Thursday, September 23, 2010

Motivation through the ages

While rewriting Working with Stories I've been making the rounds through some old projects and visiting some of my favorite patterns. One particular pattern has come up in so many projects -- ten? fifteen? -- that I think it might be of interest to others. It has to do with generations, organizations, and motivation. Now note that this is not a formal meta-analysis, and I haven't actually brought any real data together (and probably won't, because of client confidentiality and varying data formats). I'm content to observe and comment, and don't claim to have proven anything. Probably lots of other people have already proven all of this. But I find it interesting anyway.

Youth and middle age

So, what I've seen is this. As people begin their careers, or periods of involvement with an organization (as employees, volunteers, even customers), they start out telling fairly uniform stories.

Many of the stories by younger people display an abundance of energy but little power. These stories could display frustration at the situation, but often they  don't because they don't show a strong desire, involve big challenges, or demonstrate an obligation to make a difference. Nor do they involve knowledge to carry out complicated plans. These stories are involved and sometimes passionate, but loosely, contingently, experimentally so.

As people enter middle age, their stories tend to show growing power mixed with an increased desire to create change, challenging tasks, a feeling of obligation, and knowledge of how things should be done. You could say that the power evidenced in these stories is just enough to make their tellers want more; so the frustration level rises to a peak just as energy levels start to decline. In contrast to the earlier stories, these are committed, not exploratory; but their commitment is sometimes a seat belt and sometimes a straitjacket.

Engagement and detachment

At this point the dynamic splits and one graph becomes two. At some point in middle age, the stories diverge into two groups. The people don't split into two groups; but the mixture of tendencies expressed in their stories shifts as people get older. I've taken to calling the two sets of stories:
  1. engaged stories about people (usually their tellers) doing things in the organization, and  
  2. detached stories about people (usually their tellers) dealing with the things other people do in the organization. 
For whatever reason -- energy, perseverance, connections, skills, personality, attitude, background, luck -- some people begin telling more stories that feature an element of power. By power I don't necessarily mean organizational-chart or powers-that-be power; I mean the confidence that comes from knowing one can achieve one's goals. That sort of power can come from many places.

In engaged stories desire, knowledge, challenge and obligation all rise together to a peak. At the same time energy decreases as people age. This creates some degree of persistent frustration -- not at being out of power, but at not being able to use the power they have as effectively as they would like to create the change they want to see happen.

Detached stories, on the other hand, show a decrease in power as well as energy. You might think this would increase frustration further, but the reverse happens. These stories are all about pulling away, giving up, learning helplessness, reducing desire and avoiding obligation. Evidence of knowledge continues to grow, but not at the same pace as in the engaged stories, because the stories are largely devoid of challenge. These stories aren't always negative; sometimes they are just about people showing practical sense in a world they can't control. But there is definitely less positive energy here than in any of the other story sets.


I've noticed some places along the sets of curves where I think organizations might release untapped energy based on these observations. Points one and two are the same in both graphs (because the graphs are the same up to the middle point), and points 3a and 3b refer to only one group of stories.

 1. The plums on the cliffs. Young people have lots of energy but don't know where to put it, so "Youth is wasted on the young." I find that this proverb makes more sense to me every year. If I could go back in time ... But in a way, organizations can go back in time. Reducing the gap between youthful energy and all the other low-in-youth elements in my graphs above could create tangible benefits for organizations. Of course, giving the most inexperienced people with the least interest in becoming involved lots of power would be a mistake. But small changes in this area could result in large gains. I remember being at IBM and interacting with two summers worth of interns. These young people brought fresh eyes to old problems and had amazing amounts of energy, but much of it was dissipated as they scampered around the mossy stones standing nearly motionless in the offices and corridors. I was young enough to feel some of their frustration myself: those boulders just wouldn't move. Using young interns to "shake things up" is an area where I don't think many organizations have gone beyond the lip-service level.

A crazy idea for harvesting cliff plums: Mix interns with regular employees, but don't label them as interns. Give them titles that don't sound temporary, so that people don't reflexively discard their ideas. Involve them in the actual infrastructure of the organization. Don't hold special fake-involvement meetings where the interns present their mini-projects and everyone pats them on the head and goes back to "real" work. Don't quarantine them in young-people's meetings devoid of anyone over thirty. Instead of giving them tiny or fake projects to work in, give them real power in real projects. But be prepared to intervene swiftly in case of problems. Instead of having them swim in a wading pool, send them out into the ocean -- right next to a great big ship loaded with rescue equipment.

