Emotions and Culture – Drivers of Human Behavior
" I can't say I'm sorry enough. I'm sure I'll be criticized, but it's true. I felt awful. It wasn't my intention. […] It's not what I wanted to see or anyone to see."
These are the words of Shawn Thornton, a professional hockey player for the Boston Bruins, after attacking and injuring an opponent during a recent game. Suspended by the National Hockey League as punishment for his behavior, the consequences of Thornton’s actions affect him and his team.
Why did Thornton attack his opponent in the first place?
Based on his response—“It wasn’t my intention”—I suspect he allowed his emotions to take over. In other words, he was “emotionally hijacked.”
We’ve all had experiences of being emotionally hijacked, when strong emotions suddenly wield control of our behavior. Our response after the episode is usually the same as his, too: “I don’t know why I acted that way.”
Intense emotions can dominate our thinking and drive our actions—they are powerful sources of energy. In emergency or crisis situations, they work to keep us out of harm’s way: Fight, freeze, or flee. But in other, less noble situations, they cause us to react in ways we later regret (“I felt awful”).
Having the emotional awareness and insight to prevent or short circuit the hijacking process brought on by intense emotions is called emotional intelligence, a necessity in a world filled with situations that can easily give rise to intense emotions. Carefully handling strong emotions, rather than quickly giving into them, is critical in making reasoned decisions that work for us rather than against us.
I also believe an even more powerful force than emotions was involved in Thornton’s reaction that night, a force that oftentimes makes it difficult for individuals to navigate situations that ignite intense emotions: culture.
Suppose you are in a business meeting when a colleague pokes fun at your presentation. His comments are humorous but rude and uncaring. You might notice your muscles tensing and your mind racing. Will you walk over and throw your morning coffee in his face (fight)? Excuse yourself and leave the room (flee)? Or stand motionless, unable to respond (freeze)?
Since most office business cultures do not encourage, support, or condone physical attacks, you opt not to throw your coffee. What you decide to do instead is respond in an emotionally intelligent way: “Your comments leave me feeling put down and I’m not sure how they have contributed to helping us find a solution. In the future, it would be helpful for me if you could be more specific and constructive with you comments and feedback.”
Thornton’s attack took place in a business environment, or culture—professional hockey—that encourages, condones, and supports fighting as a means of solving disputes. For many years, hockey teams employed players for their fighting skills rather than their athletic abilities, according to Seth Wickersham in his article “Fighting the Goon Fight.” It was the role of these enforcers to protect their team’s star players from opponent harassment while also goading the opponent’s star players into a fight.
Ben Livingston, a sports journalist, supports this theory in his article “The Bizarre Culture of Hockey.”
“The only constant in fighting is that you are assessed a penalty for doing it,” he writes. “There exists a bizarre practice of allowing fighting to occur, while at the same time penalizing the participants for doing it. This has lead to it being called a ‘semi-legal’ practice.”
Another potent factor in becoming emotionally hijacked - The emotions of others. In Thornton’s case, this meant the taunting and yelling stirred up by his fans. When a fight breaks out in hockey, fans cheer furiously for someone to be physically punished. Many, in fact, are drawn to the sport for its violence.
Though Thornton was penalized for his part in the incident, his co-conspirators—the fans and the culture of professional hockey—escaped without penalty. As in any emotionally intense situation, Thornton’s behavior was the tip of the iceberg.
It is the stronger influences and motivators—those that support and permit transgressions like his—that remain below the surface, where the culture of hockey exists.
Rules and regulations are never a primary factor in human behavior unless they are in full alignment with a culture’s mission, values and strategic objectives. Rules merely provide cover for an organization so they can identify and blame transgressors and escape accountability and culpability.
We’ve seen this with the likes of Enron, British Petroleum (BP), Massey Mines and most recently, the world’s major banks. All professed to be motivated by high ethical standards and comprehensive safety rules and regulations, but the cultures that have dominated these businesses runs contrary to their hollow words.
It is emotions and culture that have the greatest effect on human behavior and any organization that attempts to influence and enforce positive behavior with regulations alone will remain vulnerable to disruption, loss, and plenty of emotional hijacking.
Thornton said, ”I can’t say I’m sorry enough,” but the burden and responsibility of his actions do not sit entirely on his shoulders. It’s difficult for any employee to make the “right” choices when organizational rules give direction but the culture of the organization is ambiguous about enforcement and in some cases turns a blind eye to negative or unsafe behavior because it supports the organization’s explicit desire for profit, production, entertainment, and risk taking.
The NHL, in which fisticuffs remain an integral part of the sport’s culture, penalizes individuals for fighting, but the behavior of its players remains unchanged, because below the surface enforcers are rewarded and celebrated for their transgressions by fans, teammates, and the media.
Banks will not change their culture of risk taking for profits when CEO’s get bonuses and salary increments after being penalized billions of dollars for violating regulations. And safety will always be secondary when employees are pushed to keep production up at all costs.
The unfortunate aspect of these “Trojan Horse Cultures” is that they present and say one thing, but inside, where true culture resides, are the drivers of behavior, which often put their employees at the lower rungs of the organization in harms way as they attempt to navigate between the rules and what the culture is condoning and endorsing.
I’ve worked for the past ten years assisting organizations in identifying where there is culture misalignment and working with them to restore and or build cultures that authentically and consistently align with their mission, values and strategic objectives. The work is hard, but the rewards are significant and produce results that are sustainable and profitable. Most importantly, they become organizations in which leaders and employees feel pride, take ownership and work jointly to insure success, and where leaders and employees feel accountable and safe in stating. “I can’t say I’m sorry enough.”
