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08 December 2014 Posted by 


Exploring our deepest motivations

In a two-horse race, always back the one called ‘self-interest’.
- Paul Keating

EXTRACT 1 from a new book about human behaviour called selfish, Scared and Stupid by Dan Gregory and Kieran Flanagan published by published by WILEY.

WHILE we may not like to admit it, we’re (mostly) driven by self-interest. Before you get offended and claim that you have in fact grown a moustache to raise money for colon cancer research, protested to save an obscure species that was not even cuddly or cute and on more than one occasion allowed someone into traffic, we’re not suggesting that people don’t do good for anyone other than themselves. What we are suggesting is that we do a lot more good for others when there is something in it for us too.

Yet all our lives we are taught that someone who thinks of themselves or of their personal gain is self-centred, inconsiderate and in fact, not to be trusted. Additionally, we are taught to act as if the needs and desires of others are of far greater importance than anything we may personally aspire to and that we should instead defer our wishes and tendencies in favour of those of the people around us. However, as with many social niceties, this is just a game of pretend. In fact, in this environment, it is only the openly vain and self-serving who should have our trust as only they possess the courage to be truly honest. Despite this social construct, when we conduct personality tests where loyalties are tested and connections strained, we find time and time again that the needs of ‘me’ and ‘mine’ sit not only consistently above the needs of all others, but also by a large margin.

Even those outliers who stray from the norm and put others ahead of themselves tend to reveal, once we dig a bit deeper, that they too are motivated by self-interest in the form of satisfying an internal definition of self as ‘self-sacrificing’.

In other words, whenever we try to act unselfishly at a conscious level, we are in fact unconsciously satisfying our own need to earn social status or to generate something similar to good karma or identity congruence or just plain old ‘I am a super nice human being and I have done good today’. Selflessness, it turns out, is just another form of selfishness — but with a serving of self-righteousness to help it go down unnoticed. This fact becomes important when you want to motivate others or you seek to influence, persuade, sell, lead or, in fact, achieve pretty
much any form of behavioural change.

The problem is, while we unconsciously act from the point of view of ‘What’s in it for me (WIIFM)?’ we tend to assume that no-one else does. We’re so self-centred that we fail to account for the self-centredness of those around us. For the most part, the results, as you may expect, are predictably frustrating. Anyone who has driven a car in peak hour knows what it feels like when ordinarily good natured people imagine what it would be like to have machine guns mounted on the front of their car … and wonder if they should trade up to a tank!

Notwithstanding the universal selfishness of our species, it must be said that while we all process the world through a ‘What’s in it for me?’ filter, this kind of thinking should not inform all of our behaviour, nor indeed how we interact with the world around us. This is principally because just as we’re wondering ‘what’s in it for me’, so is everyone else. And this is precisely the point. This thinking should inform our judgement and our evaluation of the events that take place in our lives and help us to develop a capacity to ask, ‘What’s in it for them?’ The more we begin to be mindful of the selfishness of others, the more powerful we become in terms of creating influence, learning persuasion and building engagement. In other words, the more we accept others’ selfishness, the more we tend to get what we want, too! (Feel free to read the last sentence with a maniacal tone, Bwa ha ha ha!)

So, if we are predominantly selfish (and we absolutely are) how may that be a good thing not just for our own selfish gain, but in a community and social-contribution sense as well? And, just as importantly, how can selfishness inform our strategies for engagement, sales, leadership, parenthood and even personal development?

Selfishness can be a force for good

At the risk of sounding like Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko, we’d like to suggest that selfish can be good … selfish can be right … selfish works. Please take note of the small caveat we made by adding the word ‘can’ to the expressions.

There are a couple of reasons why flight attendants — when they stand in the aisle before take-off to present the all-too-familiar safety demonstration — take the time to explain that it is imperative to fit your oxygen mask first!

The first reason is, it works. Failing to fit your oxygen mask first will most likely render you unconscious pretty quickly, leaving you unable to play the hero you so often imagine you could be. The second, more important, reason is that they are attempting to undo the artificial wiring of your cultural socialisation, which has taught us that it just doesn’t look good. All around you is a cacophony of sound: jet engines whirring, people screaming, china and cutlery spilling to the floor. The aircraft is hurtling towards the ground and your nearest and dearest turn to you for a sense of reassurance — or even blind hope — only to find you’ve abandoned the communal environment of
the plane for your own personal oxygen supply. Oh dear!