2. The swamps of sadness. Vast quantities of frustration and disappointment come spilling out of stories told by people in their middle ages. Many of these people are having their mid-life crises and asking themselves what they will leave behind. Many are having children and wondering what they will leave for them. Many are developing confidence in their own abilities at the same time as they develop an overwhelming disappointment at their ability to get the rest of the world to join their earnest efforts. Here again, it's possible that relatively small changes to organizational systems might free up energy that is otherwise wasted. Paperwork, wasted meetings, contradictory messages from management, great ideas unheeded, change programs full of pretense and empty of action -- all of these things can be improved upon, and sometimes with a far smaller amount of energy than is released as a result.

A crazy idea for draining the swamps of sadness: Tap volunteerism among frustrated do-gooders. Tell people that, say, everyone can leave at three o-clock in the afternoon on Fridays, or they can use that time to work on things they think the organization needs. (3M famously does this, or at least that's what I've heard...) Give people a little freedom and power to do what they think will work. Employees need confidence in the organization as well as in themselves, and it seems to be in the middle ages when this begins to decline.

The hard part of this crazy idea is that to do this, those in charge (those who decide what people will do on Friday afternoons) have to share the organization's vision and values with those under them. And by share I don't mean "tell them about it." I mean let them have some of it. Some people at the top don't want to share the organization's vision because they consider it their vision. I've seen people in power squirm and argue and stalk out when confronted with the possibility that those they have hired and paid might also have hopes and dreams for the organization. In some places it seems almost taboo to mention it. But a factory worker can be just as proud of the car they helped create as its designer, and rightly so. It takes maturity to share an organization with everybody in it, but it pays off.

3a. The mountain paths of the masters. Another opportunity is in supporting people who have run a good race and can tell stories full of wisdom and understanding, but can no longer produce the volume of output they once did. These are the masters of organizations (and they may not be the CEOs). I picture them walking slowly along well-worn paths with accolades following them catching the nuggets of wisdom they drop; but in fact many such masters walk their mountain paths alone. Finding the organization's masters and helping them make the most of their remaining energy is another opportunity often lost. People nearing or just after retirement from organizations are usually given far less attention than is productive (or even respectful). Keeping these people in the loop can help organizations avoid costly mistakes nobody else can see coming and discover opportunities nobody else could imagine.

A crazy idea for walking the mountain paths: Don't make retirement a step change. Make it both a gradual decrease (in time and energy) and a transition to a different sort of contribution. As with interns, don't sequester retirees; keep them deeply involved. But increasingly tap lower-energy reflection and advice while decreasing expectations of energy-consuming production. It's true that younger people will work longer hours for less, and it's true that younger people are more malleable. But the old people know what's what. It's like that old story about the plumber who goes into the factory, taps one pipe, walks out, and sends the factory owner a bill for $50,050. When the owner balks, the plumber explains. Tapping the pipe: $50. Knowing which pipe to tap: $50,000. Don't tire your masters out tapping all the pipes in the factory, but do keep asking them which ones to tap.

3b. The valley of the shadow of giving up. When people tell stories of detachment, they (or those parts of them) represent not only a danger to the organization but an opportunity as well. In many of these stories I find a sense of lingering desire, a dormant hope that the storytellers could once again be useful and take action with confidence. With some help even the most jaded can take on new challenges and provide the benefit of their knowledge.

When people tell these stories they are like the Beatles' nowhere man, making all his nowhere plans for nobody. The thing is, some of those plans are actually pretty good. Do you remember what Ringo said to the nowhere man in The Yellow Submarine?
Ringo: Hey, uh, Mr. Boob - you can come with us, if you like.
Jeremy Hillary Boob, PhD.: You mean... you'd take a nowhere man?
Ringo: Yeah. Come on, we'll take you somewhere.
A crazy idea for raising the valley: Take your nowhere people somewhere. Literally. Find the people who could contribute to your organization but don't. Ask them to come to a special meeting or lunch or retreat. Discover the desires they hide, the challenges they wish they could approach, the knowledge they may not know they have, the power and confidence that would enable them, the barriers that stand in their way. See if you can reduce the gap between their desire and their (real and perceived) power and confidence so that they can have a positive impact on the organization.

So there you go. I find thinking of this set of forces that impact motivations to be helpful in my own efforts to get people to do things (don't we all). Hopefully some other people will find it useful as well.


Stephen Shimshock said...

Great post Cynthia. Intuitively this makes a lot of sense and I can see this pattern where I work. Two things jumped out at me. First, I was disappointed to read early on that this wasn’t based on actual data. Then I instantly jumped to thinking about how to set up a story project to gather this data. These two thoughts spawned the next aha. I am one of those middle people (although new to the territory) – I am still engaged and looking for ways to do things differently. The desire to “prove” this phenomenon, at least within our local context, comes from a belief that the powers-that-be won’t budge unless they see the proof. However, I am not certain this is true. The real issue seems to lie in the heart of two questions, “what am I budging from?” And, “what am I budging to?”

