One of the best books I’ve read in a while is The Element by Sir Ken Robinson. The sub-title is “How finding your passion changes everything”, which pretty much sums up neatly what it’s about. Regular readers will know that I’m a big fan of Sir Ken and his views on creativity and education and this book is full of witty, inspiring and insightful stories about people who have found their own ‘element’ – be it in sport, politics, music, arts, business, whatever. But this isn’t a book review. I wanted to pull out one passage that really struck a chord with me. Sir Ken was recalling a time when he watched his brother play in a band in Liverpool many years ago. After the gig, a young Sir Ken approached the very talented keyboard player, Charles, and said “I’d love to play the piano like that”. “No you wouldn’t” replied Charles. “Er, yes I really would” said a surprised Ken, to which Charles responded: “No you wouldn’t. You like the idea of being able to play the piano. If you’d love to play it, you’d be doing it”. And he’s right. We all like the idea of being really really good at something, of obtaining mastery in a particular skill, but how many of us are truly prepared to put in the hard work and dedication to reach the heights to which we say we aspire? In his bestselling book Drive, Daniel Pink describes mastery as one of the key motivating drivers for the 21st Century. But as Dan says, “only engagement can produce mastery”. We’re not going to achieve excellence in our personal lives unless we become engaged. I won’t become a scratch golfer because I can’t get excited about golf but until recently I was prepared to work hard to be as good as I can be at tennis. Why, because I love the sport and I had role models (Sampras and Federer). I was engaged. By the way, I still love tennis but I’ve ‘found my level’ and I’m comfortable with my own level of mastery! But what about professional mastery? We all want to be as good as we can possibly be in our jobs, right? But we have surveys up to our eyeballs telling us that so few people are engaged at work (as little as 2% in some organisations) so where’s all this mastery going to come from? According to Dan Pink, the magic formula is autonomy, creativity and purpose. Give people the freedom to take control over their jobs and careers, allow and encourage their creativity and provide them with a sense of meaning. By doing so, we enter the world of ‘flow’, famously invented by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe the state of mind of being ‘in the moment’ – what athletes call ‘the zone’ – when you are so consumed with what you are doing that you fail to notice time passing and you can think of nothing else. When was the last time you were in flow? For me, it’s when I’m writing – when I know I’m writing something good – or when I’m running a workshop and you can tell things are happening in the room. Progressive companies are recognising the business benefits of flow and enabling their employees to seek mastery (mastery is never obtained of course, the struggle for perfection is all part of the attraction) through creative performance management, collaborative technologies and playful environments. This is where communicators can make a big difference – not only by seeking their own mastery, their own moments of flow, but through telling stories, reinforcing meaning and sharing creative anecdotes. Let’s interview colleagues and ask them what being ‘in the zone’ means to them, when they are most fulfilled at work, what motivates them and what part of their job they most want to master. Let’s draw a clearer line of sight between the organisation’s objectives and the actual on-the-ground capability it requires to deliver them. And then let’s celebrate that capability. Who are the experts and why are they good at what they do? Who are the learners and what do they need to get better? So many business communications are too impersonal. Let’s get real people talking about their aspirations, their pursuit of excellence, their ‘element’, their passions and motivations. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes the deep sense of engagement that comes from being in flow as “the oxygen of the soul”. Now that’s a story I’d like to hear.
