Featured Expert Interview: Noel Boyland, on well-being, higher purpose, and connecting companies with the research community

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Featured Expert:  Noel Boyland

Screen Shot 2018-07-17 at 3.48.38 PM_0_0_0.pngWhat are your current areas of work and research?

I’m currently involved in several somewhat overlapping activities.  First, I am working with Duke University’s Center for Advanced Hindsight, founded by ES collaborator Dan Ariely, on a project involving the development and deployment of a peer-to-peer fundraising platform that will be used to co-fund health insurance for low income Kenyans.  This platform will incorporate the latest insights in behavioral science as it relates to altruistic behavior as well as serve as an experimentation platform to test hypotheses as to what features are most effective and then integrate those new insights.

Second, I’m working in the lifestyle medicine and employee health and well-being industry to help bring more focus and effective interventions into practice.  These interventions are geared to improving all components of well being — physical, mental and emotional.

Third, I’ve been working with Ethical Systems to help bring to bear their significant expertise and interventions to further ethical behavior within companies and to continually build the science base for further interventions. And finally, I serve as co-chair of the Conscious Capitalism NYC Chapter where our purpose is to draw focus to and foster more enlightened “conscious” behaviors for the multitude of stakeholders partaking in our capitalist system — customers, business owners/shareholders/leaders, employees, suppliers and the communities in which companies operate


Workplace governance, culture and leadership intersect in important ways for many companies — how would you describe the interplay and influence of these concepts?

Together, governance, culture and leadership have an outsized influence on employee behavior. The structural elements of governance are easier to modify as they can be targeted by a board of directors, executive leadership or by mandate from another governing body.  Unfortunately, governance alone has a fairly modest effect on behavior — simply look at the effect of compliance rules and processes on behavior. Leadership is a bigger challenge, both in terms of developing effective leadership behaviors as well as identifying individuals with the right skills and mindset to be effective leaders, and exiting poor leaders from their roles or the company altogether.  Leadership behavior plays a vital role in maintaining cultural norms and has a real influence on changing follower behavior, but for ethical leadership to be most effective, it requires significant supportive actions by the organization. Cultural norms are the holy grail, but the least accessible. Shaping norms requires alignment of several inputs (governance and leadership are two major ones). Fortunately, the awareness of the outsized effect of culture on behavior has grown in the last 10-15 years (it was hardly discussed when I was consulting early in my career in the 1990s).  Unfortunately, it’s often difficult for researchers to get access to data to study corporate culture, so the science supporting what works in changing culture within organizations is not yet fully developed.  Finally, at least in my experience, most business executives have little confidence that a definitive, well-tested path to culture change even exists and therefore see the problem largely as outside of their ability to have a lasting impact.


You are a co-chair of the NYC Chapter of Conscious Capitalism. How do the tenets of conscious capitalism infuse your work?

The tenets of Conscious Capitalism are:

  • Higher Purpose:  companies should be clear with all stakeholders regarding how they are trying to make the world a better place and then align their strategy and operations accordingly;
  • Conscious Leadership:  leaders should exhibit behaviors necessary to effectively lead a “conscious” company;
  • Conscious Culture:  effective employee culture is built upon and in everyday practice consistently reflects the values of trust, accountability, caring, transparency, integrity, loyalty and egalitarianism; and
  • Stakeholder Orientation:  business decisions should be based on how all stakeholders can simultaneously benefit from the outcomes of those decisions

These tenets guide my work as I consider which clients to take on.  My goals is to work with organizations where there is a deeply held Higher Purpose and a strong Stakeholder Orientation mindset.  The other tenets are “developable” and I love to help organizations make progress on aligning these various components.


What are some of the trends in “conscious capitalism” that you see as most relevant for companies in 2018?

Culture has received much emphasis in the last several years but, I think leaders struggle to provide meaningful and measurable results in the short-term timeframes demanded by analysts and shareholders.  Enlightened leadership certainly gets good press, but there’s accumulating evidence that simply being in a position of power changes us in ways that diminish our empathy, openness to new ideas and we become more likely to cheat and lie (see Dacher Keltner’s work, summarized in The Power Paradox).   Perhaps leadership succession will evolve to reward “conscious” leadership, but the headwinds are also strong here.

