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  • Writer's pictureSusan Tatum

How Our Behavior DNA Dictates Our Financial Decisions

Updated: Sep 11, 2021

with Hugh Massie, Chairman and CEO DNA Behavior

There are so many insights that we could get from understanding how behaviors, as hard-wired in our DNAs, tend to dictate how we react in different situations. Chairman and CEO of DNA Behavior, Hugh Massie, sheds light on the truth about this and how it is so. Covering our financial decisions in the way we handle pressure and emotions, he points to the unknown behaviors we took on from when we were born that seem to derail our performance. Hugh puts that in the context of how we manage money, build businesses, develop relationships with clients, and lead better. Take a deep dive into this interesting topic and use the behavioral insights and wisdom to take control and empower yourself even more.

Transcribed by AI What I see is it’s a scientific approach because it does have a data framework underlying it. The message that I see is there’s something in our DNA, as individuals, that will dictate how we react in these different situations. Is that fair to say?

Yes, it’s one way of putting it. In terms of your DNA, what I came across and I can address the background, is that we are all hardwired in a certain way from when we are born to the first three years of our lives. It forms our hard wiring, if you want to call it that and more the term we use in our businesses, the natural DNA behavioral style that’s there. People revert to that instinctively when they’re under pressure. What causes pressure? Money, relationships, it tends to cause people to go under pressure. What we know is that’s the predictable behavior for the person. That’s what they’re going to do on a day-in-day-out basis. We get precious situations whether it’s small instances in a day or over longer time periods, but that’s where people go and it’s also where they’re comfortable in operating. Comes with that is a set of strengths and struggles, comes with that is a decision-making style. I’m not a psychologist. I am an accountant. I would call myself a reformed accountant, but even in my accountancy career, when I was managing lots of different clients, as a young CPA, I realize that in getting people to make decisions, I had to understand who I was.

Some people needed diagrams put in front of them, others needed five bullet points. Even though I had written a 40-page letter to justify the conclusion, they need to be dumbed down. For others, they wouldn’t make the decision without knowing all of that. Knowing what words to use with different people. I instinctively knew those things, but I didn’t know that was human behavior. I knew to do it. I woke up one day and I think this is the pivotable moment. One of the pivotal moments is when I had left the accountancy world and I’d set up a wealth management firm in Sydney and I was asked a question one day, “What are you passionate about?” At 33 or 32 years old, it’s not something I had focused on. I’ve been a lot more inward, but I answered the question, “I want to help people all over the world become more self-empowered.” One of the things I need to do is I need to understand their relationship with money, if they’re going to do that. Out of that, I did a bit of reflective thinking and thought, “There must be some truth in here. It’s powerful and I need to do something about it.” I went and did research. I look at, “There is no one out there doing anything that involves behavior and money.” I started to find that there were some people researching the topic. Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel prize in 2002. I had my conversation with myself and with a few of my clients started in about 2001 or 2002 on this topic.

I realized as I surveyed the wealth management industry around the world, there was no one dealing with behavior and money and systemizing it. I looked at my own skills and thought, “I can build a system that connects behavior and money and makes it real for people. It makes it a plot.” I’ve gone through an exercise with a major US corporation and they asked us for the competitor analysis. There is no one that has got something that competes with what we have. They’ve got parts of it. If you want to call it the human behavior market of systems out there measuring human behavior, it’s busy. There are 3,000 systems out there from Risk Profiling Tools to Myers-Briggs and DISC and Kolbe. There’s no one who’s married behavior and money and that’s the difference of where we sit. We’ve also got other applications that run off there, but that’s the core central thing that we built.

The next part is how do you do that on a mass scale basis? How do you deliver customized experiences using human behavior on a mass scale basis? That’s another area that no one’s gone on the attack. When you piece all that together, it came from my own life purpose. I’ve never wavered. I’m out there to help people all over the world become self-empowered. I never wavered from that decision that where am I, a pioneer if you want to call it that, is bringing together behavior and money and making it applicable. It’s not just talking about research, making it applicable.