Which side of the divide are you on - are you a We or They? The they’s and we’s have been at odds before the Hatfields and McCoys starting shooting at each other. The We–They Divide is not unique or new. It has existed since the dawn of employee-manager relationships and to this day it continues to infect, constrain, and confound organizations and leaders. The impact of the We–They Divide on an organization is similar to any infection: Inevitably, it takes a toll on everyone. It diminishes work efficiency, quality, and organizational resilience, and can be the difference between success and failure.
The divide is not just an employee satisfaction or morale issue, though; it strikes at an organization’s bottom line. Towers Perrin’s 2008 Global Workforce study found that We–They Divides have negative consequences on operating margins, but, conversely, if a divide is reduced it can improve an organization’s bottom line.
With all the financial, quality, performance, safety, and competitive risks this kind of divide exposes an organization to, and with all the research that validates its existence, why do organizational leaders continue to underestimate its impact?
For many, the We–They Divide is untraveled territory with few or trusted maps available to assist them in navigating their way. Traditional organizational constraints like limited financial resources are issues most leaders feel equipped to handle. They can close gaps by reducing or cutting expenses, look for additional financing, or increase revenue by reaching more customers or raising prices. When it comes to the We–They Divide, the solutions are less formulaic.
Feeling less confident, lacking in experience, and without training in how to recognize and approach the issue, many leaders are slow to address divides in their workplace. One manager explained to me, “We have only one chance to get this right, therefore we need to go slow.”
While slow approaches usually indicate thoughtfulness and precision, in this case it indicates a lack of experience, confidence, and trust. The manager’s adherence to a slow approach only increases the chances that his workplace’s infection of disconnection will spread and widen the divide, making treatment that much more difficult. Employees are more concerned about serious commitments to address the We – They Divide than they are of mistakes.
What Is the We–They Divide and the Reality of Perception
The Conference Board, a global, independent business membership and research organization working in the public interest since 1916, developed a definition for a concept called employee engagement, which describes the degree of emotional and intellectual connection or disconnection an employee has for his/her job, organization, manager, and coworkers that, in turn, influences and motivates him/her to give and apply additional discretionary effort to his/her work.
The We–They Divide is the emotional and intellectual distance between leaders and employees—it is the degree of disconnect.
Human behavior is based on perception. Therefore, whether correct or incorrect, fair or unfair, perceptions are each person’s (group’s) reality, and it is these perceptions that create the divide: We Perceptions vs. They Perceptions.
Our perceptions create a set of default assumptions that remain the undercurrent of our thoughts and feelings regarding any given topic. A common perception I hear from employees concerns the “invisibility of leaders.” It sounds like this: “We never see him. The only time he leaves his office is when something negative happens. Then he’s in our face wanting answers.”
It’s not difficult to predict the assumptions that could arise from this type of perception. While some employees might assume their leader doesn’t care about them, others might assume you only receive attention when you do something wrong. The worst? Some might believe their leader thinks he or she is too good to associate with them.
Sadly, most leaders are taken aback to hear of their employees’ assumptions. “I never knew.” While some immediately commit to change, others start explaining, defending, and offering examples of employee engagement. The space between these two perceptions is another example of the We–They Divide.
Though some believe they cannot control what others think and assume, and that “no matter what is done employees will always find something else to complain about,” we know this not to be the case. There are a number of methods and approaches that leaders and organizations can take to reduce divide. There are six We -They Divide Prevention Measures leaders can take to positively influence employee perceptions and assumptions that will prevent the divide from widening—and even begin to reduce it.
However, it does takes a much more comprehensive initiative to transform a We–They Culture in which employee disengagement is a serious impediment and threat to an organization’s optimal performance to a We Culture. For insight how a client organization accomplished this read, Leaders Don't Motivate - They Create The Conditions For Self-Motivation on this site.
The following are We–They Divide Prevention Measures taught by Nicole Gravina, Ph.D. When leaders integrate and apply these concepts while making decisions, communicating with employees, designing systems/processes, and working with each other, they can minimize the perception of the divide and increase cooperation and commitment from employees.
Proximity: Employees take particular notice if leaders are in close proximity or if they are distant, and the perception of distance increases the divide. Therefore, a lack of physical, social, and emotional presence by a leader contributes to negative perceptions and assumptions in the We–They Divide. Communicating primarily by email, not attending or holding employee meetings and the absence of informal social contact in meetings, and being absent at informal and formal social events can all contribute to the perception that a leader doesn’t like us, care about us, or understand us.
Leaders must be proactive in their efforts to finding ways to bring themselves into closer proximity with their employees. If your office is distant from the people you manage, schedule time on a regular basis to leave your office and meaningfully interact with your employees in their space. Take time to learn about their social and family situations. Engage on a social level.
Similarity: is to work against the common perception that leaders are better and more privileged than their hourly workforce. Employees understand that leaders are paid differently and have additional benefits, but they don’t like when their leaders present themselves as better, smarter, wiser, or more privileged. The more you can emphasize your common human similarities, the closer a connection (emotional proximity) will be between a leader and his/her employees. Though you may be fortunate enough to rise on the corporate ladder, never lose sight of where you came from and the people who helped you climb that ladder along the way.
Much to their disadvantage, leaders operate in bubbles and cast long shadows. Seldom do they receive unvarnished feedback, which they need in order to understand employee perceptions and behavior. To be an effective leader, one must create opportunities and structural mechanisms that allow for unfiltered feedback.
