Drama as a Strategy

Human beings are interesting creatures. It seems that when we have all or most of our needs met we’re the least productive. We become complacent with low energy levels, producing just enough to maintain the status quo. We’re capable of staying in that state for long periods as long as nothing challenges our stable course. When it does, we kick into gear with the energy to get back on course like a satellite in an unending orbit. Our best work, energy and innovation come not during the best of times but during the most difficult. Naturally, what applies to individuals applies to companies.

This concept is well understood by behavioral scientists. Our systems are wired to keep us just like we know ourselves to be. If we fall below our expectations we’ll find the energy and creativity to get back to normal, but not beyond. To move beyond what we’ve come to expect, we have to create a goal that has a level of passion and desire worthy of putting in the energy to achieve. In companies, without a compelling challenge, employees will start putting personal desires ahead of the group’s goals. This toxic combination of complacency and selfishness can only be overcome when a greater need overwhelms their personal agenda.

When group performance is the issue, leaders often respond with training, but seldom is capability the issue. No matter how good the training is, it’s useless until attitudes and behaviors change. Most of the problems you’re experiencing are behavioral and not skill based.

Crisis creates drama and drama drives action. I don’t mean the drama that exists around the water cooler but rather the drama we experience when our world is rocked and in some cases turned upside down. All too often this happens on its own but when it doesn’t and performance is lagging, leaders may need to create it to snap the group out of its lethargy. In many situations it’s beneficial to have an external problem to move forward and there’s seldom a shortage of real threats that can and should be responded to before they come ashore.

Great leaders constantly drive passion through stories. Stories are filled with drama and create an opportunity to align everyone around a common cause. They have the ability to weave together a vision, mission, values and strategy. Done right they’ll create the emotional grease to focus everyone on a unified cause that subordinates personal agendas. With the right story and passion, people will put themselves at risk, if necessary, to secure the group goal.

Managers often fail to sufficiently inspire people in the face of a challenge. Motivational speeches that don’t address the gravity of the situation leave employees complacent about the real threat. They respond like individuals who think they can ride out a hurricane only to become causalities of the storm because they underestimated the risk. People generally want more. They want the truth no matter how harsh it might be. A frank discussion of the potential risks engenders trust.

The problem is that many people confuse busyness and activity with a real sense of urgency. We can be engaged in a flurry of activities, few of which though are central to the organization’s success. Anxiety and fear will also produce action, but not necessarily productivity and sometimes can even create harmful activity. All this action can be exhausting for employees with little real change being accomplished in the business. Behind every attitude driving us forward is a rational business case aimed at the heart. Good initiatives fail when it’s all head and no heart.

Harvard professor and author, John Kotter in his book “A Sense of Urgency”, offers five key characteristics for business strategy aimed at the heart.

  1. Communicating the goal or need should create a human experience. Consider the when, where, how and why of the communication for impact.
  2. People should not only hear but see it in their mind’s eye. Visualization is important. They’re not only told, but should also experience and feel it.
  3. The delivery should be designed to create specific emotional reactions. Told the wrong way creates anxiety and fear. Told the right way creates inspiration, passion and efficacy.
  4. The detail is rarely needed to create movement. A call to arms is built around an emotion of patriotism, not the cold specifics of the situation and strategy.
  5. Lastly, the experience inevitably leads people to raise their expectations, to emotionally embrace goals beyond coping and maintaining.

Ultimately, it’s the drama, the difference between a meaningful aspiration our emotions long for and what we have that creates the need to move toward it. So, the next time you feel your organization is stuck in a dangerous malaise of complacency, thoughtfully consider how the right drama can unite and energize the group for action.

If you think your company’s performance might benefit from a little shot of drama, call or reach me through the “contact us” tab on this page.

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