7 human behavior insights you need to know

Hosted by Neil Amato

The changes brought about and accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic are numerous. Our day-to-day lives have been altered, forcing individuals and organizations to adapt quickly. A new report from the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants and EY Seren explores the patterns of behavior emerging. The report, Human Signals, also offers advice for accountants in an era of uncertainty. This podcast is the first of two parts that take a closer look at the report’s findings and action items.

In this episode, Association CEO and AICPA President and CEO Barry Melancon, CPA, CGMA, shares more about this transformational time. Then Joel Bailey, a director at EY Seren and a report author, delves into the research behind the report. In the second part, executive coach and consultant Gretchen Pisano offers practical applications from the report and discusses how its findings dovetail with what she’s hearing from leaders.

What you’ll learn from this episode:

  • Why the accounting profession should heed this reminder: “We were not, pre-COVID-19, in this static environment.”
  • The areas of research focus for Human Signals.
  • The seven main insights that came out of the report.
  • How the face of community is changing, including a lost sense of belonging.
  • Why the pandemic initially inspired an increase in individual acts of service to neighbors and the community.

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:

To comment on this podcast or to suggest an idea for another podcast, contact Neil Amato, a
JofA senior editor, at Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com.


Neil Amato: Barry, thank you so much for being here today.

Barry Melancon: Well, I’m happy to be here. These are exciting times and interesting times and challenging times for everyone, so it’s important that we explore all aspects of what’s going on in the profession. And this is a very important one, that human aspect.

Amato: In what ways is this such a transformative time for the accounting profession?

Melancon: You know, the way I look at it is, this report is about the human element. And so let’s just step back and remind ourselves that, even though we were in hyper change from a technology perspective to start with, the ultimate way the profession delivers value and helps society and has its purpose is because of its people. And people who have listened to me over the years have heard me say that I have this incredible opportunity at this job, because I work for this collection of people who I don’t think you can replicate any place else in society about how great the people are, how ethical and competent. And I think when we think about the impacts of today’s world, the whole COVID environment, the economic challenges, it really is a reminder that what stays the same but maybe has to slightly evolve is our thinking related to the people and the challenges that they face. Because that’s how they bring relevance and help, really, to the society at large.

And really, the purpose of the profession is about doing that, right? And if we even think about developed economies and underdeveloped economies, the existence of a successful profession of accountancy is always present with successful and developed economies. And so, if we think about ourselves as wanting to have a renewed environment, a renewed economy, our profession is going to be critical in getting to that.

Amato: How can leaders identify opportunities for innovation and growth when there is so much uncertainty? And how does a report like the Human Signals report play a role in that?

Melancon: Yeah, I think you have to think about opportunities, and, you know, also, again, because the report focuses on this, is you have to think about the people inside. And so, we have different generations in our profession, and we know that the younger generations are very purpose-driven. We know that older generations have a different perspective on entrepreneurism, which is actually reflected, again, in a newer generation. And so, where I would start is, as I looked at new ways of doing things, and particularly if you’re in a firm environment or you’re in a management accounting structure in a company, is I really would see this as a chance to give opportunity to show their capabilities to a younger generation. To find new ways to meet the challenges, and to bring their own passion, their own passion about what’s important in the world, particularly in a world of a pandemic, what’s important, and how the profession or how the services that you’re designing can meet those objectives.

And so, it really, to me, is about, when you talk about innovation, you’re sort of unleashing the thought processes of people, and the ideas will flow. And this environment when people are predominantly working at home, there’s no travel, and relationships feel much different, it’s really a tool, the thinking about innovation is really a tool to give people their own personal meaning and their own personal accomplishments in this world.

Amato: So, specifically on the topic of leadership effectiveness, you mentioned that relationships are just different now. How can they be effective when there is so much uncertain about what we’re living in right now?

Melancon: Well, you know, if you take, let’s just say, the collective workforce of the world today, we know that we have put them in a situation where they have had to adjust to change very rapidly, and that automatically creates some degree of stress. And so, as leaders, I think you have to be about de-risking that, taking that stress away, to the best that you can. And I think you have to talk about, you know, where the organization is headed, and why the productivity can be there. I mean, one of the things that we did, internally at the Association, was, you know, we said it’s called work-from-home. And so, we wanted to set the notion of, you do have an obligation to work and to be productive.