Inconsistent Application of Rules and Policies: Nothing is more irritating to employees—or sends the “I’m better” message—than when leaders excuse themselves from basic workplace policies. Management should always demonstrate its similarity and commitment by adhering to its own rules.
Opposing Goals: Are the goals established in various areas of the organization interdependent or independent of the organization’s overarching mission? I have seen incentive structures for a sales groups conflict with the corporate responsibility and quality departments, and instances when safety procedures and goals in a manufacturing organization are not followed because they would have interrupted production goals. Is your team aligned?
Differences in Availability of Resources, Time, Feedback, and Recognition: Everyone notices if someone else gets more than they do. If you had brothers or sisters, you know what I mean. Leaders need to be attentive to this aspect of human nature. If an employee or a group of employees perceives that someone is getting more than they are, not only will they think this it unfair, they’ll also feel less important. I’m not simply referring to hard resources like money and equipment, but the softer and less tangible resources such as demonstrations of appreciation and recognition.
Though many leaders don’t value recognition as a resource, employees do. Leaders who understand and develop a practice of appreciation and recognition are providing employees with emotional and psychological resources that will motivate and strengthen their commitment for years to come.
Lack of Information and Follow-Through: Assuming people know and understand your intentions and your purpose, and that of the organization, is a mistake. Communicate, communicate, and communicate more. Leaders must set a goal to actively communicate and solicit feedback from employees and not stop until you hear, “You’re killing us with all this communication!” Once you hear this statement, you’ll know you’re on the right track.
Follow-through is the period at the end of a sentence. One of the downfalls of employee suggestion programs is that employees seldom get feedback or follow-through on the status of their suggestion. Employees will hang onto an issue until they feel the loop has been closed, leaders must follow through, which in turn builds trust. A colleague of mine, Richard Hews, instructs managers on the “Cycle of Commitment or Promise. One of the essential aspects or steps in the cycle is the declared satisfaction. It is here where the initiator and the performer declare their satisfaction if the request was completed to the requirements.
Punishment-Oriented Culture: Nothing is more destructive than a culture in which a hammer is the primary leadership tool and every employee feels like a nail. It is divisive, creates aggression, and kills engagement. No high-performance culture is built on a foundation of punishment. This type of culture only exacerbates the We–They Divide, turning it into a chasm.
The We–They Divide is a silent and serious threat that can strike the bottom line of an organization and jeopardize its stability and competitiveness. Disaffected and disengaged employees lack the commitment, creativity, and energy to give their discretionary effort. And in a continuously changing and challenging global marketplace that rewards efficiency, quality, service, and dependability, a disengaged workforce diminishes the ability and capacity to deliver on these requirements.
As serious as the consequences of the We–They Divide are, the benefits of crossing and closing the divide are that much greater. An engaged workforce not only contributes directly to an organization’s bottom line, but it also provides energy, commitment, and resilience in a world in which the potential for adversity is just around the corner.
Ultimately, the We–They Divide is about relationships. It’s not about giving and taking and winning and losing; it’s about respecting and responding to basic human needs. Take the first step and discover how rewarding leading a WE culture can be personally, professionally, and organizationally.
“Our essential nature is one of pure potentiality.”
~ Deepak Chopra
I was invited to spend the day with a group of manufacturing managers. "We want something in the area of professional development," my host, who extended the invitation, told me. "If it can also be uplifting-you know, pick up their spirits-that would be especially helpful, because this group is overworked and feels overwhelmed and unappreciated most of the time."
This vague request was both satisfying and frustrating; satisfying because the client, who I have worked with previously, trusted my judgment, but frustrating because his description provided little direction. One thing seemed to be clear, though: this group was not in a good place physically or emotionally ("overworked and unappreciated"), and they expected me to "pick up their spirits."
After a few days of thought and still no sense of what to do, I found myself reading over an email before hitting the send bottom, and my sentence jumped out at me: Awakening, Inspiring and Empowering Human Potential.
Yes. That was it. I would develop a program using my sentence.
I wake up most mornings to this thought: What opportunity will present itself to me today in which I can awaken, inspire and empower human potential? The answers don't always pop into my head, and there are days when I find it difficult to awaken, inspire and empower my own potential, yet it is amazing how just keeping that thought present allows opportunities to present themselves. In these instances I find a way for my sentence to move from my head to my heart to concrete action.
Working with these manufacturing managers, I found myself facing a new opportunity to put my sentence to work. Now all I had to do was deliver.
I started by telling the group about how I came up with the idea for the presentation. I shared my sentence and explained how it has impacted me since I crafted it five years ago. Then I asked the participants to partner up and provided each with an agenda. On it, a quote by Jane Wagner: "A sobering thought: what if, at this very moment, I am living up to my full potential?"
I asked everyone to respond, and it was unanimous-no one believed they were living up to their full potential. They all felt lost or thwarted in their ability to do so. Unsurprisingly, they identified the primary potential-blocking culprits as stress and a lack of direction or purpose.
Fortunately I was prepared. Not because I have great predictive powers, but because I seen and heard the same response over and over, and I understand the extent to which stress and the absence of purpose entomb potential. These two "potential killers" block individuals and organizations from experiencing the rewards and benefits of their return on potential (ROP).
The four batteries of potential energy
We need energy to find and unlock our potential. And our four batteries-our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being need to be at or near full capacity for us to live up to our potential. If even one dips below capacity, it drains energy away from the other three, and that stress is a disease that ultimately drains all four.