Last year I was running a comms workshop with a client. At one point we started discussing messages and the importance of aligning comms to key strategic themes, values etc (like you do). Remembering that this particular organisation had ‘innovation’ as one of its global values I put forward the suggestion that they might like to consider ways to bring this value alive through their comms. Oh dear, it was like I’d killed a kitten. All went silent. Eyes looked down. Feet shuffled nervously. “Have I said something wrong?” I ventured. “You just said a dirty word” someone replied. “We’re tired of hearing about innovation. It’s all we’ve had drilled into us for the last year. We’re all sick of it.” “But it’s one of your corporate values” I said, digging the hole even deeper. “Yes, but it’s all talk. All we hear about is how important innovation is but there’s nothing to back it up. We just aren’t innovative.” You see, the value had become meaningless. Worse, it had become a negative rather than a positive influencer. In this organisation, ‘innovation’ was now a word to be avoided (banned, even) instead of exploited and celebrated. It was really sad hearing people be so dismissive and cynical about a word that should (in theory) be a core part of their working ethos. That’s the point of values, right? But what this tale reinforces is that values can bite back if you don’t look after them, nurture them and personify them. Having values that you don’t live by – in a tangible way – is like breaking trade descriptions. I don’t have a stated set of values in my business, but if I did, innovation would be one of them. I believe in innovation – I seek it out, I strive to apply it in what I do and I like to celebrate it in others. I’d like to think that I ‘live the value’ in that sense. Unfortunately, so many organisations pick values that they think look good on their website and on posters, but which they don’t really understand. They don’t understand that a ‘value without action’ is like a chocolate teapot. Pointless. Innovation is a very popular value, but when you speak to people whose organisation preaches the importance of innovation and ask what happens on the ground to make it real, they are often stuck for an answer. It sounds great for a company to say it’s innovative, but does it invest in creative capability? Does it have the structure and processes to manage innovation? Does it have a culture that encourages and nurtures ideas? Does it have the collaborative networks to allow innovation to flourish? Does it have leaders who understand what innovation is and what it requires? Does it have good communicators? Does it even know what it’s innovating for? If you can’t answer these questions, don’t have it as a value. My experience last year was a profound and insightful lesson in what happens when you preach one thing and do another. Or do nothing. Having values that your people don’t believe in is far worse that not having values at all. Value statements may be all the rage … but if you don’t make them meaningful, rage is what you’ll get.
I have written a number of times about how we as communicators and leaders should help people to find purpose in their work. Purpose – or doing a job that means something – is dramatically climbing up the chart of what motivates people at work (much higher than money). We need to take it seriously. But what does ‘finding purpose’ really mean in practice and how can we be creative in helping people make sense of what they do at work? Well, here are ten simple and practical ways to help you and your team find that reason to get out of bed each working day …
1. Play ‘whose purpose is it anyway’ – get your team to individually write down what they think your team’s purpose is. Then come together to discuss and find the common ground. Set some rules, like 10 words max and no jargon, and ask people to write what they really feel, not what they think the correct answer is. The discussion itself will be enlightening and will bring your team together.
2. On a similar vein, ask everyone to answer the question “why am I doing this” or “how is what I do relevant”. Or ask them to write down five words that describe what their job means to them. Then go round and ask each other why. Some will say ‘money’, others will write ‘fulfilment’ or ‘friendship’. It’ll tell you a bit about why they do what they do.
3. Communicate to your team using words that lift their spirits and rouse their hearts. Line managers, leaders and communicators take note. Giving people meaning requires an emotional connection. You need to reach inside them and make them feel something. You can’t do that with PowerPoint. To instil a sense of purpose in others you must show a sense of purpose in yourself. Remember, Martin Luther King turned up in Washington on August 28th 1963 with a dream, not a Gantt chart.
4. Talk openly about failures and things that don’t work out. Sometimes we find meaning in loss, in chaos, in failure. Sometimes we need things to go wrong to show us how to put them right. Sometimes we need the humility to admit to making mistakes. By talking openly about failure we can renew our sense of purpose, come together and resolve to put it right.
5. Offer praise regularly, and explain why. Praise isn’t solely in the gift of the manager. Let people know when you think they’ve done a good job or helped you do yours. People get just as motivated by little pats on the back as they do for winning ‘employee of the month’. Praise, with a reason why, adds meaning to work. It lets people know that what they do matters.
6. Volunteer. If you can do something together as a team in the community it can really add a new dimension to the way you work back in the office. The feeling of coming together to achieve a common goal outside of work can have a powerful knock-on effect in terms of team dynamics, personal relationships and building a sense of purpose in the day job.