If I had done a lot of research on it, I spent millions of dollars of my own personal money in building technology, I don’t have a venture capitalist. I am the venture capitalist and I haven’t asked anybody else for anything and I built it up. I was in a position where I could do that and I’ve taken a lot of risks, but that’s okay. That goes back to my own style a little bit and situation. I’ve backed that. I’ve never wavered from that. This is where a lot of entrepreneurs get into trouble is they want to start a business because there’s a fad. They think they can make a lot of money out of it quickly. I haven’t come back to what their real purpose and what’s going to get them out of bed every day even when stuff is going wrong for you because it does.

Even someone was telling me with the Lego business. Lego is from Denmark and it’s all over the world. I did it when I was a kid in the 1960s and 1970s. My Sunday is in the Lego. That business has nearly been bankrupt a few times. The real thing is businesses go up and down. You’ve got to be resilient. What holds you to that are the purpose and the passion. You’ve got to have both of those. That’s fundamental and it’s something I’m big at teaching people is what your identity is as the leader? What are you going to be remembered for? What’s that higher place you’re going to take yourself? For me, it’s about being a behavioral insights pioneer. Even in our strategy meeting in our business, I had the team. You’re sitting there quite vulnerable and the team is, “What is she going to do as the behavioral insights pioneer to help the business and have had the maximum impact?” They all went away and thought about it and we’d come back with ideas.

Is that where you get the next insight?

Yes, where I have my maximum power and impact and keep me focused on that because everybody else can do the rest of it. The purpose is important. What’s your identity? The next part is market positioning, which is what I think what you’re coming to. I don’t think that comes until you’ve got the other two things figured out. I follow a process in our business called Play Bigger and there’s a book called Play Bigger by four marketing guys from Silicon Valley. A lot of people, when they talk about marketing, they talk about, “We’ve got to have a nice logo. We’ve got to have a nice brand and everything’s got to look pretty and the UX has got to be good.” None of that’s worth anything if you don’t have the market positioning. I’m potentially in a busy place, there are firms out there that do coaching, leadership development, financial services, practice management, you name it. There are all sorts of people out there, but we’ve always been different in our business and the ability to understand the behavior of the client, not just an employee. I’ve kept everybody’s mind focused on the client, helping businesses with improving the client experience. We’ve built technologies that enabled that to happen on a mass scale basis.

That’s interesting to me what you said was is there a way to use something like what you’re talking about to understand our clients better and our prospects better as we’re reaching out to them and as we’re building a relationship with them?

One of the things is people have asked me a few times, “What’s the number one mistake that you can make in business?” I don’t care what business it is because I’ve seen many case studies of this. It is choosing the wrong client. When you start a business, it doesn’t matter what business, whether it’s technology, selling shampoo, building a chemical, manufacturing, whatever it is. At the end of the day, it comes down to choosing the wrong client. We all start a business and anybody’s got $1 and braids are considered a good client. You’ll do something for them to make some money, but it can take you way off track. It can quickly suck you into not being differentiated, leaving you in the wrong place, taking up a lot of productive time. Sometimes, you have to let a client go too. A good client at one point, when you started, it’s not a good client later on. The word, client, is probably a more intimate relationship type based business, but customers are the same thing. It’s more transactional. You can still get to choose the right customers. I think that all comes back to the market positioning and the differentiation.

I find that when my knitters get in the red with a client, we’re at a point where we only do what we do. There was a time where we would take some other types of work to get money coming in the door. Sometimes there’s something off and every time I override my instincts and take on a client that I didn’t feel great about, to begin with, it ends up being an unhappy, unprofitable relationship.

What can happen is that if you do it too many times, you end up changing your business and it’s important that you come back and stick to the original reason that you built the business. That happened for a reason. We’re all unique as human beings. We all have a perspective on the world that’s valid. You’ve seen an opportunity. In nowadays world, some opportunities come and go because of technology and it’s a more fluid, complex world. The broader strategic view is probably still relevant in terms of the problem you’re solving. That’s what this Play Bigger book is talking about differentiation. It’s a Bible for everybody to go and read that and look at what problem you are trying to solve. If you get that right, then the market positioning comes and big things can happen. We don’t all have to have the biggest business. It’s not a competition. I’m part of a group called Entrepreneurs’ Organization, which is a global group for the P2P learning network for entrepreneurs. You’ve got to have a $1 million turnovers to be a member. We’ve got members that are a million and we’ve got members that are a possibility, but it’s not a competition as to whether you’re 1, 10 or a 100. It’s about building the best business that you can. You can have a lot of impact with a $5 million business and be profitable. In fact, maybe more profitable than some of them that are at 100 and it’d be quite sustainable.

