Imagine you and your family throw a large party at your house at the end of each summer that concludes with a build-your-own-smores bar and ghost stories around a big, backyard bonfire. It is something you, your family and friends look forward to every year, and it’s something you are known for in the neighborhood. However, this year, your Homeowners’ Association (HOA) is putting to vote a covenant that bans indoor and outdoor fires. The HOA argues that these changes are environmentally friendly and will increase the value of the neighborhood homes. Assuming you believe that the HOA estimates of the benefits are correct, do you vote to approve or reject the fire ban?
The answer will depend on your identity and self-image. If you see yourself as the social butterfly of the neighborhood and the annual bonfire as representative of who you (and your family) are, you may vote “No” on the ban. However, if you see yourself as member of the community beyond just your household, you may be willing to deselect solid fuel use despite some pain points for you personally, because it will help the HOA meet its long-term strategic goals of increasing housing prices in the neighborhood and improving the quality of life of its residents.
We have the same struggles at work. How we see ourselves in the organization plays a direct role in what we choose to do with our time and where we dedicate our resources. If you are the financial modeler who is great with Excel, you may be challenged to use SAP. If you are the Java guru and there’s a decision to move to a new code base, you may be hard pressed to give up the libraries you’ve developed thus far. As individuals, we must be willing to let go of parts of our identities in order to both deselect and transform the organization.
When we talk to employees across departments in the companies we work with, we commonly here “we”. However, it is surprisingly common that “we” means something local like “Jim’s team”, the sales department, the fifth floor or many other groups that do not represent the overall organization, and there may be conflicts regarding what is in the best interest of a group and what is in best interest of the organization.
Now, think about the computer engineer’s perspective when asked to eliminate Programming Language A (PLA), which she is an expert in and has used for the last fifteen years, and move exclusively to Programming Language B (PLB), which she has little working knowledge of, is difficult to learn and will likely result in some of her colleagues being laid off. She will push back against these changes if she sees herself primarily as part of the IT department that will be negatively impacted in the short-term. On the other hand, if she sees herself as an important influencer in the organization and clearly understands the value created by moving to PLB, she will be more willing to deselect PLA and help her colleagues do the same.
It is common for individuals and organizations to perceive their identity as tied to the day-to-day inputs of their work (e.g. I am a computer engineer) and markers like a title, the size of a team or even an office space rather than seeing themselves as playing important roles in the long-term strategy of the organization (e.g. our goal is to structure and deliver information to our clients as quickly and as consistently as technology allows). To help alleviate these day-to-day biases, StickerGiant, a Longmont, Colorado company, uses Open Book Management, a management method that includes transparent financials and strategic meetings with the full staff, to help them understand how their day-to-day responsibilities and workplace identities are tied to the long-term strategy and that they must try to align or deselect tasks that do not fit into that strategy.
To help employees identify themselves in a more strategic light, create a corporate culture where employees ask the right questions about the intersection of their own motivations and responsibilities and the goals of the organization. This will build ongoing alignment to the highest value activities and results. If the culture creates the expectation that people will both understand and challenge themselves in this way, deselection will become a natural process that people go through on a regular basis for their teams, the organization and themselves.
This is the third post in a five-part blog series that examines the cultural barriers to deselection. They include the impacts of ownership, identity, emotion, habit and collaboration on the ability of an organization to deselect, align and increase capacity. The first post provides an overview of deselection and why the cultural aspects of it are important. It can be accessed here.