I think the biggest trend now seems to be tapping into “Purpose,” both the organization’s and individual’s.  BlackRock’s CEO, Larry Fink, summed it up nicely in a recent letter to CEOs encouraging companies to take a broader, stakeholder view in their business  – and Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase and Warren Buffet also have been advocating for the end of short-term reporting.  That said, there are many companies and industries who might struggle to offer how they make the world better…at least in the long-term.  Of course, there is subjectivity in such a moral judgement, but I suspect virtually all of us can point to many such organizations. And I suspect that those companies are not terribly eager to have this discussion as it is hard to see that conversation leading to something better for their stakeholders (and in particular, their shareholders).


Much of your work has centered on improving employee health. What are some of the short-term and long-term strategies to strengthen employee health and well-being while supporting the bottom line?

In terms of strategies, one widespread challenge in pursuing improved employee health is that it is, by its very nature, long-term.  Our overall health changes slowly and most of the key modifiable determinants of our well-being are based on our lifestyle choices and the nature of the social communities and environments in which we’re embedded (or lack of community embeddedness, i.e., isolation, which is a separate problem).  Of course, these factors are not easily modifiable and success requires much more than educating employees about the determinants of their health, although awareness is an important thread to be consistently weaved into any process.

Organizations that understand and embrace the social and behavioral science around engineering the environment to “nudge” better lifestyle behaviors are taking advantage of a first strategy that often has little cost and generally few downsides.  This is a relatively straightforward one. Less easily accomplished is changing leadership and management behaviors that create unnecessary stress on employees, which can have negative downstream consequences for employee well-being, as well as ethical behavior.  

I would like to also emphasize that if the primary impetus for improving employee well-being is financial (i.e., to improve the employer’s bottom line), employers will likely fail on both fronts:  well-being is unlikely to improve and financial ROI will prove elusive. People don’t respond well to being treated as financial cost inputs. Alternatively, a humanistic and caring mindset by an employer will not be lost on employees and success might be possible with the right approach under such conditions.


How can a commitment to employee health also influence an ethical organizational culture?  

This is of great interest to me and I feel is largely ignored by organizations, probably because “Ethics” and “Employee Well-Being” are siloed in most organizations.  There’s so much overlap in these two areas — the activities that will most likely lead to better employee health and well-being also ones that are likely to create a more ethical culture.  An ethical culture is also likely to support improved employee health and well-being. Even from even a definitional standpoint, many of us would characterize one component of optimal well-being as being an integral part of an ethical community!

Exceptionally, I recently learned of the results of the Banking Standards Board annual culture assessment in financial services firms, and they too have found a relationship between well-being and ethical conduct — early results suggest strong correlations. Scientific findings generally support this virtuous relationship between ethical behavior and employee well-being —  most prominent is how excess stress or physical tiredness leads to shortcuts and bad decision making.


If you could give one piece of ethics advice to companies, what would it be?  

The path to optimal ethical behavior does not run through compliance programs and activities.  It runs through leadership behavior and shaping cultural norms such that good decision making is more likely to happen.  Focus on these items. Or, perhaps look at ethics through the lens of the well-being of your non-investor stakeholders — employees, customers, suppliers and the communities in which the company operates.


If you could give one piece of ethics advice to individuals, what would it be?

Simply relying on your instincts and/or abilities for ethical thinking “in the moment” will give false comfort.  Reflect on your behavior and decisions after the fact, in a different context/environment and with someone independent of your work whom you trust and that will not be shy to challenge you.  Deconstruct why you did what you did and what drove you down that path [see, e.g., the ES one sheet on motivated reasoning].  Be mindful of those contextual influences and reconstruct your environment, to the degree you can, to guard against them before leading you to poor decisions.


Noel Boyland featured in a podcast: (Podcast appearance “Doing the things you want to do”?)