Having a meaningful vision to work towards, is a strong source of motivation for employees. Companies can use the psychological underpinnings of story-telling to better communicate and reinforce the organizational vision.
Most workers, many of whom are millennials, approach a role and a company with a highly defined set of expectations. They want their work to have meaning and purpose. Gallup, SOAW 2017 Report.
SpaceX (Elon Musk’s space exploration company) Falcon rocket just pulled off a jaw-dropping feat. This is the world’s most powerful rocket as of now built by a young private enterprise. Governments have been spending billions (even trillions) of dollars for decades to build rockets! And oh yes, those booster rockets landed back at the launch pad.
How does someone like Musk come along and get people to join in what is surely a very risky venture and work towards awe-inspiring “moonshots” (literally in this case)?
One word: Vision
and the ability of the founder (and the rest of the organization) to communicate it effectively internally and externally.
Take SpaceX’s own vision statement – “SpaceX was founded under the belief that a future where humanity is out exploring the stars is fundamentally more exciting than one where we are not.”
It then goes on to say “Today, SpaceX is actively developing the technologies to make this possible, with the ultimate goal of enabling human life on Mars.”
Any surprise that we have a Tesla car right now heading towards Mars?
So why don’t we have too many companies doing inspiring stuff like SpaceX? Or rather why can’t most companies be in this situation. It is not that there is a dearth of business leaders with vision. What is usually missing is the ability to get the workforce excited about that vision.
“Stories are a communal currency of humanity.” Tahir Shah (Arabian Nights)
Ever since Cro-Magnon man figured out that iron oxide and manganese can be used to draw images on cave walls, storytelling has been the mainstay of how mankind delivered messages. Technology has grown by leaps and bounds. Mobiles, Instant Messaging, Virtual Reality, the list goes on and on. But the human brain is still a victim of “evolutionary friction.”
The human brain still relies on a story to make sense out of the content it processes. So just statements or data-points (data-pukes) don’t work. If you think a charismatic leader can walk into the annual town-hall and rouse the masses. Think again.
There has to be a powerful story to really motivate people and there are several psychological reasons why this is so (1).
- Stories have been the primary source of communication since the time our ancestors left the trees.
- Stories transcend generations and engage us through emotions.
- Stories are how human beings make sense of life and how we think (mental models, schemas, mind maps, whatever you choose to call it)
- Stories appeal to our inner wiring. They connect with the ‘right brain’ and trigger our imagination. And when that happens we participate in the narrative!
“If you’re going to have a story, have a big story, or none at all.” Joseph Campbell
Before we get into how you can get employees excited about your vision, lets sidestep a bit and differentiate between Vision, Mission, Values, and Goals. Organizations (and very smart people who run them) often get confused about what is what.
- Vision: This is a short statement of where you would like to get to – the overarching statement of the reason you (the organization and all its stakeholders) exist.
- Mission: This is the sub-text to the vision. A follow-up statement on how you intend to get where your vision says you want to get to. Think of this as the BHAG you wish to achieve over time and how you are going to go about it.
- Values: These are the guiding principles which tell people how they are expected to behave on a daily basis while working towards fulfilling the mission statement.
- Goals: These are your immediate, quantifiable, measurable targets split from Organization level all the way down to department/team levels.
So now that we know what the differences are, how do you get people excited about the ‘big picture’?
- Tie the organizational vision to team/individual goals:
“Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.”—Robert McKee
Several organizations go to great lengths to communicate the vision statement to all employees – verbatim as the leaders have stated it. It will be printed on large placards and put up in lobbies, the cafeteria, and the library. The more enthusiastic ones will even have it printed on the back-side of the employee identity cards. But then they miss the crucial step of helping teams and individuals understand how to align their goals with that of the organization.
It’s only when everyone in the company, right down to the customer service executive handling support requests, understands how her contribution helps the organization move towards its vision that things start to really fall in place.
- Make the vision statement inspiring and motivating:
“Great stories happen to those who can tell them.” –Ira Glas
See the vision statements for what they really are. They are a call-to-arms for the workforce. For someone to hand over substantial time of their life to you is nothing short of that. The best vision statements are those that inspire the stakeholders (employees, investors, customers) to sign-up. Some of my favorite ones are from Uber and Airbnb.
Uber: “Transportation as reliable as running water, everywhere for everyone”
Airbnb: “Belong anywhere”
Those simple statements communicate everything that the company stands for. When anecdotes and stories about how Uber or Airbnb are helping their customers are told, that core vision gets reinforced – and motivates people to do more than just work for a paycheck.
- Ensure that the message is communicated consistently and across multiple channels:
“The human species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories.” –Mary Catherine Bateson
It is not only the CEO or the HR team that has to talk about the vision. Unless the entire leadership doesn’t constantly talk about the vision and reinforce how actions are aligned with that vision, the message will not sink in. The company’s vision statement should be the “focal point” around which everything revolves.
Recognition of work done aligning with the credo of the vision is a powerful way to communicate and reinforce the vision statement.
First, ensure that your employees see the “vision” in “action.” If your vision says we will go to Mars, work towards that. Don’t try to make money launching low-earth communication satellites. Or if the vision says you are a “customer-centric” company, don’t piss off customers by not responding to their queries and support requests.
Then ensure that actions that “walk the talk” on vision are recognized (and rewarded). This process can be gamified and can have a social layer added to increase visibility and add to the motivation levels. These actions ensure that the story around the vision gets built.
And finally, leverage technology to celebrate the stories. Share success stories of how employees aligned with the vision were rewarded (psychologically and monetarily) across the organization. These stories amplify the message of how people are valued in the organization and that the vision is a living, meaningful statement around which the “organizational story” is being woven.
(1) The Psychological Power of Storytelling, Psychology Today