The truth is, we are so indoctrinated to resist our selfish urges, that if they didn’t tell you to fit your oxygen mask first, there is every chance you would die — not as a result of the impending impact with terra firma as much as from the sheer terror and embarrassment of worrying about the opinions of others.

Build identity congruence

In order to utilise an understanding of what’s in it for those around us, we must first understand the filters and metrics people use to establish value. This is the greatest weakness we have seen in virtually every category of business, NGOs and government departments, we have worked with. Almost everyone can wax lyrical about themselves, their agenda and their needs, but stop them long enough to ask about the people they intend to influence or sell to and the conversation dries up pretty sharply (cue chirping crickets). This, as you may imagine, is a critical issue — perhaps the critical issue.

In chapter 3, we talked about the human desire to act in accordance with identity. In our research and work we have found pretty conclusively that identity drives all human behaviour; we don’t act
based on what we think we should do, we act in accordance with who we think we are. This is such a critical point that it bears making twice.

If you have an identity that conflicts with those you wish to engage with — whether it be your beliefs, your product, your brand, your intentions or even the people you associate with — it is incredibly difficult to have any real influence beyond coercion.
And so, in order to drive change or engage a particular constituency, it is vitally important that you know both who they are currently and the identity they wish to project to the world. This is one of the conflicts that businesses that play the price game fall into. Take for example the discount furniture companies that like to advertise with messages saying, ‘We’re cheap … really cheap … so
cheap you can’t find cheaper!’ Of course, while most of us don’t mind saving a few dollars, very few of us want our cheapness (which often translates as a lack of success) projected to the world. Such is the fear of being a complete cheapskate that some customers who shop at these stores have been known to ask for their furniture to be delivered in an unmarked van … under the cloak of darkness … Clearly not ideal. If you want to engage and change human behaviour you need to link your goal to their identity and this process starts by aligning your values.

Create values alignment

As all human behaviour is driven by our identity, so our identity is driven by the values and belief systems we collect or adopt over the course of our lives. Few of us possess the ability to act in a way that is in conflict with our values for any sustained period or with any great success. However, if a cause aligns with our values, we are capable of heroic acts of the extraordinary, discoveries that drive the human race forward, and performance that challenges our very notion of human limits.

But these values can also drive us to commit acts of unparalleled corruption and evil. But, when aligned with our values, these acts do not seem evil at all. They may even be considered of the highest moral value and social contribution. And that is precisely the point: our values drive us internally and consistently and are self-sustaining when linked to a compelling identity.

Dan sits on the board of the anti-violence against women White Ribbon Foundation. This organisation was founded in response to a single heinous act. On the afternoon of 6 December 1989, a man walked into the École Polytechnique in Montreal and massacred 14 of his female classmates. His actions traumatised a nation and brought the issue of violence against women to the forefront of our collective consciousness.

Two years later, a handful of men in Toronto decided they had a responsibility to speak out about and work to stop men’s violence against women. As a result, the White Ribbon Campaign in Canada — held between 25 November and 6 December — has become an annual awareness-raising event. In 1999, the United Nations General Assembly declared 25 November as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, with a White Ribbon as its iconic symbol.

How Dan came to work as an ambassador for the cause and then sit on its board in Australia is an example of how a capacity to align with someone’s values creates change and engagement, and calls on those who can, to lead.

In 2011, Dan was asked to speak at the Sustaining Women in Business (SWB) conference, which was to be held in Adelaide, South Australia. He was flown in to speak on a panel as one of the ‘token males’ in the room on the subject of ‘A woman’s place is …’

In the days before the conference, we were discussing what angle Dan should take in this debate (as well as why he had demonstrated such poor judgement in agreeing to participate in a debate with this title in the first place).

Just when the whole thing was beginning to look like a folly, Kieran’s daughter — Dan’s goddaughter, Darcy — who was two at the time, climbed over Kieran, wrapped her arms around Dan and said, ‘I love you, my Dan’. At that moment, Dan had his argument, an argument that had been struggling to form in his mind since he was a 19-year-old student at university.

