An amazing thing happens when you ask people to imagine their current workplace working to its potential. First, they smile. Then they hesitate. Then they want to talk about everything that’s wrong and why a better workplace is not real or practical or feasible.
If you’re patient though and you persist, slowly, very slowly, they start talking about what’s possible. And once that happens, before long, there are diagrams and dreams and the volume in the room rises from a gentle murmur to an excited buzz.
It’s hard to get people to quantify the possibilities. All their disappointments and concerns quickly crowd in to stifle the magic. But if you ask them patiently to put that aside and form a vision of what work should be like, aspiration slowly gets the better of them.
This isn’t about creating a dream kingdom. In fact, what works best I’ve found is getting people to forecast what a “better us” looks like – and a key component to achieving that is asking them to find proof for what’s possible in what they have already done; to envisage a better future on the basis of what’s already happened, rather than just a pipedream. Can-do is more easily achieved, even in the most cynical culture, when it’s based and built on a do that people ‘own’.
So often, we hear talk of embedding values and storylines in an organisational culture – telling people what is expected of them. But I’ve found that if you change the order so that the narrative is the story that the culture tells itself about what it can achieve, and the values become the behaviours that all agree are required to get there together, it stimulates initiative and conversation. People look forward together – rather than sideways at each other. And they do so because they are motivated by a basic human inclination. They want to feel great.
Transpose this observation about the power of imagining the “impossible” from the classroom to the workplace and a clear rationale for Inspiration emerges. “For most people, the question, “What is your dream?” never comes up. We do what is expected of us from day to day, and get on with the business of living our lives. For most of us, dreams are just that; fantasies, relegated to sleep, idle daydreaming, and Disney movies … What recent research is telling us … is that dreams inspire learning – not the sort of rote, superficial learning that will help students pass state standardized tests … but real learning that inspires deep, meaningful, life-changing mastery and purpose. Learning that inspires positive change both for the individual and their community.”
People learn new ways to problem solve and they teach themselves to confront new problems – issues that they might once have seen as none of their business. Given a vision of what their culture could be, people will invest amazing energy into resolving the barriers that stand between today’s reality and that dream. As Alli Polin has written, “Leaders that tap into the hopes, dreams and strengths of the team create a magical culture that hums with possibility.”
The most powerful strategy any culture can devise, especially for itself, is one that its people have ownership of and that it is in their best interests to execute.
Ask these kinds of questions:
What could happen at work that would make people here clap their hands in joy?
What are we not telling ourselves that we need to be telling ourselves in order for that to happen?
When was the last time you were truly proud of us?
What did that prove about us?