There’s a linguistic theory called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis that suggests that the language we speak influences the way we think and act. If this is true, then English speakers are notoriously risk averse since the English language is full of sayings about how change is hard: “Better the devil you know.” “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” “Out of the frying pan, into the fire.”
This aversion to change is hardwired into our brains, a familiar neighbor to the neurons that control our aversion to loss. In organizational settings, this instinctive resistance to change is reinforced by company routine (“That’s how things are done around here”) and the desire to fit in (“How will going along with the proposed change make me look to my peers?”).
Corporate leaders, faced with the daunting task of motivating change to achieve a strategic objective, wrestle with this reality every day. But it’s the smart leaders that realize that what motivates them doesn’t necessarily fire up the troops. The smart ones also understand that carrot-and-stick ways of “motivating” people are so “last century” for most of today’s workforce. The critical puzzle piece is a personal connection to the change.
A Sense of Purpose
Behavioral economist and author Dan Ariely and his team at Duke showed that when dealing with mechanical skills, a large pay incentive translated into better performance. But as we recently learned from an academic study, as pay incentives plateau at $75,000 in jobs that require conceptual abilities and high-level thinking—that is to say, most 21st-century jobs—researchers found that monetary incentives had little impact on performance. In some cases, big monetary payoffs actually diminished motivation and performance along with it.
What might be the answer—a larger sense of purpose—is suggested in the work of Adam Grant at Wharton Business School. Grant found that employees for a fundraising call center who had been briefed on the job’s capacity to benefit others (the Task Significance group) performed better than a group briefed on just the job perks (the Personal Benefit group), securing twice the pledges.
Is Intellectual Understanding Enough?
But is an intellectual understanding of the larger value, or “purpose,” of a change initiative enough? It depends upon how you define it, since the sources of a sense of purpose are varied and multifaceted. Jon R. Katzenbach and Zia Khan, in “Leading Outside the Lines: How to Mobilize the Informal Organization, Energize Your Team, and Get Better Results,” cite hundreds of examples of a “motivational arsenal” used in successful change initiatives. Among them are emotional connection, pride in the end product, and the desire to enhance daily routine.
One thing is certain: Motivating a workforce with a sense of purpose is not as simple as telling stories about the good the firm does in the world—though that’s certainly important. So what’s the missing ingredient?
The Personal Connection
In dozens of client engagements, we have found that no matter how loyal your employees are, or how much pride they have in the company, they won’t be motivated to change just for the company’s sake. For your employees to be engaged, they need to see how they can realize their own goals through the collective change the company wants to make. That’s why effective change efforts focus on getting people to “feel” the need for the change. Personal motivation always leads the desire to change.
Sometimes, the personal, emotional impetus is as simple as connecting the company’s growth plan to the tremendous opportunity it can offer each employee’s personal growth, well beyond additional fiscal rewards that might come their way. But it’s never a “one-and-done” deal. True change acceleration is a multipronged, sustained effort that operates at the highest levels of company leadership, but is made real by incremental, individual improvements at every level.
Long-term, sustained change demands that leaders lead by example and demonstrate unprecedented humility, vulnerability and candor about their own personal shortcomings and goals. Doing so places an “emotional wrapper” around the change and impels people to try something that’s daring, dangerous and risky. Such change also requires hands-on coaching in relationship skills and bold, new communication habits.
Image courtesy of Nana B Agyei/Flickr.