7. Be an organisational tourist. Visit other areas of your organisation, or invite them to visit you, to better understand the part they play in the big picture and to put what you do into some context. Context can provide meaning, and meaning will give you purpose. Take steps to find out what happens to the work you do. If you work in comms, go and find out how you are making a difference. If you work in accounts, learn how your work helps keep the business running.
8. Pause and reflect. Every now and again, take the team away from the office and take some time to stop, pause and reflect on what it is you do. Stay high level, don’t get bogged down in detail or problems, and just take a step back. Look at what you do, how you work, the service you provide, the reputation you have, the reason you all come to work. Involve everyone and make an event of it.
9. Become a superhero. Or whatever you want. Everyone wants a job title that sounds cool to their friends, so play a game with your team to reinvent your titles. Ask everyone to look at what it is they do (and why) and ask them to create a cool business card that sums up the role they play in the organisation. Encourage them (and yourself) to go way over the top with descriptive adjectives and hyperbole. Imagine your role stripped down to the basics and in a completely different fantasy world. How would you describe it then? It’s a great and fun way to look at the job you do. If you work in accounts, maybe you’d feel better about having “numerical alchemist” or “bullion balancer” on your door?
10. Be human. Ever since we first looked up at the stars and contemplated our place in the grand scheme of things we human beings have searched for meaning. Finding purpose in our work doesn’t have to be quite such a philosophical challenge, but it does require us to stay true to our basic human characteristics – asking questions, finding answers, seeking simplicity, collaborating with others, providing emotional support, connecting the dots, telling stories, offering praise, being creative. Humanise the work environment and you’ll humanise the work.
By now you would have gathered that I love the Olympics. Yesterday was why. It wasn’t just the fact that it was a great day for Team GB, which I could appreciate and celebrate as a patriotic sports lover. It was the fact that I found my heart thumping, my mouth dry with anticipation, my hands clammy with nervous excitement …. because of shooting! Shooting? Are you kidding? What’s more, I punched the air in celebration in a judo match. And then I was shouting at the TV and feeling like a proud father… because of canoe slalom! I even found myself watching some boxing yesterday, a sport I can’t stand. Every four years I find myself magnetically attracted to sports I wouldn’t otherwise shake a stick at. You wouldn’t catch me near a horse in a million years but yesterday I watched an hour of dressage! And what’s more, I loved it. But from a human behaviour perspective, I also find big sporting events fascinating. They tell us a lot about patriotism of course, but also a lot about engagement and the need to belong. Yesterday I picked my daughter up from a summer camp and while I was waiting with the other parents, all everyone was talking about was the gold medals GB had won that afternoon. People were happy and excited. What I noticed most was the fact that everyone was referring to “we” rather than “them” or “GB”. I’m proudly wearing my Team GB t-shirt as I type this and next week I’ll be sitting in the Olympic Stadium myself with a silly hat and giant flag. So why do we do this? The fact is, we don’t do it for the team, we do this for ourselves. When Sir Chris Hoy crosses the line to break the world record and grab a fifth Olympic gold, we don’t cheer for him … we cheer for us. We don’t celebrate because we’re “pleased for the athlete”, we celebrate because we’re pleased for ourselves. If a shooter we’ve never heard of wins a gold medal for our team, why are we so happy? It’s because we feel part of the team and we share a common sense of purpose. What he’s done has made us feel successful. For many of us, sport reflects our own values and aspirations in life. We all have dreams and goals but we also know that life is hard and, as Mick Jagger keeps pointing out, we can’t always get what we want. I know I’ve written about this before, but I love the way that sport brings us stories that we can all relate to – struggle, the pursuit of excellence, personal commitment, overcoming adversity, dealing with tragedy, the reliance on others, fluctuating self-confidence, the desire to ‘live the dream’. We also use sport to reflect on our own lives – our health and fitness, the choices we made when we were younger, the opportunities we wish we’d had, the regrets we have now. I’m a middle-aged, slightly overweight bloke with a bad back. When I watch the Olympics, I wish to God I was ten (my daughter’s age). We see ourselves in those athletes. When they do well, we feel it. When they fail, we feel it more. Not because we’re athletes but because we know what it feels like when things go well, and when they go wrong. But you know, it doesn’t have to be sport that incites these feelings. Work can do this too if only we’d build better workplace communities, engender a greater sense of purpose and meaning, tell more human stories of achievement and ‘struggle’, allow people to express themselves, encourage cross-functional education and experience. And of course, if we were more creative in the way we communicate. We need to humanise the workplace. It is possible to create an environment where the bloke in Finance feels motivated and becomes more productive because he’s been inspired by the woman in HR doing a great job? Where people talk about ‘we’ and ‘us’ rather than ‘them’. Where organisations recognise people as individuals rather than resources. And where one team has a group hug because another team has been successful. Sorry for all these Olympic-related posts. I’ll stop now.