I talked with the managers in depth about how to maintain your physical energy through exercise, nutrition, sleep, and setting aside time every day for mindful and reflective activity. We practiced a progressive muscle relaxation exercise for five minutes, which helped everyone let go of the tension they were holding in their body and regain a sense of balance and relaxation. I also introduced the Seven Rituals of Renewal, which if practiced daily will help keep all four batteries charged.
Next we explored our emotional battery. I asked them to identify what feelings or emotions they experienced going to work, during the day, and driving home at the end of the day. The list ranged from "anger" to "zoned out," all of which were unproductive in creating and maintaining the energy one needs to access one's potential. The emotions they were experiencing made them feel so drained of energy they were questioning if they could even find their potential.
One key learning was that most of the group had fallen into an emotional rut, meaning they had accepted their unhappiness and forgotten that we choose our feelings the same way we choose which shoes to put on in the morning. This realization alone was an awakening that stirred their interest and opened the door to emotional empowerment.
What about that sentence?
How can a sentence keep our batteries charged and lead us to our potential? Daniel Pink has a wonderful short video I shared with the group called "What Is My Sentence?" The video highlights the ways in which one sentence can focus our energy and provide the motivation we need to live up to our potential.
The video and discussion afterward awakened their interest and curiosity, and now they needed some inspiration. I decided to show them the DeWitt Jones film Celebrate What's Right With the World.
In it, Dewitt uses the sentence "Celebrate what's right with the world" to show us that no matter how bleak things may appear, if we are willing to open ourselves up to the possibilities, we can always find something to celebrate. Through his photography he demonstrates how our mindsets can make all the difference between an average photo and a great photo. The key is remaining open to the possibilities.
I could see everyone engaging with his words and photography. I could feel they were becoming inspired-inspired to discover and live up to their full potential, and to put effort into accepting that there was much more to celebrate that what they were experiencing at work. After the film I shared a story that ran in my local newspaper. To me it demonstrated the power one sentence has in helping a person live up to his or her potential.
Our local AHA hockey team, the Providence Bruins, is in the playoffs against the Hersey Bears. One of the players had a dream during a pre-game nap. The dream was about hockey, but then a sentence appeared: Be the better bear.
The player wrote it on the locker room bulletin board and the team immediately took it to heart. The Bruins were in a must win situation needing to win the next two games or be eliminated. Every member of the team used "Be a better bear" to be the better hockey player. They won both games and moved on to the next round of the playoffs.
When asked about his dream and the sentence, the player responded, "It means when you line up against your opponent, you have to take it upon yourself to be a better hockey player."
The Bruins may not win the championship, but they are living up to potential they didn't realize they had and celebrating victories they didn't think they would experience.
As the day came to an end, I asked, "How many of you were awakened, inspired and empowered to live up to your potential today?" The answer was a hearty applause. I have since received emails from individuals in the group sharing their sentence-and I have my own sentence to thank for that.
The Boston Marathon bombings are still running through my head and heart.
I know why my heart can’t seem to let go—it’s because of the many connections I have to the race and the area.
I grew up in New England and once again live 52 miles from the Prudential Center where the race ends. I used to be baffled and amazed by the marathoners when I was younger and couldn’t understand why anyone would want to put his or her body through the agony of running 26.2 miles. As a teenager, I would throw up after running the fitness mile during the first week of football practice, only later to be amazed that I could run 26.2 miles myself and enjoy it. Running became my avocation that led to my qualifying and completing the Boston Marathon in 1982.
Today, each of the stories of the victims inspires and disturbs me, especially disturbing is that of eight-year-old Martin Richard who was waiting with his family to see his dad finish. It awakened memories of my daughters waiting to catch a glimpse of me crossing the finish line and to share in my relief and excitement.
Even today weeks after the bombing there continues to be an outpouring of support, compassion, and empathy from everyone across the country, which has been a healing balm for the psychic trauma for all those affected. This coming together has helped families and friends to regain balance, hope, and faith in the reality that the human spirit is truly meant for good and not evil.
I know it is also during these times when we individually and collectively call upon our resiliency to help us move beyond and transform our pain into a deeper commitment to live every moment with purpose. We know the standard phases: Life is short. Time is the least we have of. Don’t put off ‘til tomorrow what you can do today, because tomorrow may never come. And we would all be better served if we held these words not just as clichés, but also as the wisdom of being alive and living in a world where there are no guarantees.
In the midst of the chaos, immediately after the bombs exploded people, ordinary heroes responded. People there to celebrate life instantly began doing whatever they could to comfort and care for the victims. This passion to help continued throughout the day and into the week. Police and FBI put out requests for pictures, videos, and any bits of information that might be a piece to solving and preventing more chaos and tragedy. Phone lines and websites were flooded with residents sending pictures and videos and calling in information. While there were many factors that led to the death and capture of the brothers who committed this horrendous crime, it could not have ended so quickly without a community’s commitment to be part of the solution – to not accept that evil is stronger than good.
There are many lessons and insights that I continue to digest and try to make meaning of stemming from this event. The most important is, what will I do to not let the one life I have to escape without fully celebrating how scared it is?
I also think about our spirit of community—the compassion that people have when they allow their human nature to flow through their hearts and into their hands to hold those in need close. When there is a clear need or purpose and we see a way to contribute, we just act; we give whatever we can and we feel good about giving.
I wonder why leaders and organizations don’t believe in the goodness of the human spirit - the desire that lives in our hearts to be part of the solution not the problem.
