Kieran Flanagan has a habit of turning sacred cows on their heads and uncovering creative new ways to achieve business goals. She even sees an upside to lazy employees.
We’re selfish, scared and stupid and acknowledging that will deliver results, says behavioural researcher and strategist Kieran Flanagan, a maverick thought leader who advises businesses on how to reach staff and consumers.
Flanagan, whose early career in advertising saw her as one of the youngest of very few female creative directors in the world of Mad Men, co-founded The Impossible Institute with Dan Gregory in 2012. Their agency now helps organisations lift performance and engagement.
For those who really want to motivate others it’s time to get real, insist the business rebels. Together they have put their controversial ideas in a new book, Selfish Scared & Stupid – Stop Fighting Human Nature and Increase Your Performance, Engagement and Influence.
Kieran Flanagan, The Impossible Institute.
The business world and beyond builds the expectation that we’re all intelligent, extraordinary, brave people who can achieve great things, observe Flanagan and Gregory. What’s wrong with that is it flies in the face of basic human nature.
“We have structured our systems, processes, organisations and entire communities in such a way that we fight our human nature and instead expect laboratory-like consistency in the real world,” Flanagan explains. Nothing, however, could take us further from motivating or connecting with employees or our target market, she says.
Flanagan acknowledges that her ideas go against all the self-help advice we have been given, but says of her first ethos – that we are selfish: “It’s quite simple. Fundamentally we are motivated by looking out for ourselves, even if we are socially conditioned to bury it. Even when we do good things, like give to charity, we tend to get something out of it like feeling good about ourselves.”
To motivate employees to reach key performance indicators (KPIs) or work more efficiently, don’t tell them what the company or business gets if they work harder. Tell them what’s in it for them, says Flanagan.
“Stupid people can be very smart. They look for the easiest way to do things, the shortcut… lazy employees will show us how to do things in half the time.” – Kieran Flanagan
That reward doesn’t have to be fiscal.
“Eighty per cent of staff turnover is reversible with the right leadership, and that means making people feel valued and important. They want a sense of achievement, to know that their contribution matters.”
When it comes to fear, being scared can actually be an incredibly motivating factor, says Flanagan, who advocates using fear to drive positive outcomes.
“We fear change but we should all be evaluating whether our business is viable, or continues to be so, and not allowing complacency.”
She suggests that if we’re scared about the fast pace of technological/digital change and what it means for our business, that may prompt us to learn new systems, upgrade the way we work, or even change our business.
As for stupidity, Flanagan is definitely cheering for the dumber, or maybe lazier, side of the team. “Stupid people can be very smart. They look for the easiest way to do things, the shortcuts. My mantra is we need more stupid employees. We need diligent employees, too. But lazy employees will show us how to do things in half the time.”
“Being chained to a desk from nine to five is an archaic idea.” – Kieran Flanagan
If Flanagan sounds like fun, it’s because she is – and she believes work should be, too.
“Seriousness does not make you any more substantial, it does not give you a safer pair or hands, or indeed make you any more professional or important than taking things a bit more lightly.”
While big corporates may once have had an advantage in that they had huge scale, technology is flipping that advantage, she says.
“Big corporates need to offer something that makes people want to work there. Generation Y are saying I don’t know if I want to subscribe to that business model; it sucks all the fun out of [working].
“Human beings are drawn to fun and businesses need to look for ways to make that happen. Change the boring bits. Ask how you can make the worst thing more enjoyable.
“Google’s Googliness and its willingness to play even with sacred cows such as their logo make it a very attractive workplace option for college graduates looking for an alternative to the Wall Street burnout factories.
“Being chained to a desk from nine to five is an archaic idea. With employees, don’t be attached to the process, look to the outcome. Let’s be clear about our intention and trust people to make it happen.”
5 stupid mistakes
Over their 20-plus-year careers, Kieran Flanagan and Dan Gregory of The Impossible Institute have helped develop new product lines for Coca-Cola and Unilever, invented new media formats for Murdoch Magazines, created interaction systems for categories as diverse as fast food chains and government departments, and launched internal and external engagement campaigns for companies as varied as News Limited, Vodafone and MTV.
Here are the five stupidest, most selfish, fearful things they say we do.
1. We selfishly talk about ourselves all the time.
The golden rule of being a terrible date applies to business, too. Don’t spend the entire time talking yourself up! No one will like you for it. Listen more, speak less. Be interested in your customers and what they want.
2. We are too scared to tell the truth.
Companies don’t like to admit their mistakes. They prefer to gloss over them, hide them or even lie about them. Yet our mistakes can make us human and more likeable. As Flanagan relates: “When we relaunched Mother energy drinks we admitted they got it wrong first time and won the brand a lot of respect.”
3. We are too scared to trust ourselves.
Relying solely on research to make our decisions for us is a scaredy-cat thing to do. People in research groups lie.
4. We make ourselves the same as our competition.
It sounds stupid, but companies usually present themselves in exactly the same way as each other. Make it easy for your customers to know why they should choose you by cultivating differences.
5. We try to change people.
Change is hard. Changing people is even harder. Instead, we need to work with who people really are (and stop worrying so much about who we could potentially be).
This article is from the December 2014 issue of INTHEBLACK