Nir’s Note: Author, speaker, and host of “The Hive Podcast,” Nathalie Nahai’s work explores the intersection between persuasive technology, ethics, and the psychology of online behavior. Following her best-selling book, Webs of Influence: The Psychology of Online Persuasion, Nathalie’s next book, Business Unusual: Values, Uncertainty and the Psychology of Brand Resilience, is about the psychology behind recent changes in expectations from employees and customers about businesses and their products.
Nir Eyal: Why did you write this book?
Nathalie Nahai: Since the 2nd Edition of Webs Of Influence came out back in 2017, I’d been thinking about writing a new book about evolving consumer behaviors–but it wasn’t until COVID-19 hit and everything locked down, that I took the plunge. Despite (or perhaps due to) all the turmoil and uncertainty, I could see from the research that certain trends were being accelerated and catalyzed by the pandemic, and that, like it or not, we were on the cusp of some deep and long-lasting changes.
On a personal level, since we weren’t really allowed to go out to work or play, the research and book-writing became a way for me to process what was happening and focus on something that could help towards building a better, more resilient future.
NE: You’ve done some fascinating research. From what you’ve learned, what surprised you the most?
NN: Perhaps the most surprising–especially considering the financial hits this group has taken over this period–is the extent to which Gen Z and Millennials continue to be the main driving force behind the demand for more sustainable, values-based approaches from the brands they work for and buy from.
In the realm of purchasing behaviors (principally in the Global North), since sustainably sourced, ethical products often come with a higher price tag, many folks had predicted that consumers would revert to buying cheaper products at the expense of their principles, but this hasn’t been the case. Instead, we’re seeing an increased appetite for product lines that are carbon neutral or use repurposed materials, a trend which is playing out across all types of verticals and brands, from Nike to BrewDog.
What gives me hope is the fact that even under hard conditions, younger folks have shown that they are more committed than ever to holding businesses, organizations and brands to account, and that they will spend their money on securing the more regenerative future they deserve.
NE: What lessons should people take away from your book regarding how they should design their own behavior or the behavior of others?
NN: There are a few key lessons, but perhaps the most important is this: as we grapple with increasingly complex challenges, our values–those deeply-held psychological motivations that drive our decisions–will become ever more important in terms of how we live, who we work for, and what we buy. Whether in our personal or professional lives, if we want to experience a deeper sense of wellbeing and self-actualization, then being clear about what we stand for is crucial to designing the behaviours and lifestyle that will bring us the greatest fulfilment.
In a business context, this has some important implications. If, for instance, leaders want to build resilience in the face of an uncertain future, then their ability to understand the key values driving the decisions of their consumers, employees, and partners will be the determining factor between their success or failure. Of course, assessing and acting on insights around values can be a complicated, expensive, and drawn-out process, which is why, together with Dr Kiki Leutner of Goldsmiths University, I have developed a tool to help business leaders identify, develop and communicate the values they stand for.
Currently free to use, “The Values Map” draws upon robust scientific research to provide feedback and recommendations on everything from how to enhance marketing and communications to the ways in which specific values are expressed through the brand and company culture. It is my hope that, together with the book, this platform will encourage people to reflect more deeply upon the world they wish to build and equip individuals and organizations with the knowledge to make their vision a reality.
NE: Writing a book is hard. What do you do when you find yourself distracted or going off track?
NN: Yeah, it really is, especially when it comes to sustaining the marathon-like discipline required to complete it! Since my work draws upon psychology and behavioral science, when I set about writing my first book back in 2011, I looked to the research to devise a simple system that could support me throughout the process. Based upon studies around motivation and the insight that focus becomes harder to maintain after 45 minutes or so, I created a worksheet to motivate me and keep track of my progress.
While focus naturally varies from person to person and task to task, I found that containing my writing sessions to 45 minute blocks (which I could check off) gave me more manageable, discrete periods within which to work and provided a powerful, visual reminder of my progress on the days when I felt I was treading water–lost in a sea of words.
For Business Unusual, my goal was to complete an average of 5-6 blocks per day (which translated to roughly 2,500 words per week), and it was this approach that allowed me to stay on track despite a pretty tight deadline. I can’t say that it’s always easy sitting down to write, or meeting such goals when your whole body is aching and you just want to do something (anything!) else, but I know that for my personality, this is the method that gets the job done.
NE: What’s one thing you believe that most people would disagree with?
NN: That’s such a fascinating question! Well, the thing I might most disagree with, if I were playing devil’s advocate, is the suggestion that the heroic or authoritarian leadership styles we have become so familiar with are no longer fit for purpose, given the challenges we now face.
While many pioneers such as Barbara Kellerman, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, and Amy C. Edmondson have been advocating for more progressive, psychologically-informed changes to leadership and organizational culture, there are many people in positions of power who would shudder at the thought of a more distributed, non-hierarchical and collaborative approach, and I expect that this point–that we need to do things differently–may not sit so comfortably with everyone.
NE: What’s your most important good habit or routine?
NN: Actually, it’s a routine I discovered during lockdown with my partner, who is an avid reader. I’ve always loved reading but it can be tricky to find the time, and it wasn’t until the book-writing started getting on top of me that I realized I needed a gentler way to start the day (as opposed to launching myself from bed, to coffee, to work). That’s when I got into the habit of reading for 45 minutes or so every morning, on the sofa, just taking a moment to awaken and give myself the space to enter another person’s world. It’s a habit that has transformed how I approach my week, and it’s made me a happier person.
NE: Are you working to change any bad habits?
NN: Too many to count…From reinstating my 5-2 fasting (which slipped during the pandemic and the stresses of book-writing) to finding the time and space to dance, I’ve found that in the absence of an external structure, it’s pretty challenging to set rules or rhythms that I can stick to (but maybe that’s where I’m going wrong).
NE: What one product or service has helped you build a healthy habit?
NN: The books upon my shelf! There are so many exciting pages waiting to be turned, that I look forward to reading them every morning and opening the next chapter.
NE: What’s the most important takeaway you want people to remember after reading this book?
NN: When we experience change, loss or disillusionment in life, amidst the grief and the letting go, resides the precious opportunity to re-imagine how we want to live and who we wish to become.