And, you know, that created a degree of normalcy is what we were trying to achieve in that environment, rather than everything being uncertain. You know, we expect you to be productive, and that’s just like we expected you beforehand, before you were working at home. And relationships tie to that. You know, it is much easier, in this environment, to build on existing relationships, because you know the person, you know what’s important to the person that you’re dealing with, you’ve had other exchanges, there’s a trust level that exists. Where I think the hard work is, is building new relationships, because — and that’s important. It may have not been important the first 30 days or the first 60 days, but as this goes longer and longer, whatever your accountabilities are, you’re required to build new relationships.

And that is a much harder environment, and you have to work at it. You have to be intentional about it. You have to have allocated time, in a virtual meeting, that builds that knowledge base the same way that you would in a personal meeting, you know, where are you from, where did you work, what are your hobbies, and find that commonality, as you build new relationships. So I really think there’s two sets of facts: There’s the existing relationships and the new and emerging relationships. And I think we have to help people understand that those are different, and really talk about the skills that are necessary and those building new relationships.

I think there’s another aspect of the profession in this environment, and that is the agility and speed issue. And clearly, we’re in a world in which change has, you know, the timeline for change has truncated, and technology is not slowing down as far as its implications. But I think it’s very important for the people in our profession to realize that we were not, pre-COVID-19, in this static environment. We were not in this sort of environment in which technology wasn’t changing how, essentially, every service and every function of the profession was really being designed. We were already in that environment. And so, when you think about adjusting to a new world, to a large degree our profession’s embracing of that gives us, collectively, a head start in that environment.

Because it wasn’t a static environment to begin with, we’re going through rapid change, even, you know, more rapid than what we anticipated, and it’s certainly not going to be static on the other end. And so, we can build that into our expectations, and when we do, it’s a lot less threatening.

Amato: Again, that was Barry Melancon, CEO of the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants. Up next is Joel Bailey of EY Seren. He takes us deeper into the why and the what of the Human Signals report’s research. Joel, thank you for being here.

Joel Bailey: Thank you for having me along.

Amato: Regarding the Human Signals report, why did you focus on what you did with the research?

Bailey: Well, it was, we go back to about the 16th of March, when the coronavirus was kind of making its steady way across the world towards us. And I spoke with some of the partners in our business and made a case for some research to understand how this was going to change human behavior. Because it’s going to be a huge global experiment in human behavior. And we very quickly mobilized a team of people, just a small team, and we set them to research across different types of different methods of research, to understand what was coming. And then, every three weeks, we’ve been putting out a report to our community, AICPA/Association, and others, to give our insights as to what we’re learning. So it’s been quite a fast-moving project, but absolutely fascinating, and looking forward to sharing some of that with you.

Amato: Yeah, and some of that sharing will include the seven insights in the report. Can you walk us quickly through each of those?

Bailey: Sure, yeah. So, obviously, take a look at the report; it’s pretty dense, there’s a lot of material there. I’ll kind of take you through quickly, but there’s three main areas that we have focused on for the Association, because there are some quite serious implications here. And every organization, globally, is having to respond, but the Association has its own requirements and its own needs and its own shifts coming, so we’ve tried to profile those. The first one is how the face of community is changing. Now, clearly, the Association is a large community organization, relies on its members, and supports those members in many ways.

But how is community changing? And how can we look at the coronavirus as a trigger in that change? So I’m going to talk to two or three things there. The second one is how learning, which is obviously a big part of member goals, which is continued professional development or becoming an expert in a certain domain, that whole world of learning has changed overnight. And we knew it was changing already, but that acceleration, what has that brought about, what’s the change there. And then, the third one is around purpose. Never before has purpose been more important and often before profit increasingly.

And COVID has just brought people together to focus on new things, and I want talk about a couple of areas there. So, if you’d like, those are our three main areas, and I’m going to dive into the first one, and then I’ll take a few minutes on each.

So, let’s go back to the face of community and how it’s changing. So, if I take three points of view on that, the first one is this kind of lost sense of belonging. Now, we all join communities in order to belong, and one thing that COVID and the associated lockdown periods have brought about is this kind of loss.

Everybody has lost something, and it can be all the way from a loved one, which is a terrible tragedy and happening all too frequently at the moment, but also, it could be a loss of a role, it could be a loss of a community, a tangible community. So, we’ve looked at a lot of loss psychology and how that works, and we have the team look at secondary research from academics, but also we’ve done diary studies with people out in the fields. So, people who are living their lives have let us look into those lives, via WhatsApp in a remote secure way, and have told us about their feelings of loss. And what we discovered is that it really matters in two ways.

