The BNY Mellon Pershing Insite annual conference kicked off Tuesday in virtual mode after being cancelled last year due to the pandemic, and the keynote presentation was largely about getting better based on what was learned in 2020.
After a brief introduction from Pershing chief executive James Crowley, the event relied on scholar, author and celebrated TED talker Adam Grant to break the ice by helping advisers become better business leaders.
Grant, an organizational psychologist at the Wharton School of Business, challenged advisers to get out of their comfort zones as a path toward making better business decisions.
After detailing the ways most people make decisions, are motivated and communicate in business settings, Grant advised encouraging people to think more like scientists and learn to let your thinking and processes evolve with the search for solutions to problems.
“Don’t let ideas become your identity,” he said. “Value humility over pride and curiosity over conviction. There’s evidence that teaching businesspeople to think like scientists makes them more productive and creative, and they become more than twice as likely to pivot.”
Part of the process of thinking like a scientist, which Grant said leads to “mental flexibility and open minds,” involves building a personal “challenge network.”
“This is a group of thoughtful critics you can trust to hold up a mirror so you can see your faults more clearly,” he said, delving into the differences between givers and takers in your network.
“Givers are people who will share knowledge and are happy to make introductions, while takers are all about what can you do for me,” he explained. “You want givers rather than takers in your network.”
But to truly distinguish givers from takers, Grant said the trick is to not be thrown off by a person’s agreeableness, which is a more surface-level personality characteristic.
“For a long time, I assumed that agreeable people would also be givers,” he said.
The problem with agreeable givers is not that they say yes to everything, it’s that they are uncomfortable with conflict and shy away from telling the truth if it’s uncomfortable.
The people you want populating your challenge network, Grant said, are “disagreeable givers, because they will dish out tough love and tell you what you need to hear.”
The next step is creating the kind of “psychological safety” where people feel enough freedom to innovate, he said.
One exercise he likes is challenging employees to come up with ways to “kill the company,” which can often uncover weaknesses that business owners and managers aren’t even thinking about.
“I like to see people run this exercise at least twice a year,” said Grant, who also challenges businesses to “rethink the old suggestion box and turn it into a problem box.”
He recommends using a Google doc where employees can list problems, which are then prioritized by everyone, and employees are then invited to create teams to work on solutions.
“You realize that people who are good at detecting threats are not always the best at solving the problems,” he said. “I started to see financial advisers do this with their clients, and you start to notice what clients agree on and where there are problems, and it helps you align what you want to focus on.”
Grant also takes issue with the traditional brainstorming sessions, where he sees three consistent roadblocks to success.
First, there’s what he calls “production blocking,” because everyone cannot speak at the same time. Second, is the “ego threat,” which prevents some people from sharing out of fear of being wrong or off the mark. And, then there’s the “conformity issue” or “hippo effect,” where the highest-paid person’s opinion overly influences the group. One way of addressing this issue, he said, is having the boss speak last.
“The good news is we’ve been studying a solution, instead of brainstorming, you kick off with individual brain writing,” he said. “Individuals have more good ideas than groups do, also they have more bad ideas, and that’s where you bring in the group.”
On the future of work in a post-pandemic world, Grant said there is nothing quite like a forced remote-work environment to change the way business owners and managers think about remote work.
“In 2018, I went to a bunch of CEOs and founders and explained that working remotely is more productive and people are happier, but they all balked at the idea,” he said.
Three years later with much of the global workforce having experienced remote work, Grant said companies will need to evaluate where remote work makes the most sense.
“If your job is structured like an individual sport, you do not need to be in the same office or Zoom meeting,” he said. “But if you’re doing more like team sports or relay races, you need the person passing the baton to you to be in synchronization. Organizations that do a lot of team sports work will probably need to be more onsite.”
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