How leaders use symbolism to drive action

Symbolism can be a powerful method to align an organization to a new way of thinking.  Transformational leaders know that everyone will be looking at what they say and do.  One of the basic tenets of effecting culture change is to create experiences that will reinforce the beliefs that you want people to hold.  These experiences can be small words of support, a well-written sincere note, or a key policy decision.  But they can also be bold acts that create a lasting impression and become the basis for stories and legends.  Consider the following symbolic acts – one in world politics and one in business.

  • At the 1995 World Cup rugby final, Nelson Mandela put on a jersey of the South African Springboks, which under apartheid had been the exclusively white national rugby team.  Mandela purposely chose to wear the uniform of the sport that black South Africans had always seen as that of the oppressor.  The symbolism was unmistakable.  It was an overt statement to millions of South Africans that he sincerely believed in reconciliation in the new democratic South Africa.symbolism
  • Gordon Bethune, CEO of Continental Airlines, was trying to send a message to all his employees that the old rigid rules were history.  He wanted everyone to make whatever decision they thought was right for the company and the customer.  To make this clear, he staged a book burning, where the previous “rules manual” was ceremoniously set afire in a 55-gallon drum in the parking lot.  This story soon spread among the employees.  Message received.

The use of symbolism is not only within the purview of world political leaders or company executives. Creating experiences is only limited to your imagination and the thoughtful consideration of the message you want to send.

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Are there elephants in the room? Is anything undiscussable?

Is there an undiscussable topic that is preventing your team from working well together or is causing you to avoid working on the things that matter most?  Then you may have an elephant in the room.

undiscussable

An elephant in the room is an obvious truth or condition that is being ignored or not addressed, or a risk nobody wants to discuss. Everyone knows these elephants exist – but we try to avoid them or refer to them obliquely.  They are often discussed privately either before or after meetings.  Our fear is that if we talk about these elephants, they will come to life and trample us.  The problem is that unless and until we are free to identify and discuss these sensitive topics openly, they never go away.

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Do you balance optimism with realism?

 

“Whether you think you can, or whether you think you can’t, you’re right.”

– Henry Ford

Optimism

Do you consider yourself an optimist, a realist, or a pessimist?  Many experts have opined on this topic as it relates to leadership.

Dr. Martin Seligman, a prominent researcher in the field of optimism, claims that optimism or pessimism lies in the way you explain the events that happen to you. Our thoughts can cause us to assess events inaccurately.  They can also cause us to jump to erroneous conclusions.

Strong leaders are seldom characterized as pessimistic. By definition, if someone in a leadership role sees mostly negative outcome, it will be nearly impossible to rally the masses to meet a difficult challenge.

On the other hand, it is uncommon for dynamic leaders to see themselves as pure optimists.  Someone with this view could be seen as a Pollyanna – a person who doesn’t have a grip on reality and believes that everything will eventually work out, regardless of evidence to the contrary.

Rather, the consensus view is that the most effective leaders are those who lean toward optimism.

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Why is personal change so hard? Consider the Endowment Effect

Humans are complicated.  While some of our base emotions and behaviors are easy to understand, there are times when we appear to make irrational decisions when faced with personal change.  For example, behavioral economists have identified a specific instance when we apparently place a very different value on something depending upon whether we own it or not.  Consider the following scenario.

Spersonal change, workplace, designuppose that a team performed an analysis on the layout of a work area.  The team concluded that a significant amount of waste of motion and waste of transportation would be removed if the work stations in the cell are re-arranged.  With a proposed new floor layout, each of the operators would walk shorter distances as they moved among the stations.  It would make it easier for them to accomplish their work each day. The location of the new work stations would be comparable in every way to the existing work stations – tools, space, lighting, climate, proximity to the work. This sounds like a positive outcome for everyone!

However, when the proposed plan is shared with the crew, it is met with surprising resistance by some of the operators.  This would seem to be an illogical decision.  These operators would rather walk further (and therefore work harder) than accept these minor personal changes to their work flow!  How can this be?

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Why can’t we get people to do simple things?

  • behaviorHave you ever wondered why some people don’t seem to be motivated to take action, even when what you are asking them to do is clearly the “right thing” ?
  • Have you noticed that some desirable habits are relatively easy to develop, while you struggle to make other habits a part of your routine?
  • Have you become frustrated when someone repeats a poor habit or behavior, in spite of a recent detailed coaching conversation?

Dr. BJ Fogg of Stanford University developed a behavior model that helps us to understand how to influence someone.  The Fogg Behavior Model shows that three elements must converge at the same moment for a behavior to occur: Motivation, Ability, and Trigger.  When a behavior does not occur, at least one of those three elements is missing or insufficient.  His model is depicted in the graphic below.

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How do you set expectations?

“If you expect nothing from anybody, you’re never disappointed.”
―    Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Earlier in my career, I had the opportunity to work with a group of four supervisors at a manufacturing site.  I spent a week with each supervisor, with the objective of getting to know each person better.  After a month rotating among the supervisors, it was clear that there were stark differences in how each of them related to their respective crews.  The contrast in styles was greatest when comparing Mitch with Harold.

Mitch considered himself to be “old-school” and was proud of it.  He had spent nearly twenty years in various line positions at the plant, eventually working his way into a senior operator role before being promoted to supervisor.  He was a no-nonsense guy who ruled with an iron fist and a commanding voice.  His philosophy was to set the rules and hold people accountable when they were violated.  Mitch believed his primary responsibilities were to “keep the line running” and to “make sure that no one does anything stupid.” During the shift, he could often be found in the supervisor’s office area, unless the line was down for some reason.  His crew tended to have the least senior people, mainly because there was a lot of bidding to move to another supervisor’s crew.

Harold also spent many years as an operator in the same facility before accepting a supervisor position.  He had a calm demeanor and spent most of his time on the floor, listening to his crew members.  He frequently answered any questions with a question of his own, “What do you think we should do?”  Harold challenged his crew to come up with solutions, not just to identify the problems.  I would overhear him privately praising each person, telling them that they were among the best operators he had ever been around.  When someone made a mistake, he would make it a point to ask the individual what lesson was learned and what we could do differently the next time.  Harold’s crew had the most senior people.  It was clear that they respected Harold and valued the opportunity to work on his crew.

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