The Human Desire for Greatness

By Jake Friedman, Consultant

One of the common questions or forms of push-back we often receive from CEOs and other senior leaders is, “what will our employees think of the Fundamentals?” Sure, this stuff sounds great as owners and managers, but won’t our regular employees, our sales team, receptionists, account managers, and definitely our truck drivers and manual laborers think this is all just some pointless b.s.?

This is a very real and understandable fear. For one, we need our employees to buy in if this is going to be successful. And additionally, as human beings, most of us have a natural inclination to wonder if that thing that we’re so excited about, everyone else thinks is really stupid.

But, simply put, your fear is unfounded. Introduced properly, not only will employees not think this is dumb, but actually the vast majority will be very excited to implement the Fundamentals. Sound too good to be true? Then come with me back to the winter of 2009 so I can explain more deeply.

My military experience with culture

By late 2009, I had completed two years in the U.S. Army. Up to that point, it had been a disappointing experience. I had enlisted as a lowly private in the infantry after a single year of college, filled with somewhat naïve ideals and dreams of making a difference in a far off land. What I found when I got to my unit was something else entirely.

Having recently returned from back-to-back twelve and fifteen month deployments to Iraq, most of the men had no desire to go back overseas. Understandable, of course, but disappointing all the same to a new guy like me. Morale was low, leadership lackadaisical, and the primary mission appeared to be doing as little work and training as possible.

As you can imagine, two years in an environment like that can be wearing. While I’d like to assure you that I didn’t let it affect me and rose above it all, that would be a lie. Instead, I put forth the effort (or lack thereof) that everyone else did and my performance reflected it. By sheer chance, however, in the winter of 2009 I was placed on a small team with two other individuals who deep down thought like me. We had had enough and, with each other’s support, decided to act and perform differently as a team. We strove for and reached our own high standards.

How did our other comrades take it? It turned out that what we did was contagious. No one laughed at our earnestness or talked behind our back about what fools we were to be working so hard. Instead, they wanted to do what we were doing. They began to work as hard as us, to compete with us in drills, and to spend time together with us after hours instead of retreating into the usual clicks. The transformation was total. In a final, graded exercise the next spring, our unit achieved the highest marks. And it was a good thing too, because that year we unexpectedly deployed overseas twice.

Three truths about culture

Looking back, and with the benefit of an education in culture from my HPC colleagues, there are three observations I have on my experience. The first is that while our unit performance changed, the personnel did not. The people in my unit worked to the standards set by the culture, performing low when those were low and high when they were high.

My second observation is that achieving at a high level was contagious. Even though it took more effort, it must have been preferable to poor performance because everyone wanted to join in once the ball got rolling. Clearly most of us wanted to do great work, we were just more likely to follow the group than we were to rise above it.

My final observation serves as a warning to you as a leader. Things didn’t have to change. There was a series of random, lucky events, including the good-fortune of previously unknown to each other, yet like-minded individuals, being grouped together. I often wonder what would have been the consequences, perhaps during a deployment, if the culture of my unit hadn’t improved.

Humans are humans

But that’s the military, so it’s different from your organization, right? Not really. An organization, be it the Army or a business, is just a group of human beings. And humans, it turns out, are humans. The people I served with are the same as the people in your business. Some have more education and some have less. Some are self-disciplined and some aren’t. Some are enthusiastic optimists, while some are pessimists with poor attitudes. Some come from wealthy backgrounds and others are the products of broken homes and violent streets.

What’s one thing we do have in common? I sure don’t believe any of us took our position thinking, “I hope I get to work in a poor environment, where the standards are low and the motivation lacking.” Of course not!

Give your employees the culture they deserve

So what does this all mean and what are the implications?

Your employees want to do great work, but very few of them will reach that high level on their own. Instead, most will perform to the same level that their peers do. And rarely does the level of education, pay, seniority, or any other individual circumstance change that. If the environment pushes the group to perform at a high level, then the vast majority of individuals will gladly seize the opportunity to do just that. But, conversely, if the environment stymies performance or only allows for mediocrity, rarely will an individual break from the pack and rise above it.

It’s true of course, that without an intentional act from you, it’s indeed possible that the culture of your organization might get better. One day, perhaps, by chance, two years from now. Or, more likely, it won’t.

As a leader then, not only do you have the opportunity to be purposeful about the culture in your organization, you have the responsibility to. It’s your job, whether you wanted it or not, by virtue of your leadership position. Your employees won’t laugh or think it’s stupid, they’ll welcome it, be motivated by it, and rise to the new standard. We’re all human, we all want to be great at what we do. It was true of the guys back in my old Army unit and it’s true of your employees today. It’s your duty to give them the culture they deserve.

If you’d like to learn more about how you can drive a culture that enables your people to achieve their human desire for greatness, shoot us an email, give us a call, or check out David Friedman’s latest book, Culture by Design.