Disruption Reflections: Causes Matter

There are many lessons we can garner from COVID-19. Whilst the economy is suffering and ‘business as usual’ (BAU) activity is organisation’s main focus; it is galvanizing to know how well we can band together when we are fighting for a common cause. We’ve all seen these past few weeks how motivating and bonding a common enemy is. And how it can compel us to undertake activity previously unforeseen. Working from home, staying at home, and supporting essential workers and essential functions has become a mission all of us have gotten behind. But when this enemy doesn’t threaten us anymore, it is critical that we don’t go back to the old, tired tactic of positioning ourself against competitors. Instead motivate your people by finding a new purpose worth fighting for. The companies that get ahead will be the ones who conduct BAU and provide a crusade for employees to join.

While modern corporations spend billions of dollars every year on “team-building” and on making sure that they hire top talent to “get the right people on the bus,” it turns out there is a much older, and much lower cost, way to rally a team. It’s not about ropes courses, trust falls, or any other of the team building activities that so many have tried and found wanting. It’s not even about how to motivate people by casting a vision or setting a big hairy audacious goal.

It’s about finding out, or sometimes just declaring, what battle your team is fighting. It’s about finding the common threat to the team or its stakeholders and outlining a clear path to overcoming it. 

And this isn’t a new idea. While social science has only recently been studying the unifying effect of outside adversity and a sense of mission, civilizations have known for millennia that fighting against a common enemy brings people together and brings out the best in them. Finding something worth fighting for is one of the oldest ways to establish an organizational purpose, and a great template to use when communicating that purpose.

Moreover, that purpose inspires people to be more productive and more creative. Inspired people create more value not just for themselves and their company, but also for their families and for the communities that they live in.

People don’t want to join a company; they want to join a crusade. 

But not just any fight will do. 

Corporations have used battle language for decades in vain attempts to rally their employees and found them wanting. In fact, when I first started thinking about this idea, everyone responded with the same reaction: “So what? Everyone knows that business is kill or be killed.” But every single example that followed was a story about how leaders attempted to inspire their teams to “win” and “beat the competition.” To which I simply asked, “and did that inspire you?”

The answer was almost universally “no.” 

Recent research suggests that the reason for this is that your direct competitors, while they might seem like a threat to market share, aren’t a very motivating threat to most people. Because people want to fight for something bigger than just winning against a different group of people doing the same work. 

Likewise, many leaders know the importance of being “mission-driven” or of focusing their people on a higher purpose. They know they should probably “start with why.” But communicating that mission or purpose is difficult and answering the question “why” can be tricky.

For corporate leaders, there are a variety of stakeholders to satisfy, and the pressure to address each in the mission statement leads to long, winding prose that few employees even read and almost none internalize. This is why mission statements so often fail to motivate. There’s no clarity and, if there is, there’s no clear and present danger. 

For entrepreneurs and small business owners, just taking the time to define a mission statement maybe be more time than they can spare. The business just started serving customers, and owners never really reflected on the deeper reasons for starting. And if they do know, putting that purpose to words is often looked at as too time consuming. 

Picking a fight—and picking the right fight—makes it all crystal clear.

It defines in short, precise language why the organization exists. And it gives the people inside the organization something most of us deeply want from our work. 

In Shawn Callahan’s book ‘Putting Stories to Work’ he articulates the story of Paul O’Neill and how his employees at Alcoa fought for safety. He led a turn around of the financial performance of the struggling aluminium manufacturer, but NOT by focusing on Alcoa’s stock price or revenues. Instead, he encouraged employees at all levels to fight for the safety of their co-workers by studying the process and working to become a zero accident company. And it made all the difference.

We want to start revolutions.
We want to bring justice to the world.
We want to overcome serious odds.
We want to defend the weak.
We don’t want to sell more widgets than the other guys.
Picking a fight is a powerful motivator; but leaders need to pick their fight wisely.

Instead of someone to fight, they need to find a cause worth fighting for.

Taiwan’s leader Tsai Ing-wen knew this instinctively and it is why her country has been a shining light throughout COVID-19

In the meantime, remember:

It’s not about competitors; it’s about the crusade. It’s not about who you’re fighting; it’s about what you’re fighting for.

The secret to team success isn’t “team-building” and it’s not finding the right people. It’s finding the right fight.

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