Two days later, when Dan joined the panel at the SWB conference, he revealed the story of his goddaughter’s timely encouragement and told the story of when, as a student, a poster in a textbook had changed the way he saw the world. The poster, which advertised the Violence Against Women Coalition in the United States, had been created by Tom McElligott and Nancy Rice of the 1980s creative hot shop Fallon McElligott & Rice in Minneapolis. It was simply art directed in black and white with bold typography that punched out the headline, ‘One in four women will be raped in her lifetime. Will it be your mother, your sister, your daughter or your wife?’ The room watched Dan in shocked silence. Dan went on to say, ‘What makes this such an extraordinary piece of communication, one that has haunted me for 20 years, is not that it makes the case for women’s safety, but that it makes women’s safety a man’s issue … it makes women’s safety my issue’. Such is the power of aligning your values with those of your constituents.

This understanding later informed some work we did to raise money for cancer awareness and research. When we learned that one in three people will contract some form of cancer in their lifetime, we realised that the statistic was so enormous that the other two in three must surely know someone with cancer. This was the strategic underpinning of the work we undertook. We didn’t ask people to help strangers; we asked them to honour someone they knew. The campaign quintupled
the amount of money raised for cancer research in previous years.

What this demonstrated to us was that a call to act out of self interest and personal connection was a far more successful strategy than simply expecting people to do the right thing, act out of guilt or
simply be generous.

The key is to frame what’s important to you in terms of what’s important to them. Until you do, you are not in a relationship, whether personal or professional. This is the most critical distinction any leader, salesperson, entrepreneur, partner or parent can make and yet it is a wildly undeveloped skill in most of us. It is perhaps the most common cause of conflict in relationships. It’s not that we can’t
appreciate the importance of someone else’s needs; it’s that we mostly don’t even consider them because we’re too busy waiting for our turn to talk.

Instead, in often Oscar-worthy performances, we scream at our children and subordinates whenever they don’t do what they’re told and we struggle to understand why the world doesn’t revolve
around our desires. We bury our heads in our hands and sigh with an exasperated, ‘Why? Why? Why?’ (We probably deserve an award for ‘Most unsupporting actor’.)

The truth is, when we align our values with those of others, not only are they more inclined to ‘fall into line’, they are more likely to pursue our goals with enthusiasm because, essentially, they see these goals as linked to their own.

Demonstrate a connection to broader goals

Before we can anchor our values and desires within the values held by those we want to engage, we also need to understand the goals and desires they hold for the future and the personal metrics they use to measure success.

What this means is we have to link our goals to their personal goals. This is easier said than done as so few of us take the time to truly delve into what motivates those we share our lives with and how well their goals align with our own.
According to Gallup’s ‘State of the American Workplace’ research, released in 2013, approximately 50 per cent of the US workforce is not engaged in the work they do. Twenty per cent is actively
disengaged, which means they are probably checking their Facebook updates while you are giving that ‘motivational’ ra ra speech.

But this disengagement is far from an American sentiment linked to the US economy’s recent performance or lack thereof. In fact, this pattern is reflected in workplaces around the world and in many cases, the level of engagement is far worse. The study was conducted in 142 different economies and revealed workplace engagement averages worldwide at about 13 per cent. We hope you weren’t planning anything that relies on widespread enthusiasm!

Given the size of this disengagement, you may, quite reasonably, be prompted to ask, ‘Why did they apply for the job in the first place?’ and perhaps just as importantly, ‘How can we reawaken that sense of anticipation now that they’ve been in the job for a while?’

Show them what’s in it for their communities

According to Nielsen’s 2012 Global Trust in Advertising report, approximately 90 per cent of us rely on friend recommendations before making any major decision: the suburb to live in, where to
send our children to school, whether to take a new job or not, major purchases, even the politicians we’ll choose to ‘anonymously’ vote for. ‘Rely’ is a powerful word. It means more than just ask for. It means more than simply consider. It indicates that our social set, our intimate network is a critical factor in the decisions we make.

Those of us who seek to have influence — leaders, marketers, salespeople, parents, spouses — can’t succeed by speaking only to individuals; we must also engage the connections that sit around
these individuals.

In addition to considering their identity and how it is informed by their personal values and goals, we also need to consider the selfishness that drives their social set. Which needs and wants are met by membership in their communities and networks that they cannot have met in any other part of their lives? Do your goals and ambitions align with them or conflict with them? Where is your common ground?

What the Nielsen research indicates is that we form collaborative opinions. This is a key point: people want to collaborate and be involved in processes. And yet, when we want to persuade, influence or engage we typically try to cajole others into accepting our foregone conclusions rather than inviting them into the process while opinions are still forming.

