This much I know: Dr Ben Hardy, Open University Business School

01 April 2015


In our latest profile of finalists from CMI’s Management Article of the Year, Ben tells us about the chemistry behind risk, his battlefield inspiration – and why call-centre staff need more respect

Colin Marrs

Former vet Ben Hardy is a lecturer in numerous aspects of management at the Open University Business School, and doubles as a Fellow of Cambridge Judge Business School. In his study Morale: unravelling its components – his entry for this year’s Chartered Management Institute (CMI) Management Article of the Year award – Ben drilled down into a working environment that, for many of us, breeds frustration: the call centre. By exploring a host of management approaches, he discovered how morale is generated and maintained amid such high-stress conditions.

Here, he gives us some insights into how his expertise grew…

I was born in Cambridge. But I only lived there for the first six months of my life, so I didn’t have much time to imbibe the academic atmosphere. I would put my future career choice down more to fortunate genetics.

I trained as a vet. In my childhood, I liked the idea of the keen detective work involved in diagnosing. However, being a doctor didn’t appeal. I was a practising vet for more than two years and lectured on the subject at the University of Pennsylvania. I left the profession because I thought nobody would employ a vet – which, in retrospect, was stupid. After working at a drug company, I decided to do an MBA and become a management consultant.

My PhD looked at testosterone in the City. I worked with an ex-trader, who noticed that people acted weirdly during the first Dot Com boom. We discovered a relationship between testosterone levels and the amount of profit and loss a trader makes. But the relationship is an “inverted U”: once you get too much testosterone, you start cocking things up. We also found that if you elevate cortisol levels, people take less risk.

Every lecture is a one-act play. It’s a performance. You have to get people on your side – as well as get information out of them.

I am inspired by a famous field marshall of World War II. Sir William Slim – who later became governor general of Australia – was the son of a hardware store owner. His book, Defeat Into Victory, was a description of how he reinvigorated his troops during the Burma campaign. He laid out principles that are important to morale with a sense of humour. You can trace the inspiration for some parts of my work back to that book.

I was a finalist on University Challenge. I was at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and we lost in the final to Manchester. We met Paxman afterwards – now, there’s a man who doesn’t get enough roughage in his diet. One of the Manchester team kept coming up and interrupting when he was talking to one of our team. He eventually said: “Look, will you go away, you dreary little man?” These days, I rather like setting pub quizzes.

I have new-found respect for people working in call centres. We did research with BT, which involved visiting call centres and speaking to staff. I hold no brief for the company and have been rude to them when I think it is deserved. But everyone in the centres genuinely impressed me – they believed their job was to look after the customers. If anyone sat in a call centre for any length of time, they would feel differently about the whole thing.

Read Ben’s Management Article of the Year entry in Winning Ideas – a special, CMI compilation of the Top Five pieces.

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