All of us are faced with many different fears.  Maslow talks about the fears that can drive us to attain our basic human needs – the need for food, water, and shelter for starters.  In today’s economy, the fears about financial security and employment seem to be at the top of the “keep-you-up-at-night list.” But all of these fears, as prominent and powerful as they are, pale in comparison to the big one.  The biggest fear is that we live a life of insignificance…that what we do doesn’t really matter.

Unfortunately, the complexity, fragmentation, and specialization of work have so separated the creator from the recipient that we have lost the opportunity to see how what we do is received by another human being.  It is an opportunity of huge proportion for leaders and managers to connect people to the impact that their work has on the people they serve so they can see the difference they make.  Many times, we don’t have a clue about the power of this possible connection.

I recently talked with an executive of a large pharmaceutical company about this issue.  He said he had a story to tell me.  This was it:

For the last 10 years in my leadership development role, we’ve brought our top 400 leaders together for an annual leadership summit. We were creative in trying to engage the senior-most leaders, but they thought they’d seen it all, so this was always a challenge.

So several months ago, we did something different and the impact was unprecedented. At one point during the two-day offsite, we placed the 400 executives at numbered tables of 10 each. On each table, we placed parts of a complex bicycle that they had to build. It was more than a frame and two wheels, so planning, organizing, collaboration, and leadership skills were required. Some in the room had done this before, so they obliged with minimal enthusiasm.

But here was the twist. Outside the room were 40 disadvantaged children. When bikes were complete, the children came into the room with a number, and went to the matching table.  The children told the executives their stories – where they came from, and what their family was like, what the bike meant to them, and how they planned to use it.  Many executives asked the kids questions, and the entire interaction took well over 30 minutes.  Then the kids walked their bikes out of the room to the rousing ovation of those leaders who thought that they had seen it all, been through it all, and were just going through the motions.

The development executive said that he’d never received so many emails and comments on the impact of a session on the leadership.  That’s what happened in the simple act of building a bicycle and seeing what it meant to a child.

The opportunity is immense to link the people who test, build, manufacture, pilot, serve, and transport the products and services we create to the impact it has in the lives of the people who use them.  Whether it’s the desk clerk at a hotel, a backroom production associate at a consulting firm, or an executive at a leadership summit, connect the story of the impact to the creators and watch how it affects engagement.  And then count how many times the story is retold.  Or just observe how many times you retell the bicycle story to others.

Related Content:

Roots of Engagement Issue One – Being Part of Something Bigger Than Yourself
Roots of Engagement Issue Two – People Want to Feel a Sense of Belonging
Roots of Engagement Issue Three – People Want to Go on a Meaningful Journey

August 25, 2011

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