Why do we manage by establishing rules to prevent a few from doing ill, all the while killing the spirit of the many more who want to be part of something and to contribute to the benefit of all? Why do leaders believe they are the ones ordained to solve organizational problems? Why do they often divide us by placing blame on one group or the other? The criminals who committed this terrible act were caught because of the thousands of onlookers who provided pieces to the puzzle. So can the folks on the shop floor. They know what’s wrong—you just have to invite them and ask, “What can we do to solve this problem?”
I recently had a conversation with a leader who experienced a crisis at his organization and was surprised at how everyone pitched in to do whatever it took to prevent the crisis from occurring. I asked, “Do you think there is any learning from this situation that could be applied to other issues you are challenged with?”
“It’s the difference between war and peace,” he told me. “The two situations are completely different.”
How many more bombings and crises do we have to go through before we trust that ordinary people—everyday workers—want to be part of the solution, not the problem?
The answer is simple: if we articulate a why everyone can share in and invite their participation, we can solve many of the issues challenging our organizations, communities, and even our planet.
Had the Boston Police Department said, “Stay out of our way! Let us professionals take care of the problem,” more chaos might have transpired and we still might be looking for the criminals. But instead they asked every single person in the city for help.
Let’s not let ego and fear kill the human spirit. If Boston can do it, surely we can too.
I was spellbound. Here I was not reading a book about teams, but listening to the wisdom of a team who had lived it day in and day out. This experience occurred during a recent workshop on workplace safety. I had the privilege of working with a high-performing team that has a stellar safety record. The purpose of the workshop was to invite additional dialogue regarding a survey the team had taken. The plan was to seek additional detail and nuance about what they were thinking, feeling, and the experiences that influenced their ratings in this survey that measured areas of safety in their workplace ranging from corporate ethics to hazard recognition.
While others took some time to warm to the task, this group was immediately engaged. They didn’t need encouragement or assurances of confidentiality. They jumped right in to a lively dialogue on each section. It wasn’t long before my curiosity was killing me—how was this group so invested, open, engaged, honest, and committed not just to safety, but to everything else they did?
So I gently interrupted our conversation. “Can I deviate for a moment from the agenda and ask what drives your team and keeps all of you invested and committed to what you’re doing and how you do it?” Immediately, they started to share the glue that binds them together in their common pursuit of safety and performance.
The first thing out of their mouths was a statement that indicated they each held a sense of common mission and purpose that drove their thinking, feelings and behavior. “We are very aware that what we do is very dangerous. One mistake has the potential to not only injure one of us—it could also have serious consequences for the people at this plant and the surrounding community. We don’t ever want that to happen.”
What came next was, “We know each other and we care about each other.” And the caring extends to wives, children, girlfriends, and boyfriends. “We know a lot about each others’ families; we know their names, what schools they go to, the sports they play, and when things are going good and not so good. When you know people’s families, you have a deeper understanding that what we’re doing and how we’re doing it has far-reaching consequences. This also helps us to keep in touch with how a person is doing personally, and sometimes we pitch in to give a coworker a break when he or she needs it.”
We agree to disagree. “It’s taken us some time, but we’ve come to the conclusion that disagreeing is just part of life. We don’t get that upset anymore when we disagree. We give each other space and sooner rather than later we come around and work things out. We know that nothing is more important than safety and that keeps us from going off on each other.”
We take personal accountability for our actions. “This has also taken us some time, but we’ve come to accept that we are the ones who can make a difference. It doesn't do us any good to complain, blame and look to somebody else to make our decisions. Our behavior and choices make the biggest difference, and we feel more secure and satisfied being accountable and in control.”
This team had no formal training in teamwork; they had only learned from their experiences and continued to put what worked into practice. This created a culture in which purpose, accountability, respect, caring, and dialogue was the glue that kept them safe and performing to their individual and team best. They are what books are written about.
That evening, I reflected again on the special opportunity I had to join in on these insightful and inspiring discussions. It became clear that what I teach and facilitate is what this group had intuitively and experientially put into practice. Their culture is infused with intrinsic motivation. They are motivated from the inside out. No one is dangling carrots or rewards or threatening them with consequences if they don’t act responsibly. They act safely and responsibly because it matters to them, and they take ownership and pride in it.
Self-Determination Theory informs us that if people are given or find a sense of purpose in what they do; if they are given the resources, permission and support to have autonomy in making decisions; the encouragement and opportunity to develop relationships with each other and their managers; and the ability to influence the things that matter most to them—they will not only achieve, they will thrive.
This team thrives in a very difficult environment. They do hard and dangerous work. Their success can be framed in a theoretical model, but what is most impressive is their commitment to make it stick—they are the glue.
© Tom Wojick, The Renewal Group, September 2012
I’m sure you’re aware of what a credit rating is—also referred to as a score. It’s the number that gets assigned to you by institutions that collect data about your money handling behavior. And that number can be the deciding factor in many life decisions, such as purchasing a car or a home, and in some cases even getting hired.
Unfortunately, many people go about life not knowing their credit score until the moment they’ve made a big decision—only to shockingly find out their credit rating is not high enough to get approved for what they want. Does this sound familiar? It’s never a pleasant experience to be told you are not credit worthy.
Once the shock, disappointment and maybe anger subsides, you might start racking your brain trying to figure out what the heck is in that report thwarting you from getting what you want. Trying to find the answer can be just as unpleasant as receiving the rejection.
