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Less Brent, more Apple

Tuesday, May 12, 2015 - 17:23

Guest post by Dan Gregory and Kieran Flanagan

This article previously appeared in AIM for Management and Leadership Excellence, AIM’s bi-monthly magazine exclusively for AIM Members.

The saying “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” is widely touted by business people as a reminder that our worlds are not just defined by those on our side and that an understanding of our detractors and competitors is critical to success. In fact, many businesses spend an inordinate amount of time watching what their competitors are up to, trying to steal the lead on a new product innovation or to avoid getting screwed in the marketplace.

Where we devote less of our focus is on the motives and drives of our own people. We assume, perhaps recklessly, that as we pay them a salary or wage and they spend their days in our company, that they are on our side.

Consider for a moment Gallup’s research in its Global Workplace Engagement study. According to this very broad and comprehensive research, approximately 50 per cent of the workforce is not engaged in the work they are doing. Twenty per cent are apparently “actively” disengaged. So not only does half of your organisation not care about you, your strategic goals and your business’s future, a fifth of them are saboteurs within, undermining the success of your organisation wherever they can.

No two ways about it, that’s pretty bad. Most organisations do realise they have engagement issues and, in fact, looking at the numbers in terms of staff attraction and retention is helping no one in HR sleep well at night. Typically, we try to rectify this disengagement with a combination of carrot and stick: we either push them harder, beat them up or else try to cajole them into submission; or we try to inspire them, bring in a motivational speaker, institute Casual Friday or take them away for a “team-building” weekend.

Of course, these are only ever short-term strategies. Discipline and motivation are notoriously difficult to maintain. So what other strategic tools do we need to consider? For starters, we need to get closer to our staff – not like David Brent from The Office but in terms of increasing our understanding of what drives them; what’s important to them; what makes them buy and buy in?

Just because they work for us, doesn’t mean they care, as Gallup’s study so pointedly proves. What this requires is for us to better understand human nature, and then, rather than fighting it as we typically try to do, we should learn how to swim with the current of human nature and align it with our staff’s biases and foibles. In other words, instead of pushing our people towards our objectives we need to think about how to place those objectives and outcomes in the direct path of their natures and behaviour.

In other words, instead of making our people wrong for being who they are and trying to change them, a more effective approach might be to change our systems and processes to work with them. This kind of thinking has been critical to the success of organisations such as Apple. While most technology companies were insisting human beings change themselves, that they learn a new language, think in binary terms and treat their brains like data storage drives,

Apple was busy making technology more humanly intuitive, decreasing the friction between the human being and the digital interface. They brought a visual operating system to the market with the first Mac, they put a wheel on the iPod that allowed you to access stored data with one hand using only your thumb, they brought us touch screens, swiping, pinching and even Siri.

This focus of making their systems more intuitive is something we need to model in our human interactions. Instead of trying to reverse engineer people to process, we need to consider how to build processes around human behaviour. Not only does this increase our chances of success, it also increases engagement.

That’s the other finding from the Gallup study – when you keep your staff close, they are also more productive, more profitable and treat your customers and clients better too.

Dan Gregory and Kieran Flanagan are behavioural researchers and strategists and authors of Selfish,Scared and Stupid published by Wiley. Gregory is a regular on ABC TV’s The Gruen Transfer.