This is not some new-age mollycoddling that is best left to those who live in communes; it is critical to increasing levels of engagement and enthusiasm and, importantly, it creates a sense of ownership. It means our staff tend to work harder, our customers become more loyal and we all begin to internalise the belief system surrounding the work we’re engaged in.

We even share our selfishness. Now before you point out that this is an oxymoron, what we’re talking about is our tendency to generate collaborative selfishness. In other words, our social networks help to inform what is in our interests and they help us decide whether something aligns with this self-interest or not.

So, if we are to be influential in the lives of others, whether it be our family, our staff or our customers, we have to also influence their social network — we have to influence the influencers! Group dynamics too are motivated by self-interest. You need look no further than the nearest one-eyed sports fan who believes every umpire is an idiot and needs their eyes tested and that the
opposition team is filled with morally bankrupt cheats, the same is true of nationalist politicians who campaign along the lines of ‘my country right or wrong’.

What’s important to note in this regard is that this shared self-interest enables us to believe we’re not selfish at all. After all, if I’m ultimately working for the greater good of the group, even if I stand to benefit, is that really being selfish?

This distinction becomes important when we’re seeking to motivate people towards action because, while we may be selfish, we don’t like to see ourselves as selfish so we create ‘happy delusions’ around our behaviour and ultimately frame it as a contribution.

However, anchoring what’s important to you in terms of what’s important to them (and their social circle) is incredibly important and, for a leader or influencer, it is critical.

Offset the cost

Isaac Newton’s third law of thermodynamics states that ‘for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction’. For you physics phobics out there, one way of looking at this law in a less physics-like manner is to consider that for everything we create, something is destroyed or redeployed in a way it hasn’t been before. For the purposes of this chapter, consider that for every ‘What’s in it for me?’ there is an equal ‘What’s it going to cost me?’ that needs to be considered, and if possible, offset.

It is an almost reflexive response when someone believes they are being sold a product or an idea for them to do some mental arithmetic — a negotiation between cost and benefit. And yet, so often we act as if this is not understood by all the parties involved.

While it may be true that the precise cost and benefit may not be understood, we all to some extent know that cost is involved. We know that if something seems too good to be true, it most likely is and as a result our defences become more alert and attuned. We suddenly feel like prey and unconsciously see the other person as a predator. So, not dealing with the cost of gain can actually exaggerate the cost’s importance in our minds.

Demonstrate that your issue is my issue

In 2012, our business, The Impossible Institute™, was invited to work with the United Nations (in Singapore), the Singapore government and some non-government organisations on strategies for tackling the issue of human trafficking in Singapore.

This is a difficult issue to deal with in a first-world country such as Singapore, because the problem is largely hidden behind great wealth and an overwhelmingly polite society. This also contributes
to the larger belief that the issue is ‘someone else’s problem’ or that it happens ‘somewhere else’.
Unlike a natural disaster, which is incredibly visible and affects an entire community, human trafficking is, by its very nature, a secretive business.

One of the first strategies we suggested to the Singapore government and the gathered UN consortium was that they change the language used around the issue to make it more human, more personal and more urgent. We suggested using the term ‘slavery’ rather than ‘human trafficking’ and that the sex industry be referred to as ‘organised mass rape’ — certainly not the language that our delightfully polite hosts were used to using, but language they could immediately see made a difference to how they thought and felt about the issue.

This strategy, of course, only goes some way to changing people’s attitudes about an issue. To go further, we also had to link the issue to their Singaporean national pride. Singapore prides itself on its role in the South-East Asian region, its clean streets, its almost obedient population and its status as a first-world nation. We also suggested framing this criminal activity as damaging the status of the nation and the international image of its citizens. Can a first-world country truly be called first world if it lives off slavery?

This strategy is designed to change the balance of the cost–benefit equation and quite strongly suggest that the international and economic costs of human trafficking far outweigh the costs of ridding the country of it.

The environmental movement

Why do good ideas and movements fail even when there is a benefit to those they are trying to engage?
Let’s start by looking at what we’ll call the real inconvenient truth in the environmental movement (with apologies to former US Vice President Gore for distorting the meaning he applied to the same
phrase): ‘the environmentalism fail’.

One of the reasons the environmental movement has, if not failed, at least stalled and suffered from limited influence, is that its principal argument thus far has been to ask people to save the planet because it is the right thing to do.