Before long, it begins to sink in that information about how you live your life is constantly being monitored and evaluated by unknown people in unknown organizations in the most dispassionate way. Even more disturbing is that you may find out that the information is inaccurate. It can make you feel helpless and powerless.
In some aspects, your credit rating is similar to your credibility rating. But in other respects, your credibility rating is far more important because it impacts the most valuable asset you have—TRUST. Everything in life revolves around this powerful emotion. It can disrupt global financial systems and ruin a valued relationship. And once it’s lost, the ability to recover and regain one’s credibility is less than assured. Forget about buying it back—even if your credit rating is excellent, trust is never for sale.
Yet everyday we take risks with our credibility rating by not paying attention to our words and deeds. Just like the credit rating agencies, every day people observe and experience what we do and how we do it and make decisions based on how well our words and actions are aligned with the values we espouse as well as a set of commonly held values: respect, compassion, honesty, responsibility, and fairness. These moments of credibility are not stored in a dispassionate computer in some unknown location—they are stored in the hearts and minds of the people we interact with and have relationships with. They become our relationship capital. Eventually, these credibility data points accumulate to the extent that our credibility will be damaged or lost, or if we’re lucky, honored with a seal of trustworthiness.
Life is difficult enough without having to live without credibility. Imagine going through an entire day knowing everyone you encounter questions or is suspicious of your motives, your sincerity, your honesty, and your fairness.
No matter what position(s) or title(s) you hold in life—father, mother, supervisor, leader, or teacher—your credibility rating is paramount. Without relationship capital and without trust, you cannot influence, you cannot lead, and your most important wants and desires are at risk of being unfulfilled.
Don’t wait to find out your rating. Start today by asking, “Am I walking my talk? What I say and do—are these things in alignment with my stated values? Do they portray a sense of respect, caring, honesty, and fairness?”
Connect with people you know and trust and ask for their honest assessment. Asking for feedback is a courageous activity. Once your strength and confidence grows, extend your feedback process and circle with colleagues and employees. Whatever feedback you get about your credibility rating is a gift. Because now you know your “score”—and you won’t be shocked and rejected later when it matters most.
We’ve all been there: in a discussion, meeting or presentation when someone interjects, causing a disruption in the flow of your thoughts or agenda. How do you respond? Most likely, you’ll be energized by whatever emotion(s) the moment elicits in you. But what will be the consequences if you allow the energy from that emotion to hijack you? Will your reaction be aligned with your organizational vision, your personal purpose and values? Will it convey to others the type of friend, parent, spouse, or leader you want to be? What will it mean for your future?
In his blog, Do You Know What You Are Feeling?, Peter Bregman shares a couple of similar experiences in which his emotional energy nearly hijacked his responses. These oftentimes overwhelming, stimuli-induced situations occur multiple times every day, particularly in our fast-paced and stressful lives. And while we may be inclined to believe these small situational events have little consequence, we can see from his article that how we respond to them makes all the difference: harnessing our energy and emotions can be a moment that deepens our insight and growth and strengthens our relationships, but letting it get the best of us can have negative consequences that are equally far-reaching.
Peter relates how he decided to sit on a feeling rather than react to it: "But I didn't do anything right away. And, as I sat with the feeling, I realized that while I felt a jumble of emotions, mostly I felt hurt and untrusted." In the midst of a personal issue, his decision to sit was critical for him and his protagonist. By tolerating his emotions and allowing himself to explore what they were urging him to do, he was able to regain emotional balance and perspective and make a wise choice.
Learning to tolerate emotions may seem like the old Western method of tolerating pain by biting on a bullet, but once we understand and trust that by tolerating and exploring our emotions we gain insight and wisdom, this allows us the chance to make decisions that create positive outcomes.
A simple and very effective tool to assist in tolerating emotions is called VET: Validate, Explore and Transform. First, identify what you are feeling and accept that you are experiencing this emotion. Once you validate, you can be begin to explore the emotion and discover its purpose. In this process, you may learn that your initial feeling was not your true feeling. In Peter’s example, he found that his anger was really stemming from feeling hurt.
Once you validate and explore you are now poised to transform your feelings and the outcome of the situation. Instead of sulking or lashing out, Peter wrote an email to the person who stimulated his feelings of hurt and was surprised when "she sent me a wonderful email back, acknowledging her mistake and thanking me for my willingness to let her know when she missed the mark." If he had let anger dictate his behavior, the outcome would have been much different for both .
Emotions are chemical messengers sent to inform us and to move us. Tolerating that first barrage of chemicals is key to finding insight into the situation that activated our emotional system, which will then help us make better decisions. There is a quote by Albert Camus that goes, “Life is the sum of all your choices.” Making the most of these everyday decisions is the difference in living a life filled with regrets or a life fulfilled. And tolerating our emotions is critical in these decision points.
Thank you Peter Bregman for sharing your personal experiences.
I have a theory about values, leadership, and workforce engagement that is related to a study I read on brain imagining and sacred values. The study, titled, “The Price of Your Soul: Neural evidence for the non-utilitarian representation of sacred values,” was conducted by Gregory Burns, PhD, Director of the Center for Neuropolicy at Emory University. Through the study Burns found that “sacred values prompt greater activation of an area of the brain associated with rules-based, right-or-wrong thought processes as opposed to the regions linked to processing of costs-versus-benefits."
The study gave participants an option to disavow any of their personal value statements for money. Disavowing a statement meant they could receive as much as $100 by simply agreeing to sign a document stating the opposite of what they said they believed. The disavowing was interpreted as the value statement not being sacred to the person. Statements that the participants refused to disavow were classified as being personally sacred.
