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The Impossible Institute Executive Interview

Dan Gregory, Impossible Institute CEO, The Impossible Institute


Is Everything We Know about Motivation Wrong?

Behavioral Strategists Believe Recognizing that People are ‘Selfish, Scared and Stupid’ Can Be the First Step to Improving Performance

In a culture where most children are constantly told how special, smart and brave they are throughout their formative years, it’s no wonder that traditional rah-rah motivational tactics in the workplace don’t deliver the performance levels that employers are seeking. This is particularly true in contact centers, which are environments that are now largely staffed by millennials.

Australian author and behavioral strategist Dan Gregory, CEO of the Impossible Institute, a strategic think tank founded to make unlikely changes possible, believes that too many managers and executives continue to fight human nature. “No one is motivated every day,” he said. “But we’ve designed our organizations, teams, systems, product, relationships and lives so we can only succeed under ideal ‘laboratory’ conditions. Anything less than perfection means catastrophe. The problem is that’s not how people work at all.”

In their newest book, “Selfish Scared & Stupid”, Gregory and his business partner and co-author Kieran Flanagan argue that the behavior of human beings is largely governed by self-serving interests, fear of taking action and a need for simplicity and ease. “These traits are perceived as negatives,” said Gregory, “but being aware of their influence is critical to creating a better fit with the demands of a 21st century workforce.”

The prevailing philosophy of the corporate boss has always been “I’m paying you, just do your job. I don’t care what’s going on in your life.” But while this may be essentially true, it doesn’t always compute with the mindset of millennials who have been brought up to believe that it’s OK to think “I’m having a bad day, the baby is sick, and I don’t want to be here.”

“Most business leaders are Type A personalities, who are driven by their internal needs to give it their all,” said Gregory. “But the most effective strategy for them is to find a way to get people who don’t buy into the corporate mission to perform at the level which they want them to achieve.” He finds this particularly important in light of studies that reveal that more than 50% of workers are not engaged in what they do and as many as 20% are “actively disengaged” meaning that they actually are working against the goals of their organization.

“What companies must do is find ways to make it harder to fail and easier to succeed for their workforce,” said Gregory. “Employers can’t treat human beings as machines: to get to ‘here’s what I want you to do’, they have to take into account ‘how do others think and operate'? This entails understanding that people take a self-serving approach to their work and many prefer to take no action as opposed to doing the wrong thing. Leaders must be more strategic in their approach and implement processes that are less complex and more intuitive for people to follow.”

While not an employee-oriented program, one example of making it easier for people to take a desired direction provided by Gregory was Bank of America’s “Round Up” savings accounts, in which each transaction was rounded up to the next higher dollar, with the amount of change being added to savings. “It’s a small step, but it was highly successful in the goal of increasing savings by making it a passive action,” he said. “The idea is to make the outcome a natural progression of the system that’s in place.”

Gregory’s company, The Impossible Institute, always starts their client interactions by asking a seemingly impossible question and finding a solution.  In a recent conversation with one of the big four banks in Australia, he found that their biggest problem was that the high volume of customers meant that too many callers had to be put on hold. Their proposal was to create an on-hold system which spotlighted the music of emerging artists that could not be heard anywhere else.

When engaged by a client, they conduct a cultural audit of the organization to find root causes of ongoing issues. “One dilemma we frequently hear is that companies want employees to be more collaborative, yet the metrics they measure do not support collaboration. The KPIs are set to reward individual performance and people can often actually get ahead by undermining their colleagues. The solution is to reconstruct the system to remove barriers to successful collaboration.”

Gregory and Flanagan call this interconnectivity of collaborative intelligence 'We-Q’. They see it as an increasingly important factor for managers and teams who are now being driven to build greater customer loyalty as well commercial relationships with partners, suppliers and even former competitors. “Most companies not only have no plan for failure, they have little margin for failure. They plan the ideal, not the reality. Making it easier for their people to successfully work together can better position a company to have the resiliency to recover from a major crisis or loss of business.”