Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Marketplace of Beliefs

In January 1981, James Watt became the Secretary of the Interior of the United States.  President Ronald Reagan’s choice of the controversial, pro-development Watt sent tremors through the environmental movement. The press was abuzz with the possibilities: stationing MX missiles in the Great Basin, opening up the California coast to oil and gas exploration, limiting the reach of the Endangered Species Act, and the like. For environmentalists, 1981 was their darkest hour.

Or was it? In the wake of Watt’s appointment, enraged environmentalists signed up to social movement organizations in numbers. The Sacramento Bee (4/23/2001) quoted a Sierra Club official remembering that time: “You couldn’t process the memberships fast enough. We basically added 100,000 members.” That organization’s roster surged past 200,000 members in 1981, reaching 325,000 members the following year. Clearly nobody in the environmental movement was happy about James Watt, but his appointment triggered a rally of support for their cause.

A strange exception? No. It turns out that when beliefs compete, opposition is vital.  A powerful opponent makes clear your own reason for being. There is little need for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in Salt Lake City – the Mecca of America’s Mormon population. But in places where breweries and distilleries abound, temperance organizations have prospered. (See work by Professors Wade and Swaminathan on this.) When beliefs compete, opposition strengthens identity.

In the marketplace of beliefs, the real competition is between the purists and pragmatists in the same camp. Once speaking to group of environmentalists, I asked who would be willing to work with Wal-Mart if this would help the environment. Half the room raised their hands, much to the surprise of the other half. A low buzz of consternation could be heard.  “We need to get something done,” said a pragmatist.  “Greenwashing,” replied a purist. When beliefs compete, the purists put a premium on their legitimate identity. The pragmatists opt for effectiveness, and in so doing call their own legitimacy into question.

The competition between pragmatism and purity is more than personal; it shapes how organizations develop. For years, in many places small food cooperatives were the place to go for organic produce – often locally grown. Powered by pragmatists, this movement became so successful that now even mass retailers sell organic products. Good news? Not to the purists, who have seen the small cooperatives close down in the shadow of the superstores. How much simpler were the days of pure opposites – of local food cooperatives standing in opposition to “industrial” food stores. In the marketplace of beliefs, compromise triggers a competition between purists and pragmatists.

Competition over beliefs is a leadership challenge: should you be pure or pragmatic? If you compromise, you get things done. But by compromising you also blur the lines, calling into question your legitimacy. The effective environmentalist is accused of selling out. The pragmatic conservative is sanctioned for being inauthentic. Yet it is those who compromise who get things done. Here is your tough choice as a leader in the marketplace of beliefs: Are you pure or pragmatic?

Academic research on "oppositional identity" can be found in the work of Glenn Carroll and his colleagues.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Why did we come to work?

Do you work for a big company? If so, try this: The next time you attend a meeting, ask yourself whether you can tell what business you are in by the content of the meeting. Is there any connection between what is being talked about in the meeting and the actual customers of the business? If not – and often there is no connection – look around the table. Does anyone in the room, you included, know a customer? If not, do you at least know someone who knows a customer? It may come as a shock, but most people in big companies do not interact with customers. After all, as a company grows, the number of relationships inside the company increases much faster than the number of customer-contact positions. This mathematical fact is akin to the "square-cube" law first observed by Galileo (albeit not talking about companies). And this fact leads to a problem: Most of us do not know why we go to work.

When you work directly with customers, you know why you go to work. That is the case for people in small companies, or for salespeople in big companies. But for the rest of us – those who do not deal directly with customers – why do we work? You can probably answer the small “why?” question. Maybe you help run the information technology system that the company uses to keep track of its people. That’s important. We can’t get paid without your work on the IT system. That is the small “why” question and it is usually easy to answer.  But try answering the big “why?” question. If you quit today, would the mission of the company be harmed? Why does your work matter, really matter, for the company? This question is very hard to answer for most people in big organizations, since they are so removed from the customer. They know why they come to work, but they don’t know why that work matters.

Unable to answer the big “why?” we end up instead measuring things that we do, in an attempt to show that our work matters. This leads to various maladies, such as calling a lot of meetings. We want to make progress, so we call a meeting. Because meetings are measurable, and attendance at meetings also is measurable, calling meetings is a way to feel like something is getting done. Did you go to the meeting? You can’t make the meeting!? Were you invited to the meeting? Even our calendar software is designed to enable meetings, allowing us to see when others do not yet have a meeting. Maybe we’ll set up a regular weekly meeting, or even a daily meeting. But why? Odds are, you have sometimes missed a meeting, or wished you could miss a meeting, because you wanted to actually get work done. Yet your absence would be measured, so you go. Of course, meetings can be useful; but in big organizations far too many meetings are called, since they are a measurable substitute for knowing the big “why?”

Great leaders help their people understand the big “why?” Such leaders make it their business to help their people see the link between what they do at work and what the organization is trying to get done. Do you tell a technician that they need to come in this weekend, and leave it at that? It would be better to add a small explanation. Explain why. How is that person’s work connected to the organization’s reason for existence? Perhaps the technician needs to come in because their support will enable an engineer to serve a customer. Although the customer will never know the technician, the technician should at least know how her work was important. That is the big why – and well-run organizations are filled with people who can answer that question.

For more on this topic, see the book by Amabile and Kramer.