Brain imaging indicated that scared and non-sacred values activated different areas of the brain. The scared values activated areas associated with right and wrong and the non-sacred values activated areas related to pleasure and rewards. In addition, the researchers found that the amygdala region became activated when a person’s sacred values were challenged.
The amygdala is the part of the brain that controls our “911” stress alert reactions of fight, flee or freeze when it perceives a threat to our well-being. It is also associated with our emotions, particularly emotions connected to perceived negative experiences, which over time creates a filing cabinet of negative memories. In our modern world people usually don’t react physically by fighting or fleeing, they react emotionally. We fight by arguing or being stubborn; we flee by disengagingmentally and emotionally, which lessens commitment; and we freeze by shutting down our creativity. It is emotional reactions like these with which a leader must contend. Therefore, developing one’s emotional intelligence is critical to effectively counter and minimize these stress responses. Organizations would be wise to establish emotional intelligence as a leadership prerequisite if they want to reap the benefit from higher levels of workforce engagement
I believe that workforce engagement issues are a result of leaders and organizations not operating from a foundation of sacred values. The Institute for Global Ethics did exhaustive surveying and research in an attempt to identify what core moral and ethical values were held in highest regard by people and communities throughout the world. No matter where they went, they found the same answers: honesty, responsibility, respect, fairness, and compassion. In essence, these are core sacred values.
Applying the brain imaging research from the sacred values study, it would seem that if any of these five core values were in essence disavowed by anyone – in this instance, a leader – it would activate the “right and wrong” areas in the brains of his or her employees and at the same time activate their amygdale, putting each into either a fight, freeze or flee state of reaction. The result could be a strong feeling on part of an employee to not trust this person and to feel that they have been “wronged,” both of which will negatively impact engagement, commitment, performance, and most importantly, trust.
Values authenticity is the core issue. Leaders and organizations who – within their heart, head, and gut – are not authentically aligned and committed to these core sacred values will never be able to fully capture the hearts and minds of their workforce nor their stakeholders.
The Gallup Organization, which has made a science of employee engagement, reported that in the third quarter of 2011, “Seventy-one percent of American workers are ‘not engaged’ or ‘actively disengaged’ in their work, meaning they are emotionally disconnected from their workplaces and are less likely to be productive.” This means that 71% of the country’s workforce is emotionally reacting by fighting, fleeing or freezing.Why? Because they believe that their sacred values are absent or being disavowed. A leader cannot drive workforce engagement if he or she does not authentically hold these five core values as sacred.
When I’ve had the opportunity to talk, or should I say listen, to employees, these five values are at the core of their concerns and issues, and are the crux of their disengagement:
These same sacred values are at the heart of the issues that are polarizing and creating conflict in this country and around the world and thwarting people from finding solutions to their most pressing problems:
Leaders from all sectors of our society must develop a deeper understanding and sensitivity of how these core sacred values dynamically hold relationships, teams, organizations, and countries together, all be it sometimes in a chaotic way. When organizational and political leaders focus on and subscribe to the perspective of cost versus benefit, there undoubtedly will be tension and that tension will give rise to conflict and disengagement.
In his book Moral Courage, Rushworth Kidder states, “Successful organizations must require moral courage in their leaders and then work assiduously that it is rarely needed.” I agree, but more importantly leaders must take on the hard work – the work of authentically committing to these sacred core values and then modeling moral courage when they are challenged. To create a highly engaged workforce leaders and organizations would be better served to first look in-ward and to evaluate the depth of their commitment to these core sacred values.
Authenticity and Moral Courage are two of the Seven Hallmarks of Relationship–Centered Leadership. If you have an interest in building workforce engagement and becoming a high-performing leader, we invite you to explore the Relationship–Centered Leadership program. For more information on this program download a description from the Free Downloads tab
Flying Against the Winds of Science – Culture versus Strategy
Why Southwest's Culture eats USAIRWAY's Strategy
I’ve been doing considerable research and development of programs for workforce motivation, engagement and the role of incentives and rewards in building a culture of performance. What I have discovered is that incentives and rewards are primitive tools of the 20th century carrot and stick approach to motivating employees performance, and at best they only affect short-term results and come with great risk.
With this in mind I was fascinated to find two articles about separate companies exemplifying and employing the best and worst forms of employee motivation. The first company is one operating in the 21st century but still mired in 20th century beliefs about motivation and utilizing 20th century tools to accomplish its mission. The second has a record of consistent excellence in operating performance and employee and customer satisfaction for more than 20 years, with a focus on building and sustaining a high performing culture by utilizing a proven model of motivation that taps into the intrinsic desires of employees and customers.
My interest was piqued not just because of the content of the articles; I was also interested because I am a customer of both organizations and have a personal understanding of how their approaches to workforce motivation impact my experience. And I can attest that there is a significant difference.
The two companies are USAir Ways (USAir) and Southwest Airlines. I am a frequent customer of USAir – in fact, I just achieved Platinum status in their air miles program – and am an occasional user of Southwest. This is only because USAir provides better routes to my most frequent destinations. Therefore I use them out of convenience, not preference.