Even the phrase ‘Save the Planet’ is problematic because, the planet itself is in no real danger. It pre-dates humanity and will exist long beyond our extinction, not to mention the fact that there are small organisms living in volcanic outflows in a highly acidic environment that would quite benefit from the acidification of our oceans and the sulphur-rich atmosphere that global warming may generate. No doubt they are busy hatching grand plans for what they’ll do when they rule the world! A more effective argument is to forget the planet’s survival and talk about ours — and again, not just our children’s or our great grandchildren’s, but ours! Not some time in the future when we all drive flying cars and ride hoverboards, but now! Another reason why this argument struggles to gain traction is that it is set in the future (incidentally, this is one of the reasons insurance and retirement
savings are such a tough sell — because we may or may not need them one day). Our immediate environmental costs include increasing food prices, economic failures, damage to our houses as the soil structures beneath them dry out, and an increasing incidence of skin cancer. These are all decidedly personal costs related to climate change in the here and now yet most of the time they are not mentioned.

Gender equality

Another important social movement that has enjoyed less success than it ought to have is the campaign for gender equality. Despite the century of advancement made since women’s suffrage, we still live in a world where women earn between 70 and 80 per cent of what their male counterparts do, where women are noticeably absent from political life, even in first-world democracies, and where corporate boards are still playing catch-up despite many governments around the world having mandated quotas and minimum representation for years now.
There are a number of reasons for this. One of these is the shortage of women backing the feminist cause for reasons of cultural belief, the availability of education and even the desire to avoid the ‘F’-word label. (Feminism has come to be regarded with similar disdain to the other F-word.) But perhaps more importantly is the fact that the gender debate has largely been discussed by only one gender.

In fact, the advancement of women has been positioned as something for women as opposed to being an advancement of the whole of society — something to fight for. Even the notion of having to fight for it suggests a resistance and an opposing side. As a result of this men have not been engaged at all. Instead men have been told that they are wrong, that they are to blame and must be punished, and that gender equality will cost them power or money and position (not to mention angry slurs such as ‘misogynist pig’). Perhaps there would be greater success if men were instead made aware that female equality helps make all of our businesses, lives and futures more successful. This would also be a far better strategy for driving change or engaging those who currently hold the institutional power.

The real question is, ‘What’s in it for them?’

We work with a lot of professional sales teams around the world and what is glaringly obvious, regardless of culture or corporate style, is that salespeople know their products inside out but usually have a thin veneer of understanding when it comes to the people they’re
trying to engage.

The same is true in personal relationships. We often understand exactly what we’re trying to gain but seldom do we have more than a shallow understanding of what the people we’re trying to persuade or engage value or are interested in.

This is even more evident in the way we often deal with children. While in public, we often do whatever it takes to keep them happy (or, more accurately, quiet). However, because we are culturally conditioned to think of their wants as insignificant compared with our very grown-up and important needs — including such things as the fact that we’re in a rush because we’re poor time managers ‘so would you please hurry up’, or worrying about what complete strangers may think of us to the point where we reprimand children despite their very normal demands (‘Too bad, small person. Your bladder is of scant concern to me. I have a social image to protect.’)

Thinking Selfish is not about acting selfish; it’s about using this understanding of our natures. So perhaps we should end this chapter with a warning: One of the risks of advising people to ‘Think Selfish’ is that they may read and understand this to mean ‘Think Selfishly’. The distinction is rather an important one. Thinking Selfish is to listen, to enquire, to watch, to learn and to honestly appraise what drives most human beings most of the time. In fact, Thinking Selfish is quite the opposite of Thinking Selfishly.

Applying ‘WIIFM’

When applying ‘WIIFM’, remember the following:
1 Understand that we are all selfish.
2 Align your intention with the identity and values of those you wish to influence.
3 Frame what is important to you in terms of what is important to them.
4 Link your success to the success of those you wish to influence.
5 Demonstrate how you serve communities and networks as well as the individuals in them.
6 Acknowledge and offset the cost to them (they are aware of the cost even if you are not).
7 Don’t act selfish. Learn to accept the selfishness of others and use it. Ask, ‘What’s in it for them?’

Published by WILEY, Selfish, Scared & Stupid is available now in paperback, RRP $25.95, from all good bookstores and www.selfishscaredandstupid.com

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