush: Well, actually, I coined the phrase, my Leadership Barometer, right? So that’s kind of how it feels for me. You’ve made the correlation with weather earlier with happiness, didn’t you?

Matt Phelan: Yeah.

Steve Rush: So, it’s ironic that even without having this conversation before or even connecting the dots, that’s exactly what happens with me. I get a sense, a barometer of mood shift, energy shift, culture shift, and I migrate towards it and can energize it and make it better. And I avoid it when it’s not or tackle it to re-engineer it, so that it is.

Matt Phelan: And I’m just going to get a bit of free consultancy from you for all your listeners quickly, Steve, with one more question, and then I will stop questioning. I get the sense that you intuitively do that, right?

Steve Rush: It is an intuitively.

Matt Phelan: But if you get people that are not as natural at doing that, right. If you went into an organization and they were low on that skill, do you think you can coach and help people improve that? Or do you think you’re just born with it?

Steve Rush: No, I totally believe you can coach it and have done because it’s around awareness. So, starts with yourself, and are you paying attention? Are you noticing? And then secondly, it’s around, how do you notice? So, what are the clues, the cues, the things that happening around us that make us open to those coincidences. Open to observing those behaviors. So, it’s definitely a learned behavior. It might be an intuition for me now, but it probably wasn’t twenty-five years ago.

Matt Phelan: That’s brilliant Steve and I’m thinking about lots of clients and stuff now where I know that’s a challenge they’ve got.

Steve Rush: Anyway, back to me, it’s my show, [laughter] I’m going to spin the lens now and we’re going to hack into your leadership mind. So, you’ve led some really successful businesses and still do, and therefore want to get your leadership spin on how you might do that and what’s going to set you and others apart. So, first thing I want to ask you is, if you think about all of the experiences you had, what would be your top three leadership hacks Matt?

Matt Phelan: I think the number one is, I love from my granddad who I never met. So, I learned something from my granddad that I never met, but I learned it through stories passed on to me. This leadership lesson sounds a little bit outdated, because we’re probably talking about it from like the forties and fifties. But the thing that I learned from my granddad is that as a leader, your job is to help someone. I’m trying to think of the exact phrase, but it’s help someone improve. And I think when you look at it, forties and fifties, it was more like, like my family were immigrants. So, it’s about like working your way up and all that kind of stuff. But in a modern world, I see it as personal development. I think if you look at all your employees and think, how do you help them improve? Ultimately that’s going to help your organization improve as well. But the massive caveat that I would add to it. For it to really work, you have to be able to have an honest conversation with someone when you think that improvement will be better served outside your current organization.

Steve Rush: Yeah.

Matt Phelan: Which is tough, and you have to park your ego to do that and you to have open lines of communication. But if you’ve worked with someone for example, five years and you both think, you know, what the best thing this person could do is go and work at this other organization. You have to have a relationship where you could have that conversation with that person. So, I think it’s focusing on their improvement, but the caveat that you would be aware that sometimes that improvement might not come from in your organization.

Steve Rush: Yeah.

Matt Phelan: So, we’ve got number one. And number two, I think is, we’ve mentioned it before Steve, which is listen. And again, the caveat is not jumping into problem solving. So, it’s really listening to your team. But waiting to be invited on the fixed part. And I’ve learned that the hard way.

Steve Rush: Yeah, easy done though.

Matt Phelan: Yeah, and I think the third point, and this is why I think this is why your podcast has done so amazing Steve is, the power of storytelling. Because I’m a geek, right? And ideal in data, but unless you can turn that data into a story, it just sits in a spreadsheet, isn’t it?

Steve Rush: It does, yeah.

Matt Phelan: They’re just numbers, aren’t they? But until you start looking at trends and then once you turn them into trends, you start saying the stories, that’s how other human beings learn. So, when you’re looking at your cultural data, then taking out those little nuggets and stories, that’s how we share it. And we learn and we improve as an organization. So, to recap that I would say self-improvement for the team, really proper listening. And the third point which I just mentioned.

Steve Rush: Love it, really great advice. So, the next part of the show, we call it Hack to Attack. So, this is typically where something in your life or work has not worked out at all well. Could have even been quite catastrophic, but it created a learning experience for you that you now use as a positive in your life and work. What would be your Hack to Attack Matt?

Matt Phelan: I think my Hack to Attack was where you were going to Steve, a bit with like listening to your own body. So, I learned through coaching, my coaches is a neuroscience coach that the most important thing I could do is listen to my body. And the reason that was important was when I first started, I was twenty-five and, you know, what’s it like, we took an off the record about how tough the last year has been for both our businesses. But like, you can hit these big moments, can’t you? People resign, you lose clients, cashflow is tough. What I used to do to deal with tough experiences. Like when I came home, I found it hard to switch off. So, I would drink red wine to sort of like, get that nice hazy feel.

Steve Rush: Yeah.

