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your company is HUMAN: installment 5 – by Duke Maines

No company is perfect—after all, a company is just a collection of human beings who organize themselves in some fashion to deliver a desired (or often undesired) outcome.  And, just maybe, your company doesn’t really suck.  Instead, it might be that the humans who work there fall prey to unconscious tendencies that inhibit professional success and personal growth.

From our last installment (#4)

2020, as awful as it has been, hopefully, will provide lasting change in a positive direction for the human race. As I write this, three days after the official ‘election day’ in the U.S., there is still hope.  The pandemic and social justice movements have moved leaders to be more empathetic, transparent, and agile than ever before—effectively closing the psychological distance required to produce stronger teams, increased performance, AND, an improved human experience at work and home.

And regardless of how divided this nation seems to be on the political front, people must not lose sight of the opportunity we now have in the face of all that has happened. We must look for sources of inspiration to strengthen our resolve and embrace the chaos that is 2020.  This leads to my next installment which highlights the science of inspiration and how leaders can leverage this to sustain engagement of their teams as we head into another spike of COVID cases globally.

If you missed this installment (#4 in the series), read it here.

Installment 5

Borrowing from Marcus Buckingham1, let me highlight a difference in the concepts of ‘inspiration’ and ‘motivation’ for the purpose of this article.  As I speak to it, inspiration is going to be about how leaders reach the “many”—inspire a team, teams of teams, or the entire organization to action.  Motivation will be framed as something that is unique to the individual operating inside these same groups.  Of course, individuals can be inspired, and groups motivated in similar ways, but please let’s set that aside for our purposes here.

Many people are aware that almost any story, underpinning the plots of the shows we enjoy, can be traced to seven narratives: ‘overcoming the monster,’ ‘rags to riches,’ ‘the quest,’ ‘voyage & return,’ ‘comedy,’ ‘tragedy,’ and ‘rebirth.’2  These narratives tug at our heartstrings and work time and time again to engage us in ways that keep us coming back for more. Similarly, there are seven narratives for inspiring teams that leaders can draw from when engaging their people—some of which are of particular value now more so than ever.

The key is for leaders to draw from different narratives over time, safeguarding overuse of any one of them.

Those ‘inspiration’ narratives are as follows: ‘to be the best,’ ‘to overcome great adversity,’ ‘to right a wrong,’ ‘to do something that has never been done,’ ‘to prove ourselves,’ ‘to do something truly meaningful,’ and ‘to establish a legacy’ (for others to follow).  You may notice that some of these sound very similar to the story narratives and that’s no coincidence. Advances in our understanding of what triggers behavior (thank you neuroscience, cultural anthropology, behavioral economics, and psychology), allow for leaders to tap into the right one, at the right moment.  And often, it’s very intuitive.

Inspiring for Now

For example, in the face of further lockdowns and constraints on our ability to meet together, leaders must work to engage their team members in different ways. One question many of our clients have been asking is ‘given our circumstances, what COULD we do NOW that we COULDN’T have done in the pre-COVID environment’?  After leaders empathize with team members and share their own vulnerability in these difficult times, a question like this works (chemically in our brain) to open people’s minds to the possibilities of the future rather than the pain of the operating context.  It’s a shift that serves to inspire others. 

For example, one healthcare insurer we work with leveraged the situation to reach out to potential new members to ensure their safety and provide tips on how to remain COVID-free. The result led to a substantial shift in new members during the last month (the time of year when people elect their insurance for the following year). The inspirational narrative here was a combination of ‘overcoming adversity’ and ‘doing something truly meaningful.’

Another client is in the middle of reinventing themselves to be leaders in digital transformation. Suddenly this food company found that they had 6 million NEW customers as a result of on-line orders pouring in as people made fewer and fewer trips to the grocery store. In the face of the very real challenge of how to hold onto these customers and inspire sustained loyalty going forward, digital is the only way forward so they are now investing heavily in these areas in order to gain and sustain advantage.

Get out the vote

Suddenly this year, more than any other election year, the ‘get out the vote’ message has taken hold and is inspiring people to vote in record numbers.  Why now?  Well, there are obvious answers such as one’s political beliefs, distaste for the incumbent President, and social injustice hitting a critical mass that is forcing some change.  However, it is the closing of psychological distance that shapes the common ground (no matter our political view) that we all MUST do something about what is happening in our lives. The inspirational aspect here is that we must take control of a seemingly uncontrollable situation. We are trying to ‘right a wrong,’ borrowing from one of the seven aforementioned narratives.

Organizational culture

Often organizational purpose and culture lead to extended use of one of these narratives.

Elon Musk taps into Star Trek’s compelling opening scene—to go where no person has ever gone before—to inspire innovation around their SpaceX program.  The narrative is clearly ‘to do something that’s never been done.’  Apple uses a similar approach in Steve Job’s famous uttering ‘we are going to change the world.’  The common bond here is that both of these companies feature an adhocracy culture that combines flexibility and external focus in the spirit of creativity and invention.3

Market-driven cultures, that is those driven externally but with more stability, are likely to consistently leverage continuous improvement to ‘set a new standard’ or ‘be the best.’  Companies like Reckitt-Benckiser and Anheuser-Busch InBev are historically notable examples of taking the management methodology of TQM as a corporate strategy to continuously deliver greater returns. 

A mix of both inspiration and motivation

Some of you will recall the sharing of this video clip from an earlier post of mine:

This is a great example of “righting a wrong,” at least in the eyes of Prince Charming as he works to ‘inspire’ all the villains to make a move on the ‘far, far away land.’  Not only does he inspire by finding the common ground—‘our story is yet to be told’—but he also works to motivate individuals by referencing their individual plight at the same time. Brilliantly done. 

Leaders need both (inspiration & motivation) during these challenging times.  Empathy with individuals on their team and their respective challenges goes a long way.  Finding ways to inspire the team and sustain their energy is also key.  Try one of these seven narratives

  1. To be the best
  2. To overcome great adversity (we can do it)
  3. To right a wrong
  4. To do something that has never been done
  5. To prove ourselves (our story has yet to be told)
  6. To do something truly meaningful (shock the world)
  7. To establish a legacy (for others to follow)

And be sure not to overuse any one of them when mobilizing your team to do amazing things.

1Buckingham, M. (2005). The one thing you need to know. London, UK. Simon & Schuster.
2Booker, C. (2005). The seven basic plots. London, UK. Bloomsbury Publishing.
3Cameron, K. & Quinn, R. (2011). Diagnosing & changing organizational culture. San Francisco, CA. Jossey-Bass Publishing.