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Inspire & Empower: Why It’s Better When More People Have a Seat at the Table

The fifth and final of Sustrana’s core values – inspire and empower – is at the intersection of inspiration and action; where innovation is born andcan flourish. Inspiration provides the creative flow to produce innovative ideas. Empowerment gives those inspired ideas room to evolve and grow.

Every day, sustainability professionals face challenges working to reduce and eliminate a company’s negative impacts and enhance its positive contributions. All this is done while remaining mindful of the need to maintain financial stability and prosper over the long-term. Much of this work involves the heavy lifting of generating and managing long-term behavior change. And that’s where a culture that inspires and empowers is a powerful asset.

Tap into the awesome power of intrinsic motivation

Companies in the business of solving problems (and who isn’t?) increasingly need their workforce to be able to think both broadly and deeply to generate new solutions. Problem solving is creative work. The central driver is the quality and mix of motivations, emotions, and perceptions a person brings to the task. Working from an inspired, empowered place taps the awesome power that best fuels innovation: Intrinsic Motivation.

Daniel Pink, in his 2009 book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, demonstrates the magic of intrinsic motivation.  At the time, business management was largely stuck in the traditional carrot-and-stick, reward or punishment  paradigm of extrinsic motivation. But extrinsic motivation doesn’t work well in the 21st century creativity-driven workspace, where carrots and sticks often too narrowly define what activities are valued or shunned.

Research has shown that people are more creative and productive when they are intrinsically motivated by the work itself, and experience joy in performing the work. When creativity is allowed to flourish and emerge organically from an organization’s knowledge base, the inherent intelligence of the organization emerges and creates value that is greater than the sum of the parts. The secret lies in knowing how to unleash and foster the deep-seated desire we each have to direct our own lives, to extend and expand our abilities, and to contribute to something meaningful.

Intrinsic motivation is composed of three basic elements:

  • Autonomy: our desire to be self-directed
  • Mastery: our urge to get better and better at something that’s important to us
  • Purpose: our wish to serve something larger and more meaningful than ourselves (an important component of motivation we’ve written about before.)

When these three internal desires have an outlet, high performance can seem almost effortless, because it is infused by the joy of deep engagement and creativity. Working with purpose cultivates inspired ways of thinking. Empowered workers achieve autonomy and advance toward mastery.

How companies make this work

Since Drive was first published, more and more companies have drawn from and adopted its lessons, focusing on creating the conditions that help develop a workforce’s intrinsic motivations and fire up creative juices. Many have learned that inspiring and empowering the workforce a critical part of developing those conditions. Companies provide a petri dish for empowered inspiration in different ways. Here are a few examples:

  • Alphabet, the parent company of Google, established X, its “moonshot factory.” Removed from Alphabet’s and Google’s day-to-day operations, X exists to generate ideas for technologies that could ultimately make the world a radically better place. X acknowledges the likelihood that most of the ideas will fail, and employees are advised not to worry about that – the idea generation factory is a judgment-free zone. Employees are empowered to be creative because neither success (a carrot-based judgment) nor failure (a stick-based judgment) acts as an obstacle to thinking.
  • Atlassian, whose software facilitates collaboration, instituted a once-a-quarter 24-hour “innovation immersion” event during which employees are permitted to work on any project they choose. They brainstorm, prototype, and pitch their ideas – all in 24 hours. They call it “ShipIt Day,” because they originate, develop, and deliver something overnight! Employees call the experience “energizing, empowering and exciting.” We call it inspiring!
  • KPMG, the global consulting firm, once struggled with how to engage and energize its workforce. We’ve described before how they created the “Higher Purpose Initiative,” that inspired employees to submit more than 40,000 stories detailing the many ways that their work made a difference in the world. Work infused with Purpose!

At Sustrana, we’ve also had opportunities to learn these lessons. For example, when the Sustainable Development Goals were first adopted in 2015, we wanted to figure out how businesses could best contribute to achieving those goals. We gave summer interns – those with the least autonomy or mastery in most workplace hierarchies – the lead in brainstorming each goal. The interns chose the SDGs they cared the most about, suggested ways that their chosen SDGs relate directly to business activities, and came up with ideas for projects that would help businesses profitably participate in and further efforts to achieve each goal. We provided them work time in a judgment free zone where the “No Bad Ideas” rule applied. The creative thinking that emerged was impressive.

The holy grail of innovation

There are many paths to innovation based on intrinsic motivation that inspires and empowers people to achieve high-level performance. A few lessons from what we’ve seen (and experienced) in working to build sustainability programs include:

  • Look for ways to activate workers’ innate desire for meaning, enjoyment, and success that is buried inside every person who shows up for work day after day. When people are on fire with purpose and in touch with their own desire to create, a culture of innovation will naturally evolve. Help them understand sustainability so they can apply it to, and find ways to improve on, what they know and do.
  • Empower those with deep knowledge to work creatively from their knowledge in the context of helping the company become more sustainable. Doing so taps knowledge and experience, in balance with business needs.
  • Disperse work throughout the organization, but organize it across functions so that new synergies are formed.
  • Create a culture that embraces innovation and requires everyone in the company to get into the act. Top management needs to buy into and support it. Empower every employee to play a role. When a company taps the collective brainpower of the workforce, company culture changes for the better. People become more proactive. More energized. More passionate about their work. Inspired!

Want to get started? Consider the Sustainable Development Goals

You might consider using the SDGs as your company’s scaffolding to support inspiration and empowerment. We’ve written several times (here and here) about the SDGs and the role of business in bringing about changes the world needs. As many companies have been discovering, the SDGs can serve as a launch pad from which to let inspiration and empowerment take root and fuel innovation. Because the SDGs are goals for solving the world most important, difficult problems, they’re already infused with purpose.

The UN Global Compact has produced several great guides that provide guidance for companies on aligning business strategies with SDGs). Here are a few of the best, packed full of examples to inspire you:

Here are few suggestions for getting started:

  • Select SDGs that are aligned with, or relate directly to, your company. Break down silos and form cross-functional teams of people with knowledge and interest to work on a specific goal. Then get out the way, and let them loose. Their direction? Brainstorm, originate, parse, prioritize, assess ideas. Emerge with a handful of vetted, viable, and inspiring ideas.
  • Remove obstacles that block and prevent creative thought. For example, designate  time for the process to develop and unfold.  Even seemingly small blocks of time (an afternoon) can help free people from the constraints they usually operate under.
  • Provide some distraction-free workspace for teams to meet, talk, and brainstorm. Make it known that these spaces are judgment-free zones (the “No Bad Ideas” rule) and tap into unconstrained creative thinking.

Whether or not you choose to use the SDGs as a platform for an experiment in creating a culture of innovation, the bottom line for achieving this remains the same:  Infuse work with Purpose, empower workers by providing Autonomy and inspire them to reach for Mastery. Then watch what emerges from this magical mix.

This is the sixth in a series of blogs about Core Values:

  1. Core Values: How Differences Helped Define a Sustainability Culture
  2. Listening Deeply: How to be a Better Sustainability Professional, Sales Person, and Parent
  3.  An Open Mind: the Superpowers of Diversity and Inclusion
  4. Cultivating Authenticity
  5. The Power of Positives: Creating a Community for Impact
  6. Inspire & Empower: Why It’s Better When More People Have a Seat at the Table
  7. Why Values Matter: The Common Ground of Creating Enduring Companies

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