I think you can also want to create growth in some businesses. I came across one that we’re working within our company. We connected to with an IPI. They’d been around for many years, but they are on this acceleration path. Sometimes it takes twenty years to become that overnight. This and that could be market positioning. I think we’ve been in our company ahead of our time because we do a lot of work in financial services, but it has not been ready to understand the customer truly. It’s all been about what the service provider thinks is good for them, not what is good for the customer. The same in the healthcare industry, that’s another whole one that’s going to the door’s going to get blown open on that. At the end of the day, it is about the customer.

When you’re talking to a client, you run them through some of your testings?

Nobody does anything without that. I also know when we have not done that, I had the top brass of a company complete it, the sales process fails. You’ve got to have buy-in to your process and what your product’s about from the top down. Otherwise, it doesn’t work.

It’s giving you insights about how to communicate with these people. We try to figure that out ourselves because we know these analytical types and the, “Give it to me, topline it for me,” type.

We know that upfront. I was talking to a CEO of a major fund management company. I know that the guy’s innovative and he will take risks and that he’s got its organizational rocks or priorities. I sit around the area, “I’ll continue the conversation. I know we could probably close some deal with him even if it’s an introductory program within three months.” It always takes time but, “If I don’t see that, then you’re on the five-year list. I will keep in touch with you. We’ll keep telling you more about what we’ve got, but it’s going to need more case studies, more evolution, more thinking time.” Your businesses got to get ready because you’re not an early adopter or you’re not going to go in.

You need other people to pay for the work for this person.

Every business that’s selling to somebody, you need to make the person feel comfortable if you know a little bit more about them and how to adapt the communication, you can do that.

Is all this stuff in your book?

Yes. There’s a book that’s coming out called the Leadership Behavior DNA. That all sits in there. That was a little bit later. It’s all the same stuff. I could rewrite that book for financial planners or for baseball or whatever it is.

You were talking about the financial DNA being important. Are you saying that the way a person feels about it relates to financial issues that will also have an effect on the type of leader they become?

If you look at why companies succeed and fail, it starts at the top, if the leader of the business is incentivized with money or remuneration the wrong way, look at the choices they are going to make. Are they a spender or a saver? If they’re a spender, they will be hoofing it up on the expense account. They will do stuff to have a big office. They’ll have a painting on the wall that costs a lot of money. The financial choices that a leader makes in a business will be aligned with their financial DNA. If they are a pioneer and they are aggressive about goals and taking risks, they will probably be pretty aggressive, perhaps about buying another business to expand a company or taking on debt to expand the company at all costs. That can crush a company. That happens. You get people that are more secretive and cunning and do all sorts of things too. Money is tied in there everywhere and when you think about it, if you take a person’s behavioral style, that shapes how they see the world and how they make decisions, that will influence how they make financial decisions. When you look at the other side where they deploy money, it will reflect who they are. That is the same for an individual as it is for a company.

If I understood you correctly, the DNA and this way you make decisions in your relationship with all these different things are not finalized, but it’s there by the time you’re three?

Yes, even though you haven’t written a check at that time. The point is that there are two levels of behavior and what we concentrated on in building our business. Another differentiator, I suppose, is what your hard wiring from zero to three. It’s fixed. It’s hard to change. Life experiences, education, value sets, belief systems and getting grind from being at school or something happening in the home after three years old, they can all be strongly influencing, but you can change that through hard work, coaching and being around the right peers. It is hard to change from 0 to 3 and people don’t change that. Be aware of it and use the strengths that come from it and manage the struggles that come from it, but don’t try and change it. That is your asset.

In your work, the individual is learning about themselves and you’re teaching and coaching them how to deal with that?

Yes. That’s the first step to everything.

It’s got to be me. It’s got to come from me first.

That’s the same in building a business.

You could also use that information about your employees to manage them to the highest performance level.

