When it comes to what you think it takes for your organization to be successful and what your staff is actually doing to achieve that goal, there’s a chance you’re on two different pages.
But don’t get too down on yourself. Blame human nature.
According to a Gallup poll released in January, 51 percent of the U.S. workforce is not engaged in their work, and nearly 20 percent are actively disengaged or sabotaging their colleagues’ work.
Let the leaders of many organizations tell it, those numbers simply don’t apply to them, said Dan Gregory, co-author of “Selfish, Scared and Stupid: Stop Fighting Human Nature and Increase Your Performance, Engagement and Influence.” But often the larger the organization is, the more relevant those numbers become.
“We’ve got a huge gap between what leaders think they’re achieving in terms of leadership and what’s actually showing up in the research,” Gregory said. The disconnect might not be vivid in your quarterly results but in the long run, it undercuts the greater success your organization could be seeing.
It’s a gap that can be attributed to what Gregory and co-author Kieran Flanagan said is often missing from business strategies: a margin for error. Think of aeronautical engineering in this age of commercial airlines, Gregory said. Engineered to continue flying with partial engine failure, today’s planes are designed so they can stay in the air long enough to land safely.
“We don’t do that in our business strategies very often.” said Gregory, who is also president and CEO of The Impossible Institute, a strategic solutions think tank for organizations.
What We Think We Do, What We Actually Do
The disconnect and its consequences are problematic to say the least. Often, leaders are working with ideals rather than with reality. Believing that organizationally everyone is working with the same level of discipline and is highly motivated to meet company goals is fantastic, ideal even, but, as the Gallup numbers show, not very realistic.
In reality, a bad day, a sick child, an argument with a loved one, or almost anything can affect performance. Organizations stand to benefit internally and ultimately externally when leaders shift their thinking to how they can design processes and systems that give more people a chance to succeed no matter what.
Of course employees have to do their part, but the business has the greater stake in their performance. When employees feel like they’re in an environment that supports them being more successful, their performance increases.
The reason, Gregory said, is that at the heart of human behavior — much of it driven by our ‘survival brain’ — lie selfishness, fear and stupidity.
These drives actually control much of our decision-making and have done so successfully throughout human history. Yet “we don’t factor that into a lot of our strategies in terms of how we motivate ourselves or others,” Gregory said.
He offered as examples the success of Bank of America’s Keep the Change savings program or Apple Inc.’s reputation for creating technology that’s humanly intuitive. These companies appeal to those three core instincts as they work to engage consumers, and there’s no reason that same perspective won’t work to engage staff.
“The more you’re able to understand what’s driving the people you’re trying to influence, the greater your capacity to have that influence,” Gregory said.
With greater insight into what motivates people, companies can build processes and systems around staff that makes achieving success easier and failure more difficult.
Thinking “selfish” is about understanding what’s in it for the people you’re trying to influence.
Thinking “scared” means examining alternatives to fear — of taking action, or of not taking action — and shifting the fear of taking action to the fear of not taking action, striking a balance to drive positive outcomes.
Of course, people often chafe at being called stupid.
“People always say, ‘Look, I’ll accept that I’m selfish. I’ll buy that I’m scared, but I’m not stupid.’” Gregory recalled with a laugh.
But to “think stupid” really means thinking about the simplest and easiest solution for people to execute. Audit your organization’s processes. How many unnecessary steps exist to complete what should be able to be accomplished with ease?
It’s All in the Framing
This shift from focusing on self to focusing on others’ motivations has implications for every corner of an organization and can drive greater organizational outcomes through effective learning and development strategies.
Learning leaders can leverage selfishness, fear and stupidity to create effective development strategies and programs by framing them appropriately. Make it clear how participants will benefit by engaging in learning.
Regardless of level or role, offering training can signal an employee has done something wrong or is deficient in some way. Cast a different, more strategic way — one that makes access to learning simple and highlights how learning will advance participants individually — will be more readily welcomed.
“This requires a capacity to really understand what’s driving the other human being, and typically we do that quite poorly,” Gregory said. “Instead of talking about your desired outcomes, talk about what’s in it for them. It’s not a difficult thing to do, but it is a counterintuitive thing to do.”