OK, the Olympics are here and I’m more excited than a roomful of Pointer Sisters. So here, for communicators, leaders and managers everywhere, are my top ten inspirations we can take from the Olympics. So please, spread the word, share this post and let’s inject some Olympic spirit into the workplace …
1. The Olympic motto – Faster, Higher, Stronger – means something. They are values that inspire. Why? Because (i) they are adjectives, (ii) they can be measured and (iii) they endure. Too many organisational values are bland nouns with no call to action and no “reason to get up in the morning” quality about them. When employees start tattooing their organisational values on their bodies, you know you’ve got something special!
2. The Olympics brings communities together. The torch relay has shown us the power of community and the inherent human search for meaning. I stood in the rain in Tatton Park for over an hour to see a bloke I’ve never met jog past me with an 800g aluminium flame-holder surrounded by bodyguards and a massive convoy of police, coaches and sponsored vehicles. Why would I do that? Of course, it’s not what it is, it’s what it means. It’s what it symbolizes. And anything that can bring communities together like this has surely got to be a good thing. Our organisations are full of human beings searching for meaning and striving to belong. Remember, the best things in life are not things. They’re experiences.
3. Athletes understand that performance is as much about the mind as the body. The ability to carry out the physical requirements of the job – the tasks – is only part of what makes an Olympian. The job title for a sprint hurdler is to run fast in straight line and jump over some sticks. The real work though goes on in the mind – the focus, the motivation, the concentration, the dedication, the commitment, the relentless pursuit of excellence, the confidence, the sense of occasion. For athletes, high performance is a whole-body and whole-brain concept. As it should be at work.
4. The Olympics is a triumph of diversity. I don’t just mean racial, religious and physical diversity, I mean the diversity of sports. Ever since the industrial revolution and Adam Smith’s theories about the division of labour, we have become obsessed with pigeon-holing people into jobs, roles and professions. We tend to stay stuck in one occupational sector most of our lives and we focus on becoming a ‘high achiever’ in one area rather than a ‘wide achiever’ in many. Not only does sport celebrate the concept of a multi-discipline approach (decathlon, heptathlon, modern pentathlon, triathlon etc) but the Olympics exposes us to sports we would never normally engage with. It’s a time for learning new skills, expanding our minds and gaining new experiences. So if you work in Marketing, reach out to your colleagues in Accounts.
5. Sporting metaphors work. Whether you’re stepping up to the plate, raising the bar, passing the baton or punching above your weight, you can’t deny that sporting metaphors work. According to prominent linguist George Lakoff, metaphors are key to understanding and reasoning. “Human thought processes are largely metaphorical”, he said. So in business, using metaphor and storytelling to convey a complex message is a powerful way to communicate. The Olympics provides us with metaphors and stories in spades. So, on your marks …
6. Cynics exist – get over it. Our workplaces reflect wider society, and in all walks of life there are people who are cynical, critical, indifferent or just plain grumpy. The Olympics brings out the best and the worst of human behaviour, particularly in terms of public perception. To some it’s a once-in-a-lifetime celebration of sport, endeavour and human spirit. To others it’s a commercialised, regionally-biased, elitist waste of money. Logos, mascots, ceremonies, slogans, designs, processes … they all incite opinions. So do strategies, corporate comms and change programmes. It’s a fact of life. Don’t let them get you down.