It will be that you have an employee in your team, that lovely person. From my case, most times, 98% of the time they’ve fitted the values. It’s all been fine, but is that talent for executing the role right? Sometimes it’s not. You find out later their skills don’t add up. I find these days we always have a problem with the person that can’t work technology as well as they need to. Notwithstanding the skills testing and things that we do upfront on that part. They get out of their depth, but I think the point being is that you can build a great team as long as everybody is aligned on values. That’s fundamental. That’s a non-negotiable thing. It’s about assuming if they’ve got the right skills, then it’s about managing the talents. As a leader, if you know what their talents are, then you can build a good team. What you find is that it starts to go wrong and the energy gets wrong when their talents are wrong for a role. I’ve found sometimes that I’ve had to sit down and say, “Is this what you love doing from a passionate and talented perspective?” When you get the answer, “It’s not,” then we have to get another role for them. The kindest thing you can do is let them go. I do that compassionately. That’s an honest conversation. The worst thing to do is to leave it alone for too long and then upset the whole rhythm of everybody else.

There’s a big part of getting that right and productivity gains can be huge when you get that part right. You pay attention to it. You, as the leader, have got to own up to your own strengths and struggles. If you’re not, everybody else sees through that, then it becomes a hopeless situation. It’s not saying that I’m perfect as a leader. I’m in the area of human behavior. I’m not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but we’ve also done enough with what my role is and how I work with the team so that we do capitalize on the strengths.

The leadership part of it, that’s when I contacted you was what I was seeing. It didn’t occur to me that market positioning would be part of what you get into as well.

We don’t get into that as our service because that’s not our A-game. I took it upon myself in talking with you, Susan, is to emphasize that’s part of what differentiates a business, but I advocate it. I was facilitating a board and I’ve got to do another one. One of our clients is going to adopt our types of solutions. Part of making it all work and making the behavior and the money in a way come together for an organization is they’ve got to get the positioning right. Being an accountant, I’m reasonably practical business-wise, I can see where the gaps are. I know when an organization hasn’t got that positioning part. I’m not a marketing expert, but I know enough to see that.

You’ve mentioned risk-takers a couple of times. I can see that it’s something you’re born with. You’re either risk-averse or you’re not. I’m going to default to marketing because that’s what I know best. If they won’t take that step to differentiate and they’re out there with messaging and positioning and whatever, like everybody else’s. We see that all the time in the software business technology. We see it in consulting. They are like, “It’s working for them, so it should work for me too.” How do you kick somebody out of that stuck position? Can you?

It’s going to come down to my approach. That’s going to come down to what their style and understanding why they’re stuck. They might be stuck because they are more of what I call an anchored person and they are working from experiences. They will inherently find it hard to shift. I will work with what they know, but they could be stuck for other reasons. It can be financial type forces and they haven’t got the financial reserves to make the shift that is needed. They’re thinking too short-term versus long-term. You’ve got to uncover the reasons first and address it from that perspective. A lot of the time, it is showing people’s experiences. Once you know those things of what somebody else did and how they got there, then the light bulbs start to go off. If you are telling somebody to do something, they generally are not going to do it. It’s like telling a chronic spender to do a budget. They’re not going to do it, but if you talk to them about a spending plan and this is how it works, I guess your friend over here who’s also a spender, put a spending plan in place and this is what it did for them, then they’ll do it.

That’s a good point. If they’re not inherently risk-takers, they’re going to want to see the path that’s been followed by others.

Seeing experiences that others have had. That’s what you’ve got to work on. There will be others that if they are creative, you have to show them what the idea is and painting a picture. That will be off to the races. You’ve got to understand all the dynamics with that because somebody could be wanting to make the change, but they’re held up by a stakeholder. There’s some bad energy somewhere. There are a lot of pieces that need to be uncovered for it, but that’s how I would approach it. It is a personality at the end of the day, a lot of it.

Let me ask you to tell the readers how they might get in touch with you if they want to follow-up when your book’s going to be out in 2020, your latest one?

The new book, Leadership Behavior DNA, is already out and you can go to Amazon. It’s there. That’s probably the easiest place to go and get it. To get in touch with me, you can go to our website at, send me an email at That will come to me and we can go from there.

Hugh, thank you so much.

Thank you, Susan. It’s been great. I look forward to being in contact with you.


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