Matt Phelan: But what I learned from listening to my body is that it would give me that hazy feel and it would push back the negative thoughts, like, oh my God, we’ve lost this client or this has happened. But then those thoughts would come back to me at three o’clock in the morning which was a downward cycle because then I couldn’t sleep. And then I was getting less sleep, which was negatively impacting my wellbeing. So, Hack to Attack, now I look at my wellbeing as I know that if I’m going to turn up for a meeting or a podcast, my wellbeing and foundation to be myself, needs to be there. So, I’ve learned that I just need to keep feeding that in. So that led me to doing a year off alcohol. I came back drinking for my brother stag do which I felt like I obliged to him because he drank on my stag do and so on and so on.

And I want it to be part of that, but actually, I don’t know if I’ll drink again. Now, I’ve came back for that social event. And I definitely think that I’m a better leader. And the other thing I’ve learned from it is that there are non-drinkers within the happiness index that have gravitated to me towards me socially.

Steve Rush: It’s very interesting.

Matt Phelan: Because in the media world, drinking is part of the world. And that was my old world.

Steve Rush: Yeah.

Matt Phelan: Actually, it’s like a diversity thing, isn’t it? Which is, drinkers socially gravitated towards me. And my co-founders drink, but actually as a diversity perspective, the fact that I’m a non-drink is actually quite useful. So other people would come to me and say, Matt, we’re doing this event, it’s got drinking involved. Maybe we could do a different type of activity. Whereas I don’t think they would’ve come to me if I hadn’t like explained why it cut down on drinking.

Steve Rush: And we avoid the rabbit hole that says also there’s a chemical reaction that gives you an instant high when you drink alcohol, but then it also impacts you negatively after the event.

Matt Phelan: I would recommend to read Alcohol Explained. And for any level of drinker, I wouldn’t say I was someone who was a huge drinker, but I was someone who became aware that, I looked at it like a loan in the end, which is, I reckon I had one day up for two days down. And I thought, you know what? This is like a high interest loan that I don’t want to keep paying off with interest.

Steve Rush: Like you currently can.

Matt Phelan: But that book alcohol explained, especially if you’re into neuroscience and stuff, it explains why that high comes and so on. And I don’t want to preach because I’ve many years of actually really enjoying drinking and lots of friends and families do drink, but I would recommend people to read Alcohol Explained whatever your level of drinking from. Problem drinker to one a month.

Steve Rush: Great stuff. Now, the very last thing we get to do is we get to give you a chance to do some time travel, bump into Matt at twenty-one. And you can get to give him some advice Matt, what would it be?

Matt Phelan: You don’t realize how much opportunity you’ve got. And I would say, go and work in other countries. Like right now, obviously we’re in the middle of the pandemic, well, we’re not hopefully we’re at the beginning of the end, but again, like maybe I’m saying this because our freedoms been locked down and stuff, but I think you can learn a lot from travel, right. But imagine how much you can learn by going and working in another country.

Steve Rush: Yeah.

Matt Phelan: It’s been good for me because I’ve become very ingrained in London. So, anything I need or speak too, like my network in London is huge and London’s a global city. So, I’ve benefited from that perspective. But actually, if I were speaking to twenty-one-year-old Matt, I’d probably say, go and work in Shanghai for a couple of years.

Steve Rush: Yeah, I didn’t start working my professional career abroad until in my late twenties and then only really in the last kind of ten or fifteen years, if I had the opportunity to travel the world and see and experience those, and you do get much of a richer experience and diversity of thinking and behaviors, is really powerful, isn’t it?

Matt Phelan: Yeah, it would be as simple as that.

Steve Rush: So beyond today, if folk wanted to continue the conversation with you, stay connected with you, where’s the best place for us to send them?

Matt Phelan: Yeah, at the moment we realized that moving from engagement to happiness for some can be scary. So, any company in the world of any size can go to the and they can do a free trial for three months of our entire platform. So that’s it on a product perspective. From a keeping in touch perspective, the happiness and humans community, you can find that on the as well, the test is, do you want to positively shape the future of work. If you are thinking, yes, that’s what I want to do, Matt and Steve, then please join that community is people from all around the world. People pose questions, challenges. But most importantly, people connect up and there’s been people that have become friends, business partners, they’ve hired on there. So, yeah, please join the happiness in humans community if you want to positively shape the future of work.

Steve Rush: And we but a little join here button on our show notes as well. So, people can do that as soon as they started listening with us.

Matt Phelan: Thanks Steve.

Steve Rush: Matt, I love chatting with you. You bring a really great perspective to something that is an emotional subject, and you have given us that business case. So, thanks for being part of our community and thanks for being on the podcast.

Matt Phelan: Thanks for having me, Steve.

Steve Rush: Thanks, Matt.


Steve Rush: I genuinely want to say heartfelt thanks for taking time out of your day to listen in too. We do this in the service of helping others, and spreading the word of leadership. Without you listening in, there would be no show. So please subscribe now if you have not done so already. Share this podcast with your communities, network, and help us develop a community and a tribe of leadership hackers.

Finally, if you would like me to work with your senior team, your leadership community, keynote an event, or you would like to sponsor an episode. Please connect with us, by our social media. And you can do that by following and liking our pages on Twitter and Facebook our handler there: @leadershiphacker. Instagram you can find us there @the_leadership_hacker and at YouTube, we are just Leadership Hacker, so that is me signing off. I am Steve Rush and I have been the leadership hacker.

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