On one particular trip I wanted to make an intermediate stop before heading to my final destination. I chose Southwest on this occasion because it had a better schedule at similar rates. The hotel I was staying at provided me a complementary copy of USA Today, which I decided would make good reading on the plane. As I was scanning the headlines, one in particular caught my eye: “US Airways makes progress.” It chronicled how the company found itself ranked low on many indicators of passenger satisfaction, such as baggage handling, and how it recently achieved top ratings compared to other “legacy carriers,” which Southwest is not. The article stated that the company had to dramatically boost performance and one key initiative it instituted to aid in this was an incentive program called Triple Play Bucks, which pays employees when the company achieves top billing in a number of categories. It went on to say that employees have received $350.00 each this year for a total of 13.1 million dollars distributed to employees.
The second article, “Gary’s Greeting,” by Southwest’s CEO Gary Kelly, which appeared in the airline’s Spirit magazine, discussed the importance of corporate culture and how the company has worked diligently to keep it vibrant for more than 20 years. Kelly stated, “Your business plan is what you are, but culture is who you are,” and the article noted the significance of Southwest’s Culture Committee, which consists of employees from each major work location meeting quarterly to share ideas on how to keep their culture vibrant, meaningful and strong. The article highlighted the three qualities that define their culture: “A Warrior Spirit,” “A Servant’s Heart” and “A FunLUVing Attitude.”
A statement from Southwest’s investor relations web page notes, “Southwest is one of the most honored airlines in the world known for its commitment to the triple bottom line of Performance, People and Planet.” One could be skeptical and say this is a heap of self-promotion. However, Southwest was honored by receiving an Employees’ Choice Award as one of the top 50 best places to work in 2012 – an award 150,000 companies competed for, all rated and ranked by their employees. Southwest came in 17th and the competition included companies such Google, Facebook, Nike, and Starbucks. No other airline was ranked in the top 50. Both airlines have accomplished a lot, however it appears USAir is still trapped in 20th century thinking and strategy about motivation. I am making this assertion because of the use of the Triple Pay Bucks, which is a purely extrinsic, carrot and stick tool to buy performance. This ploy is fraught with risks and is difficult to sustain. When will employees begin to complain that $350.00 isn’t enough to behave in a manner that endears customers? Will USAir be willing to up the ante if necessary? What if oil spikes because of a world crisis and the company feels the need to cut costs? These are a few of the pitfalls for pay-for-performance schemes. I have had firsthand experience working with a company that compensated employees to serve on a committee to provide an important internal service in the organization, and when the organization made a decision to reduce compensation they lost members and now cannot recruit new ones. There is another factor to consider that is identified in numerous employee engagement surveys: employees who work hard eventually come to resent co-workers and the company as a whole when slackers receive the same rewards. What is most troublesome about USAir’s strategy is that since the 1970s this type of extrinsic motivation program has been proven to be a failure. One of the pioneers in researching human and organizational motivation is Edward Deci, Ph.D Professor of Psychology at the University of Rochester. In this quote from his book Why We Do What We Do, he succinctly articulates the core issue: “When people say that money motivates, what they really mean is that money controls. And when it does, people become alienated – they give up some of their authenticity –and they push themselves to do what they think they must do. One take on the meaning of alienation is that it begins as people lose touch with their intrinsic motivation, with the vitality and excitement that all children have.” Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, states, “The problem is that most businesses haven’t caught up to this understanding of what motivates us. Too many organizations – not just companies, but governments and non-profits as well – still operate from assumptions about human potential and individual performance that are outdated, unexamined, and rooted more in folklore than science. They continue to pursue practices such as short-term incentive plans and pay-for-performance schemes in the face of mounting evidence that such measure usually don’t work and often do harm.”
As many companies do, USAir took the easy way to achieve a strategy, possibly not realizing or caring about building a positive, high-performing company culture for the long term. A familiar quote goes, “Culture eats strategy for lunch,” to which I can’t help but add, “There are no free lunches.” The opportunity to build a service culture may have been lost for USAir; surely they’ve lost the opportunity to ignite the intrinsic motivation waiting to be released in their employees.
It is also important to note that for some employees, programs like Triple Pay Bucks can be perceived as an insult, because it insinuates a lack of respect, concern and personal pride that they take in their job – something that management assumes they can stimulate with the metaphorical dangling carrot.
Alternately, I must share one example of how I experienced Southwest’s spirited, heartened and fun-loving culture. On a 45-minute flight (air time), Southwest’s flight attendants started to take drink orders as the flight was taxiing. Once the plane reached a safe altitude they put a drink and a bag of peanuts in every passenger’s hand and did so with a smile. On a recent USAir flight of the same duration, as well as same route, a flight attendant announced after takeoff that there would be no beverage service because of the short duration. That is the absence of any kind of spirit and no amount of Triple Pay Bucks will instill it.
I will continue to fly USAir because it is convenient. I don’t have high expectations; therefore I only occasionally get upset at the absence of service and caring. I look forward to opportunities when I can fly Southwest and experience what it is like to be a customer taken care of by genuinely happy, motivated employees.
The Renewal Group has developed programs to assist companies in developing high-performance cultures by awakening, inspiring and empowering intrinsic motivation and human potential. Our Partners in Safety Program demonstrates how companies by utilizing intrinsic motivation concepts and tools can build high-performing safety cultures within their organizations and The Edge Program provides leaders and managers with the concepts and tools to unleash intrinsic motivation in their employees and our Relationship - Centered Leadership program assists leaders in developing the Seven Hallmarks of Leadership that build their power to inspire and influence employee engagement.
Postscript: On a later flight on USAir I met a flight attendant who makes a difference not because of triple bucks, but because he is intrinsically motivated. I'll share this story on a blog soon to be posted
Time: April 26- 28, 2011