So, do you have access to resources? Can you recover from loss? If you do have access to resources, which could be financial resources, it could be information resources, or a network of friends who can support you, or family. And obviously, if you don’t have those things, you’re less likely to be able to recover from loss. But actually, the big thing that came out that people really haven’t recognized is the capacity to recover from loss. So, what we’ve found is that somebody might have all the resources in the world, but if they are in a position where they don’t believe they can control their future — and that is the key question — then they won’t be able to make use of those resources.

And what we’re often finding, whenever we speak to anyone in our community about this, they really identify with this. They say that people who are at this low capacity for change, at that end of the spectrum, are really struggling and need a lot of help from their community and from organizations like the Association. Because they need to feel like they belong, and they need to feel like the community they’re a part of is helping them to rebuild their capacity to change. So, I think it’s a really important idea for the Association: How do we help members to rebuild their capacity to change? Because, I’ll be honest, we’re in a world of continued adaptation, and I’m going to come onto that again in a moment.

The second one is around reinvention of work practices. So, this one is, again, another way around community changing. Clearly, a lot of communities were physical, we used to meet people, we’re networking through events, through workplaces, and what we’ve seen, clearly, is this enormous experiment in isolated work. I don’t really like calling it remote working or working from home yet, because it’s not really that yet. It’s still an isolated work experiment. And for some people, it’s a gift, right, it means I don’t have to commute. I’m one of those, right, I’m lucky, I quite enjoy the fact that I don’t have to commute anymore for two hours a day.

But for others who are physically located in an environment that doesn’t allow them to work from home, well, it’s creating all sorts of new tensions. And actually, what we’re finding is it’s really useful to segment people based on these things. So, what is their physical situation? And then the second criteria is, what is their psychological preference. Are they an introvert or an extrovert? There’s been a lot more talk about this over the years, and it’s now coming into stark light, right? So, the introverts kind of like working from home.

The extroverts are really struggling. They need to be exposed to people; they get their energy from people. So, how do we create that dynamic in this new place? The third one, then, in terms of losing a sense of community is this polarization of communities. Now, one of the things that COVID has demonstrated through the data is that if you’re from an ethnic minority or a Black community or you’re female, you are going to be disproportionately affected by this crisis. And that’s brought about a really added sort of tinder to the flames of the social justice movement that we’re seeing worldwide.

And we looked into this and we explored how some of the social media algorithms kind of draw people to extremes. And in a community, this is really important, the fact that we are getting more polarized, and that we’re not seeing a shared view and getting a shared perspective on things. And I think what this really brings back is, if we want to kind of restore community, we have to be very clear about the world we’re living in and how community is being damaged. And it really comes back to the integrity and the purpose of the community, and I’m going to come onto that in a moment. So, there’s three ways that we think community is changing. Let’s talk for a couple of minutes about how learning is changing.

This is definitely the case. Anyone who was born 1985 or thereabouts has grown up in an era of crisis, of continual change, right? If it wasn’t the 2008 crisis, if it wasn’t some form of a democratic crisis or some form of social justice crisis, and a backdrop of climate crisis, there is a sense of continual change, more so than, perhaps, the stable, postwar years. And that is creating a dynamic of “I can no longer just stay the same.” Organizations have been awake to this for a while; they need to be agile, need to keep changing. But for individuals, this need to continually adapt is not just what I learn but how I learn, and the fact that I need to continually shift my modes of learning.

And right now, clearly, moving to online learning and those sorts of things is creating demands on people that they didn’t have before. So younger generations may be more comfortable with it; older generations need more help with these new ways of learning. And I think what we’re looking to do, with all of our clients, is how do you help your users, your members, your customers to adapt and continually adapt? That means your service has to adapt for them, and that’s a really important point, because a lot of services have been built based on static needs. Now, it’s very variable.

One more point on this one, this change of learning is everyone talks about the “new normal.” The point we’re raising here is there will be a million new normals, because one thing that digital has always done, in every wave of change, is it has radically personalized the world, and everybody is able to personalize through digital. And COVID, if nothing else, has driven and accelerated digital to new levels. So, from a learning point of view, what we’re expecting to see is a million new normals, that people — and if you remember the graphic equalizers of old on our old hi-fis — they’ll be able to kind of like adjust everything in their world, to the things they want. So, I think the idea that we’re going to go from one shared new normal to one new shared new normal is probably gone. It’s going to be much more diverse.

