Winning Hearts and Minds

 -  8/2/11

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“To succeed,” professional football legend Tony Dorsett said, “you need to find something to hold on to, something to motivate you, something to inspire you.”

Truer words have rarely been spoken. People often change when they are shown a truth that influences their feelings, not because they are told to or given volumes of data in favor of a switch. Yet all too often, as leaders map out a path to transform their organizations, they leave emotions behind, turning instead to spreadsheets and statistics to convince employees to start doing things differently. Talent managers must remind leaders to appeal to people’s hearts as well as their minds to motivate change.

The point is not that careful, data-driven analysis — a memo outlining the financial benefits of a merger, for instance, or a workplace productivity survey — is not important; it certainly is, and it can set thinking in motion. But seldom does it unleash the kind of enthusiasm and excitement essential for significant, sustainable changes in behavior. That sort of radical shift can only come from an appeal to both the head and the heart, when people think and feel positively about the opportunities that lie ahead.

One way to tug the heartstrings is to craft a compelling, positive vision. In an email sent to staff members in January, Andrew Mason, CEO of online retailer Groupon, challenged his employees to build “one of the great technology brands that define our generation.” A lofty charge, but certainly inspiring.

However, inspiration alone does not spur action. Leaders also must connect with their people on a human level to understand their feelings and communicate to every employee the integral role they play in achieving the organization’s goals.

In 2006, Ford Motor Co. — hemorrhaging some $17 billion a year — tapped Alan Mulally to resuscitate the storied automaker. Mulally visited countless assembly lines and vehicle plants, introducing himself to workers, listening to their aspirations and their frustrations, and explaining how each of them, as individuals, fit into his new vision for the company.

By creating that human connection, Mulally demonstrated that he would not dictate change from above, but work toward it alongside his employees. Five years later that collective effort helped launch Ford’s profits to its highest levels in more than a decade.

The most effective leaders do not check their personal engagement at the door, either: Captivating drivers for change also come from outside an organization. As Bill Gates said in his book Business @ the Speed of Thought, “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” Encouraging employees to connect with their customers — particularly those with strong feelings about the firm’s offerings — and engaging with them on a personal level, can be a powerful catalyst for change. For example, an IT executive who sits down with customers may learn of their dissatisfaction with aspects of his company’s electronic billing system — issues that weren’t reported on any feedback form — inspiring him to look for ways to make billing practices more manageable for users.

Still, human behavior is hard to change, and without a change in individual behavior, organizational change is impossible. Leaders can help create sustained organizational change by ensuring individual behavior changes are internalized, celebrated and continuously shown to yield to positive results. They can create short-term goals for different teams that are lauded by senior leaders at company meetings or rewarded with a personal note of appreciation from the CEO to each team member. They could use video to make a visual connection between internal changes and external results by filming a key customer talking about how much happier they are with the firm’s services now than in the past.

Leaders must be enthusiastic and persistent to connect employees emotionally to the big opportunity. “You’ve got to talk about change every second of the day,” Jack Welch, the former GE chief, told Fortune in 2001.

With repeated, consistent appeals to both head and heart, transformation, innovation and inspiration become the lifeblood of an organization. And, in time, so will success.

Nancy Dearman is the chief executive officer of Kotter International, a change company. She can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.