Getting Personal; The narratives of motivation

· Motivating Action

I’ve worked in around large corporations for the bulk of my career, so I understand the corporate call for separating personal and professional lives (though that is increasingly blurring due to work at home arrangements, 24/7 access through smart phones, social media, et al).

In my estimation, this separation is a big reason why so many employees are disenfranchised from their workplace today. I’ve had two major experiences over the last four weeks where powerful narratives have demonstrated their ability to create lasting and meaningful calls to action.

The first is working with the victims and volunteers of Hurricane Sandy. It is amazing to me how much of the recovery from this disaster is being completed by volunteers, people with no financial stake in sacrificing their time, money and creativity.

About a week ago, I spent five hours with five other volunteers helping a family clear the rubble around their Staten Island home. The entire first floor was wiped out by the storm surge. John and Roni have lived in this home for 40+ years. They raised eight children there. John commuted from that location to his job as a New York City fireman until he retired.

Here is a fine, upstanding middle class family, pulling back together the pieces of their shattered homestead, and according to John the only real support he has received has been from total strangers who have walked up to him and announced they were there to help.

I contrast that with the reaction of government officials and agencies who John told me have thrown up more obstacles than lifelines. He told me of his insurance company’s parsing words in his policy, and city, state and federal officials who are unresponsive to calls and have yet to provide a single dollar of assistance. No one has even stopped by to ask him how he is doing.

When we were done for the day and returning to the volunteer hub at St. Margaret Mary’s Church in Midland Beach, John looked each of us in the eye, shook our hand and hugged us in appreciation. His wife was equally grateful.

In the second instance, just this week I started as the running coach for Orange/Sullivan/Ulster counties for Team in Training, a fundraising arm of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS). The launch event was a raucous joyful gathering in a hotel meeting room in Westchester.

This is my first experience with LLS, though I have met and spoke with many fundraisers at the marathons I have run. The only person I have ever known with blood cancer is the son of a family that has since moved away from the Hudson Valley (he was cured after he contracted the disease as a very small child). I wasn’t really prepared for the scene this Thursday night as each runner in the program (also covering Putnam, Rockland and Westchester counties) gave testimony to why they were there. Some of them were blood cancer survivors. Most told stories of loved ones, parents, friends, either battling or taken by blood cancer.

Guess what. There was barely a dry eye in the house when everyone was done. The energy of these people to go out and ask for donations (some athletes in the room have more than 10 fundraisers under their belt) for LLS was phenomenal. The coaches and mentors who support these people have the kind of vigor and motivation that if replicated could easily lift this nation out of its recession. Any CEO of any company I have ever worked for would be fast tracking these people to leadership positions simply in the hopes they could inspire the rest of their colleagues.

How stark the gap between the energy in that room and in most corporate workplaces. In most companies, we suppress personality and demand conformity to some vague corporate culture that most people cannot even describe. And then we accept the mediocrity that results.

As an employee communicator for 15+ years, I have found that the vehicles receiving the highest engagement from employees, the best unsolicited recall, have been those that allowed our employees to speak to what drives them to succeed. Almost always these profiles and stories, town hall testimony and blogs, have a highly personal element to them that draws colleagues in. Leaders and individual contributors alike vouch for the success of powerful narratives, and ask for more.

Could I correlate an incremental sale due to this work? Are we able to make the business more efficient, more effective? Impossible to pinpoint of course. Ah, the perpetual burden of being a professional communicator.

But what I can say with certainty is that these teams have tremendous measurable engagement. They consistently drive higher sales and find profits in even the worst economic times. They rebound quickly from poor executive decisions and benefit givebacks. They persevere.

Corporate communicators need to build platforms for experiences and messages like the ones I’ve felt in Staten Island, Coney Island, and now with Team in Training. We humans are motivated by very deep and personal experiences that when diluted by corporate speak devolve into meaningless and forgettable drivel.

We want brand ambassadors, but we want them to be based on some aloof marketing-created campaign. We want to deliver world class customer service, but we ask employees to base their commitment on impersonal policies and procedures.

What we need to do is roll up our sleeves, clean up a neighbor’s home, look a temporarily homeless person in the eye, comfort someone who has lost a loved one to cancer, and remember what really drives us to live and work.

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