So, how does that work for learning? Well, people are going to need to be able to adjust and do a bit of face-to-face and a bit of online, and mix it up, right, according to their preferences. Which creates different challenges for organizations that provide learning. All right, last points here now, OK? A lot of the points that I’ve already mentioned, they all anchor down onto purpose, so let’s talk through what we mean by purpose. For me, it’s about, profit has always been a driver, and what COVID brought about was an understanding that we’re all connected in these very complicated ways and that you can’t just have a binary economic view on the world.

Now, obviously, for an accountancy profession, that kind of challenges some of the dynamics of what we do as an industry, because we are there to support organizations that work in that environment. So, how do we bring purpose to play alongside profit? Now, we’ve looked at this in two ways. The first one is around daily dissonance, and this is the fact that we as professionals — everybody is trying to be two things at once during this crisis. So, at one point, we’re trying to be engaged energetic workers, but in our home time, we’re probably kind of trapped and slightly low-energy. There’s a lot of evidence of that.

We’re trying to consult and help our clients and be professional accountants and help them to grow and make profit as organizations. But at the same time, we’re having conversations with our children about how a profit-driven world is destroying nature. So, we have this dissonance continually, and I think this is really important if we look at ourselves as individuals or as leaders or we think about our relationship with clients, who are we choosing to be? What is COVID making us think about ourselves, and how do we need to adapt, and how do we need to present ourselves to the world? And that’s a very individual choice for people.

Final point, now: new purpose in service. This was the first insight that came out of our entire project, and we’ve had about 25 insights overall over three months, but this was the first one. Because what we saw, in the first weeks of the crisis, was this profound shift of everybody worrying about themselves before the crisis, as we tend to do in life, to suddenly asking, “How can I help?” across the board. Leaders were saying to the frontline, “How can I help?” Neighbors were saying to each other, “How can I help?” Volunteers were signing up to help in hospitals and social care. And this profound outpouring, it’s kind of waning now, but what everybody was realized in all our interviews with leaders over this, because we did do about 32 expert interviews and client interviews, was this: That is the thing that we want to bottle, this sense of purpose in serving others, serving other members, serving a community.

Because when you have that, it’s an intrinsic motivator to do the right thing by the other person, whether it’s a client or whether it’s a colleague. And this is the thing that everybody keeps returning to, and I hope that we can find ways to retain. Because an organization like the Association is a purpose-driven organization, it has a very clear purpose. And right now, I think this is a great opportunity to renew that focus, and there’s a sense that people are hungry for that. So I think, taken in a broader sense, you know, looking at how community is changing, the speed and change around learning, and how we need to put purpose and value over profit, these are the main points, I think, that are really relevant to the members who are hopefully listening to this today.

Amato: Anything you’d like to add in closing?

Bailey: Yeah, I think what’s been most fascinating, and it’s been a real privilege to research this and to work with the Association and understand how this affects members, because it is profound and I think it is important. But one of the main reflections is the power of doing this sort of rapid research and doing different types of research. I mean, I think we’re all used to doing surveys. We’re all used to looking at data inside our businesses. But we spent time, you know, sitting with customers, talking to them for an hour; they let us into their lives. And that’s where a lot of this insight has come from, that and doing a huge amount of reading by academics, by journalists, to really get a full view of this. And doing that in this kind of agile way.

What I mean by that is, like, every few days, we were kind of saying to each other, as a team, “What have we learned? What else do we need to go out and learn?” And we were very adaptive. And I think all organizations have realized that they need to become learning organizations because of this. The world has changed, and the only way to deal with that change is to be able to learn faster and respond faster. I mean, that’s my world. I’m an agile research and design practitioner. That’s what I do. No one wants to find the bright side of a crisis like this, but there is an opportunity for organizations to embrace techniques like this.

To get closer to customers and to members, and to use that to rethink, very quickly, “What are we trying to do here? How can we help? How can we adapt the organization?” And I’m really excited about that, and so are lots of other organizations. And my conversations with individuals in the Association, it chimes with them, that we want to be more responsive to members. So I guess my parting thought is research isn’t a dusty thing that’s done in a corner. It’s part of the lifeblood of the organization, to really understand what’s going on in the world, and a way of making better, faster business decisions. So, I hope that’s come through. It’s really exciting for me.