7. A communicator’s Aladdin’s Cave. Imagine the amount of information and data swirling around an Olympic Games. Twenty six sports, 300 events, 14,000 competitors, 20,000 media people, all with stories to tell and messages to get across. But do we complain about information overload? Of course not, we pick and choose the messages we want to engage with, and how we want to consume them. And what a choice we have! I’m a big believer in learning from other worlds, and the Olympics offers us communicators ideas and inspirations around every corner –the clarity of symbols, the importance of identity, the discipline of campaigns, the power of stories, the integration of channels, the layering of information, the opportunity for interaction, the thirst for education, the demand for speed, the need for accuracy. Watch, learn and steal with pride.
8. Sport is creative. If you look at sport as a ‘job of work’ like any other, you clearly see the importance of creativity and innovation to achieving high performance. Athletes are continually on the lookout for innovations that will make a difference. Some are legal (aero-dynamic cycling helmets), some are illegal (performance enhancing drugs) and some are controversial (hi-tech swimsuits). Gymnasts, divers and synchronised swimmers are actually judged on their creativity. Training regimes, diets, equipment, scoring systems, venues and techniques are continually reviewed and improved. There’s no such thing as business as usual in sport. In sport, as in business, it’s change agility and relentless creativity that makes winners.
9. There’s nothing wrong with having fun. The Olympics is the ultimate playground but the office can be playful too. Anything which gets people playing, having fun and laughing has got to be a good thing. Play exercises the right side of our brain. It makes us more productive, it builds relationships, it breaks down barriers, it brings people together, it encourages competition and collaboration, it harnesses creativity, it MAKES PEOPLE HAPPY. From flicking paper clips into a cup to baking Olympic cup cakes, let’s use this opportunity to inject some play into our working lives.
10. It’s what you do that counts. Athletes, like organisations, are continually striving for competitive advantage. At the Olympics, being world class is not enough. The difference between success and failure can be a fraction of a second, a twitch on the start line, a pull of an oar, a wobble on the beam, a puff of air in the pool, a millimetre of sand, a subjective opinion of a judge. Four years of training can come down to what happens in ten seconds. Sport reminds us that whilst strategies, visions, business cases, presentations, briefings, PR messages, structures, policies, standards and operating models all have their place, it’s ultimately grit, boldness, sweat and human endeavour that makes the difference. Let’s finish with a quote from Goethe: “What you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”
Enjoy the Olympics everyone.
