Managing Employees

Give Your Employees an Identity Worthy of Ownership

We live in a time when it has become increasingly difficult to explain what one does at work.

Job titles are slowly becoming the rusted plaques littering a landfill. Parents are perplexed about what you do.

Nowadays, especially at smaller startups and businesses, responsibilities are so multi-faceted that it’s hard to fit them inside a box. A manager could also be a designer or data analyst. A CEO could also be a part-time speaker, author, and writer for the company blog. Every member of the team could be on support.

Although there are core responsibilities that each person must fulfill within the organization, “this isn’t part of my job description” is amiss in companies with unique cultures empowering great work.

Job titles are essentially heuristics to explain one’s duties; however, these titles can be reinvented and serve as profound sources of motivation.

Related: Must Reads for Leaders: 10 Invaluable Books for Moving Hearts and Minds

In Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath share an example of a manufacturing firm, Brasilata, and how their engine of success was fueled by the creation and adoption of an identity:

How does a manufacturer of cans become known as an innovator? Brasilata’s founders were inspired by the philosophy of Japanese car manufacturers like Honda and Toyota, which empowered their front-line employees to take ownership of their work. For instance, at Toyota, any employee who spotted a defect could stop the assembly line (this would have been unthinkable in Detroit at the time). Toyota and Honda also actively solicited ideas for innovation from their employees. In 1987, the founders of Brasilata launched an employee-innovation program modeled on the Japanese forerunners.

A new identity was the core of the program. Employees of Brasilata became known as “inventors,” and when new employees joined the firm, they were asked to sign an “innovation contract.” This wasn’t simply feel-good language. Top management challenged employees to be on the lookout for potential innovations—ideas for how to create better products, improve production processes, and squeeze costs out of the system. Procedures developed within the factory made it easy for inventors to submit their ideas. The program succeeded beyond any reasonable expectations. In 2008, employees submitted 134,846 ideas—an average of 145.2 ideas per inventor!

Let’s remember something: This “inventor” identity, which has fueled business success and employee satisfaction, was made up. None of Brasilata’s employees were born “inventors.” The identity was introduced to them, and they liked the sound of it. It seemed to be a mantle worth wearing. Being an inventor has become a source of pride and strength.

There are psychological benefits to this identity adoption, a function of the mind called the self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Power of Labels

The term “self-fulfilling prophecy” was coined by sociologist Robert K. Merton in 1968.

The concept is simple: We naturally make assumptions about the future by focusing on the present. When these assumptions feel real, our behaviors are motivated to fulfill the prophecy, and in hindsight we believe the assumption was true the entire time. This is also called the Thomas Theorem, coined by the sociologist W.I. Thomas in 1928. He once said, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”

In social psychology, a version of the self-fulfilling prophecy is called the labeling theory, and it means exactly how it sounds:

If you think someone is smart, you’ll treat them as smart. If you think someone is a horrible person, you’ll treat them accordingly, and when they react like any other person would when being treated unfairly, you nod with confidence in your ability to predict people’s character.

It makes sense, then, that when new employees joined Brasilata and embraced the identity of inventor, they naturally conjured innovative ideas and contributed more than they would have if they didn’t call themselves inventors.

Fundamental changes in behavior don’t happen over the course of a meeting. Instead, a system was put into place, as well as surefire ways to signal to employees (the innovation contract) that they now were inventors. Work all of a sudden got really interesting.

Let’s see the labeling theory in action.

In a 1978 experiment by William Crano and Phyllis Mellon, a set of random students were chosen for an elementary class. The teachers were told that these students were all potential geniuses based on their IQ tests.

The catch? The tests weren’t real. But the belief, the expectation, colored the teachers’ perception and influenced their behavior to be more attentive and caring to the students, thus improving their homework and test scores.

These labels—inventor, genius—are essentially made up of expectations, and these predilections sway our behavior towards fulfilling these assumptions, making them true.

Related: Creating Customers for Life: 50 Resources on Loyalty, Churn and Customer Retention

Companies that want to stick around for the long haul need to implement a culture that provides their employees an identity worthy of ownership, a label that can be proudly worn, and an ensemble of expectations that align with desired behavior and goals. Whether you want your team to be more innovative or healthy or vulnerable with one another, ditch the meeting and instead provide an identity, a cloak that transforms an ordinary human into a hero.

In short, create an identity that cultivates and sustains motivation.

What Is Motivation?

Author Dan Pink wrote in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, that motivation is the sum of three elements: autonomy, purpose, and mastery. When any one of those elements is in danger or missing from our work, our motivation suffers.

Back when job titles were a badge of honor, motivation thrived on an old system of compliance and rewards. But as humans and organizations evolved, the typical “do this and here’s a cookie” lost its luster and proved to be ineffective for sustaining motivation. What we seek instead is what Pink calls Motivation 3.0. He said:

"Humans, by their nature, seek purpose—a cause greater and more enduring than themselves. But traditional businesses have long considered purpose ornamental—a perfectly nice accessory, so long as it didn't get in the way of the important things. But that's changing—thanks in part to the rising tide of aging baby boomers reckoning with their own mortality.

In Motivation 3.0, purpose maximization is taking its place alongside profit maximization as an aspiration and a guiding principle. Within organizations, this new “purpose motive” is expressing itself in three ways: in goals that use profit to reach purpose; in words that emphasize more than self-interest; and in policies that allow people to pursue purpose on their own terms."

While some find it easy to joke at job euphemisms, labels matter. Papers such as Job Titles as Identity Badges clearly show a connection between morale, behavior, and how people view their work. If someone working in “Customer Happiness” sees himself as being responsible for making customers happy, that’s purpose. That has a meaningful impact on his behavior.

The harder it is to suggest ideas, the less people will bother. But consider the first example of inventors—since an identity was created around sharing thoughts on how things could work better, the friction was gone and innovation was not only unhampered, but encouraged. It’s surprising (or perhaps not) to see how the direction, tone, and behavior of an organization can shift when you interrupt the status quo of how employees see themselves.

We start to see the real merit in the ways companies like Buffer refer to their support team as “Happiness Heroes.” It’s not to create distance between the traditional service rep title; it’s a clear-cut way to show how the company values support and what they expect this department to achieve (not placating customers, but truly making them happy). It is more meaningful for employees to “make people happy” than it is to “provide customer service.” The objective directly affects motivation.

Things change quickly in the business world, but one thing will always remain constant: Employees desire to have a sense of purpose and to know that their actions are contributing in a meaningful way.

What I love about the story of Brasilata is that they encouraged this new system of inventors not during the inception of their business, but somewhere down the road. The sudden change, especially at a large company, seems daunting. But a meaningful change in outcome always requires a meaningful change in behavior. Being an inventor doesn’t just sound good, it feels good.

Create meaningful identities in your company and they’ll not only thank you with words, but with worthy deeds.

Related: How to Make Hiring Less of a Headache


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