My desire for the “proof” follows the thought that understanding what we are budging from would be adequate to get the motion flowing. However, without a clear idea of what we are budging to creates a sense of anxiety. In my experience people are far more likely to dismiss evidence that their current position is wrong in order to maintain that position when no clear alternative is present. Likewise, when a clear alternative is present that “appears” better than the current position, people will abandon whole heartedly in the new direction without the need for evidence. It’s like the person that moves from one toxic relationship to another. The new relationship seems shiny and new! However, things quickly devolve into the status quo and the toxicity flows again.

Organizations will recreate the same thing over and over despite the idea du-jour. Predictability has taken such a privileged position in our society. Managing complexity is fine…so long as we can predict the outcome (yes, that is an oxymoron). We often cite the notion that there is “no need to reinvent the wheel.” There are many occasions where I would agree with that notion, but there are times when we need to reinvent the wheel. Or perhaps a more nuanced position would be that it is vital we re-invest some of our energy into our understanding of why we need the wheel in the first place. This can lead to more effective and efficient uses of the wheel, new ideas of how to use the wheel, and it opens the door to conceptualize of something entirely different. This can be thought of as outward change fueled by cultural change. The energy emerges from within the culture to affect the outer circumstances. The reverse can happen but the results are less sustainable and often lead to your 3b scenario. The outward circumstances are so powerful that they fuel the cultural change, in essence, “resistance if futile.”

Cultural change fueling outward change holds the most promise in my opinion and it is exactly what attracts me to story work. A story project engages a community into challenging their most inner held beliefs. It can shatter entrenched thinking. And, if done right it doesn’t fill the void with pre-conceived new ideas, but rather the void is reconfigured in new and exciting ways – not necessarily new to the world, but new to that community (or organization). Story work is a great step toward managing complexity. The outcome is not predictable. In fact outcomes get annihilated and replaced with a continuous set of milestones. And, those milestones continually morph as they get constantly reshaped by the simple question – “Is this really what we want?”

Cynthia Kurtz said...

Hi Stephen, thanks for the thoughtful comments! The post IS based on actual data; it's just that the data resides in lots of separate projects. Clients very rarely give permission to re-use data outside the original study; and besides, narrative data is highly contextual and can't be mashed together without distortion. What I've written about here is not a single observation but a collection of remarkably and surprisingly similar observations in similar data sets. I don't think it can be taken as proof of anything, but it can provide useful food for thought. I agree that it would be interesting to design a story project to demonstrate the pattern. But I wouldn't bother trying before I did a strong sweep of the literature, because surely SOMEbody has noticed this pattern before.

I like what you said about budging-from and budging-to. The issue this sort of thing always brings up for me is: Why is there always a from and a to? Why is there only room for one position? It's as though people have a belief bin that can hold only one belief at a time. We don't have to be that limited. Why must reinventing the wheel be either all good or all bad? Why must everything switch from being complicated to complex? Why must silos be all bad? Why must we be Republicans or Democrats? Why must the earth be warming or not warming, and not both? Why can't best and worst practices be the same practices? (Because sometimes they are, of course!) If there is one thing I think holds people in our culture (but not in all cultures!) back the most, even more than outward circumstances or sluggish cultural change or entrenched thinking, it's this inability to let ideas stay mixed. It's like we are living in a giant mental centrifuge.

One the one hand, as you point out, proof is a necessity in a world where power rests on fact, or near-universal assumptions thereof. (The philosopher Paul Simon: "Proof is the bottom line for everyone.") Where I find ideas dangerous or wrong, I'm as much in favor of proof as anyone else. On the other hand, it bothers me how competing camps use proof as a bludgeon in battles of will, to the point where it proof is nothing more than identity. And again, why should identity be single and simple?

My favorite quotes on this are the pair from F. Scott Fitzgerald:

"The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."

and George Orwell:

"The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them....To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies — all this is indispensably necessary."

The first is intelligence, the second doublethink, and you need the whole second quote to see the difference between them. The biggest challenge of my life so far has been to increase the first while reducing the second.

I also like what you said about "is this really what we want" because there is that word "really" again. In story work it keeps coming up. It represents to me breaking through the shell of something, widening out beyond artificial limitations to a deeper reality. So, maybe if we can't find a way to turn off the centrifuge, we can jump out of it, at least sometimes, and see what things look like when they are not so easily separated.

All of which is obviously my opinion not "proof" of anything :) Great talking with you as always!