Creating the Conditions for People to Flourish

To get to where we need to go, we need better people.”   I hear this lot.   And sometimes it’s legitimate—certain skillsets or expertise are missing from the bench and need to be brought in.   But often, those people that were so wonderfully talented when you hired them, are still quite wonderful–they just need the right conditions for their talent and passion to flourish.

Before embarking on an overhaul of the talent pool in your company, consider the context in which you’re asking people to work.  Sumantra Ghoshal, an Indian scholar who served as Professor of Strategic and International Management at the London Business School, contends that companies on a mission to improve the productivity and performance of their employees should first consider—what he calls—“The Smell of the Place.”   As he puts it:

Revitalizing people has a lot less to do with changing people and a lot more to do with changing the context that companies, that senior managers create around their people… context, the ‘smell of the place’ is a hard thing to describe… Most companies, particularly large companies, have created downtown Calcutta in the summer inside themselves and then they complain and say ‘you are lazy and you don’t take initiative and you’re not cooperative’… but it’s not about changing [the employee]….The issue is how do we change the context? How do we create Fontainebleau forest inside companies?

Years ago I heard Sir Ken Robinson share a similar idea when he described the miraculous Spring wildflower display that can occur in Death Valley—a desert that can go barren for years on end seemingly bereft of life. But when the rain falls sufficiently, when the winds are just so and when the warmth of the sun is just right—the wildflower seeds that have been dormant begin blooming like crazy, filling the desert with a sea of stunningly beautiful flowers.  They just need the right conditions to come to life.

If your organization feels like Death Valley, don’t blame the seeds for not blooming…or start trucking-in new and better seeds into Death Valley. Bring the rains! Do all that you can to create the conditions for your people to come to life, to flourish.

Consider a study conducted by Harvard social psychologist Ellen Langer that literally brought 70 year old men–with an array of aches and pains and ailments–back to life just by creating an environment that made them feel 20 years younger.   In the counterclockwise study, she designed an experience to re-create the 1950s—newspapers from that era were delivered daily, 50s music played throughout, sports events from the day were broadcast on TV, everything was of the era (I picture something akin to the resort from the movie Dirty Dancing).  Elderly men were invited to spend the better part of a week in this time warp and were instructed to act as if they were 50 years old again.  By being in an environment thoughtfully designed to support that belief, incredible things began happening.   Across the board, there were significant improvements -in their cognitive abilities, -their physical strength and flexibility,-their sense of vibrancy and even their looks!  At one point, canes were thrown aside and a spontaneous game of touch football occurred!

The experimental subjects… had “put their mind in an earlier time,” and their bodies went along for the ride! (New York Times Article on Langer’s Study)

Context matters.   It’s a force that can either prime people to be their very best – or prime them to be their very worst.  The same person can behave in shockingly different ways depending on the situation they find themselves in.

Remember Milgram’s Obedience to Authority study? Research subjects were told to administer ever-increasing electric shocks to another research participant (who supposedly had a heart condition) ostensibly to study the effect of pain on memory function.   As the research subject delivered increasingly powerful shocks to the person, the recipient would scream in pain and plea to be let go.  If the research subject protested, the authority figure would simply say, ‘the experiment must go on.’   While the tendency is to think, ‘I would never do that to someone’ – turns out 65% of participants who were put in that situation did.  The context caused ordinarily good people to engage in very bad behavior.

Similarly, Zimbardo’s Prison Experiment –wherein Stanford students were randomly divided into prison guards and prisoners and placed in a mock-prison environment—had to be stopped abruptly and prematurely out of concern for the psychological and physical safety of the prisoners who were being horribly abused by the guards within days of being in this situation.

Now those are extreme examples. Hopefully, you haven’t created conditions that are causing people to abuse and humiliate one another.   The point I want to make is that the situation, the social context, the conditions under which people are asked to perform matter. It matters a lot.

Put someone in a bad situation (say a corporate environment driven by fear and quarterly earnings pressure wherein people are told to win at all costs); don’t be surprised to see bad, unsettling behavior.

Put someone in a ‘blah’ situation (say a corporate environment that looks a lot like the one depicted in ‘The Office’), and get ‘blah’ behavior.

Put someone in a good situation (say a corporate environment driven by love—yes, love!—wherein values are consciously cultivated in the culture) and you’ll see good behavior.

Do you really need to improve the quality of your people? Maybe.  But before judging the quality of a person, you may be better served by stopping and taking stock of the smell of the place.

>How would you describe “the smell of the place” in your organization?   How does that ‘smell’ make people feel?

>What’s the context or situation that brings out the very best in your people? What can you do to replicate or amplify those conditions?

>What’s the context or situation that brings out the very worst in your people?    What can you do to reduce or eliminate those situations?