How Leaders Can Inspire Belief in Pragmatists and Dreamers

How Leaders Inspire Belief

“Dollars aside, the most important question in business is ‘Do you believe this or not?’ As a leader, if you don’t have believers, don’t bother.”

So says Josh Gooch of JetBlue, a company that believes in reinventing the air travel experience for passengers — and has grown from one jet 20 years ago to running 1,000 daily flights serving 40 million customers every year.

Josh raises one of the rules of leadership that’s too often overlooked … and overlooked because generating belief is tough.

Little more than one in 10 employees are engaged in their jobs and feel “emotionally invested in and focused on creating value for their organisations every day”, according to research published by Gallup in 2017. The number of disengaged workers — “negative and potentially hostile to their organizations” — outnumber engaged employees at a rate of nearly 2-1. By Gallup’s estimate, disengagement costs US businesses up to $550 billion dollars a year, and up to $112 billion in the UK.

According to Gallup, the organizations that get it right enjoy “higher productivity, profitability, and customer ratings, less [employee] turnover and absenteeism, fewer safety incidents.”

We found echoes of this same idea in our 2018 State of Work report, which shows that on average workers say that 61% matters to them personally.

So how do you generate belief? Where does it come from?

And how do you spread it through a business?

Four essential steps to build belief … for everyone

First of all, look around you. There are pragmatists and dreamers, creative adventurers and considered, cautious voices. Every business needs a blend of talents and personalities to prosper. So, whatever you say about your organization’s mission and vision, it needs to make sense to everyone. What you say needs to resonate with personality type if they’re going to believe it. You need to invoke high ideals and address the practicalities. Believable mission statements and visions give a clear and compelling answer to the question: “Why am I working here?”

The best answer has four elements:

  1. It’s focused on hope.
  2. Points beyond the leader.
  3. It’s extraordinary but attainable.
  4. It’s easily communicated.

Let’s take the example of Hilton Hotel’s long-held mission: “To fill the earth with the light and warmth of hospitality.” This is certainly hopeful, points beyond the leader, and is easy to articulate. But is it attainable? Scratch at the sentiment, and it’s unclear if anyone would know when this has been achieved. That might not matter to those employees who seek an optimistic purpose, but it might not chime with more practically-minded employees.

Now look at the mission of California outdoor clothing brand Patagonia: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” Unpick Patagonia’s message and you’ll see an emphasis on product quality and product innovation alongside climate and ethical idealism. If an employee is in doubt about what direction to take — Is this serving product development? Is this helping to save the planet? Am I causing unintended harm? — the mission statement is a compass guiding decisions and action. Speak to the heart and the head.

The mission and vision work at a whole-business level and applying to everyone. But that’s not enough to create belief. The real challenge is to break down that overarching vision into something that makes every individual feel inspired.

Breaking it down to individual belief

There are three basic questions that everyone in your business cares about — these are the questions at the core of generating individual belief:

  1. Do I know my role?
  2. Do I know why my role matters?
  3. Can I be proud in my work — do I feel like I’m making progress?

You can see clear practical implications for business operations and management in the first two points. Everyone needs a clear job description. But that means more than clarifying where people sit on an org chart. They need to see how roles knit together to create the products, services and customer experiences that ultimately generate revenue, profits and pay salaries! If you and your management team can’t explain why a role exists and its fundamental importance, there’s an immediate impediment to the postholder feeling belief in the business. Answering the why — as Simon Sinek explained in his Golden Circle theory — is essential.

The third point touches on what has been described as “The Progress Principle.” According to Professor Theresa Amabile of Harvard Business School, people thrive when they have a sense of moving forward. It’s not just getting a job done that is motivational. It’s a sense that you’re learning something new on the project, perfecting an emerging skill, or that the completed task is a step to a greater challenge on the horizon. If you can’t explain why a job is important to the business and to the individual, belief will be elusive.

The question leaders need think about — and pass down through tiers of management — is “how will this help the team grow?” That’s they key to unlocking greater productivity and outstanding performance.

Your leadership challenge

So, here’s your leadership challenge: dream big, explain small. Everyone in the business needs to have their hopes and sights raised; while being able to look at how it applies to their everyday job. Sounds tough? It is. But belief is a prize worth pursuing in a business. When belief animates every level, every function in an organization, it’s a rocket fuel that powers extraordinary results.

For more from Alex Shootman, check out his book: Done Right: How Tomorrow's Top Leaders Get Stuff Done.