I was in a meeting the other day with a bloke called Mark. I’ve known Mark for some time – he’s a project manager in IT and we’ve been working on some comms stuff together. We’d attend the same meetings, say hello in the corridor and exchange emails, like you do. All very cordial, all very workmanlike. In this particular meeting my phone went off (how unprofessional, I know). My ring tone is an old Genesis track. Mark recognised it and told me he’d been listening to that exact song in the car that morning. We continued the conversation about music, and he then mentioned that he plays in a band. So did I once. It then turns out that Mark is a mad motorbike nut, spends most of his weekends ‘on the road’ with his mates and also likes walking in the Lake District, as I do. So ‘Mark the Project Manager’ became ‘Mark the bike-riding, guitar-playing, fell-walker’ in the space of five minutes brought about by a ringtone. If my wife hadn’t called to ask me to pick up some cat litter on the way home, I wouldn’t know all this about Mark. Why does it matter? Well, because knowing about a person and finding common ground builds relationships, breaks down barriers and creates a more informal and relaxed (and creative) environment. When we’re at work we have a persona – a title, a role, a way of working and a framework of behaviour set out by written and unwritten rules, convention and perceived good professional conduct. We all try to be businesslike and professional at work, of course we do. Work is serious business, obviously. But behind the persona is the person – the lives, loves, likes, dislikes, passions, fears, motivations, frustrations, obsessions, dreams, hopes, experiences, secrets, relationships, problems, stresses and releases that make us all human. And the colleague we see in the office may not be the ‘real them’. There’s the person who never speaks in a team meeting but who performs amateur dramatics at weekends. The office junior who can’t be trusted to order some paper clips but who runs a scout group on Tuesday evenings. The person who says they’re not creative in a brainstorm but who goes home and whips up an amazing stir fry. The manager who delivers dull presentations but can bring people to tears with his piano playing. The quiet part-timer in the corner who answers phones for the Samaritans for two hours every other night. Not only does this highlight the complete waste of experience and creativity that organisations could exploit but don’t, but it also begs the question what would our workplaces be like if we all knew the people behind the job titles. Collaboration would be improved, business relationships would flourish, ideas would be voiced, circulated and nurtured, innovation would boom, productivity would increase because people would be relaxed and happier, retention would go up, stress would go down. All because we’d be working with friends with substance not colleagues with note pads. So let’s take time to get to know the people we work with. Opening up a team meeting with tales of what we did at the weekend shouldn’t be considered small talk, it should be big talk. I’d like to see HR departments formally recognise the skills and experience people have outside of work. Let’s see communicators do more to identify, share and celebrate the achievements of the workforce out of hours. And let’s create environments in which people can come together to talk about stuff other than work. Having conversations and finding common ground with others is naturally human. And conversations about holiday destinations will soon become conversations about solving business problems.
In 1940 Henry Ford sacked a worker for “smiling on the job”, having already committed a previous offence of “laughing with other fellows”. Ford’s belief that “play and work don’t mix” was the prevailing view then and for decades after. And although, 70 years on, we’ve come a long way, there still seems to be a bit of a reluctance to embrace the power of laughter and fun in the workplace. A recent Harvard Business Study says: “More than four decades of study by various researchers have proven that humour, used skilfully, reduces hostility, deflects criticism, relieves tension, improves morale and helps communicate difficult messages”. Laughing and playfulness exercises the right side of the brain. It releases creativity, builds relationships and generally makes people happy, and happy workers make productive workers. But still so many companies can’t make the leap of faith to actively encourage and facilitate fun as part of work. Many of those who do value fun will go no further than tolerating cakes on a Friday and the occasional quiz night in the canteen. How many big companies are prepared to go all the way and to really use humour as a strategic engagement tool? Of course, some companies do ‘play at work’ well, but in many industries, especially the traditional left-brain professions like law, accountancy and financial services, with their cold, ‘hear a pin drop’ offices, fun and laughter brings disapproving looks of unprofessionalism and immaturity. How can we break this and get employers to lighten up? Surely we could all benefit from taking work a little less seriously and not be labelled as uncommitted? Research has shown that people with a strong sense of humour do better in business than the stick-in-the-muds. So let’s see a sense of humour as a leadership capability. Let’s start recruiting people on their sense of fun. Let’s use comedy as a morale booster. Let’s play panel games and light-hearted exercises to embed messages. Let’s train line managers on the art of play and the value of laughter. Let’s invest in bringing Laughter Clubs into the workplace. Some people are allowed smoking breaks, why not tolerate laughing breaks? I’m serious.
We need to start somewhere, so here are six simple exercises to get people laughing in your team:
- Play business charades – get team members to act out a business process, department or comms message through mime
- Ask people to ‘make up’ a new process or department – the dafter the better
- Start every meeting with a joke or a funny story
- Get everyone to ‘doodle’ their week or communicate it via a comic strip
- Take photos around the office and ask people to come up with captions
- Have regular competitions and daft office games, like jargon bingo or see how many song titles you can insert into a team discussion
It’s worth remembering that children laugh 100 times a day. Adults laugh barely a dozen times a day. Funny eh?