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A little empathy goes a long way–and trust goes even farther

by Bill Nottingham

Innovation requires risks. Does your culture encourage or discourage people from taking them?

The University of Nebraska’s football team has won more games than any college team in the nation since 1970, but hasn’t brought home a championship since ’97. New head coach Scott Frost will be under intense pressure to return the team to its past glory, but at a recent press conference, he made it clear that the pressure will not filter down to his players.

“We’re not going to yell and scream at kids. We’re not going to cuss at kids,” Frost said. “I don’t think that’s the right thing to do and I also don’t want kids to be afraid to go make a great play. If someone misses a tackle or drops a ball, they don’t need to be yelled at. They need to be taught the right way to do it, so it doesn't happen again.

“And once you take away that fear of what might happen if you make a bad play, it really frees you up to go make great plays. I always want our team to play with a desire to excel and no fear of failure.”

“No fear of failure” made it into the headline of almost all coverage of the press conference. Think about that. The idea that Division I college athletes — who have already proven themselves to be exceptionally skilled and motivated — might perform better when treated with patience and respect is so radical that it’s newsworthy.

Something similar is going on in business, where the simple human trait of empathy is a leadership trend, and a welcome change. At Nottingham Spirk, we’ve always believed that fearing failure is counterproductive to innovation.

In his new book Dying For A Paycheck, Jeffrey Pfeffer draws a direct line from workplace stress, to chronic diseases that are caused or exacerbated by stress, to the ever-rising cost of healthcare for everyone. “I look out at the workplace and I see stress, layoffs, longer hours, work-family conflict, enormous amounts of economic insecurity,” he said in an interview with Stanford Graduate School of Business. “I see a workplace that has become shockingly inhumane … Seven percent of people in one survey were hospitalized — hospitalized! — because of workplace stress; 50 percent had missed time at work because of stress. People are quitting their jobs because of stress. The business costs are enormous.”

Simon Sinek made a similar case in his 2014 book Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together And Others Don’t. He argues that too many businesses are still operating on philosophies from the 1980s and ’90s, which justified achieving short-term goals by any means necessary and emphasized management (which is structural) over leadership (which is personal). (He explained this in detail on the Design Matters podcast.) People became expendable, and trust was lost. This isn’t just unfortunate, it’s as damaging to the organization as it is to individuals.

“We’ve literally created cultures in which every single day, everybody comes to work and lies, hides and fakes,” he states. “How can a company ever do well if nobody’s ever willing to admit they made a mistake?”

And how can a company innovate if everyone is afraid to take risks?

Stress diminishes our capacity to think clearly, particularly about the future. We can’t help it — we are hardwired to fixate on threats, real and perceived. So, when people are worried that mistakes will hurt their careers, they’re likely to try to get by on tweaking old ideas, rather than dreaming up new ones.

"And how can a company innovate if everyone is afraid to take risks?"

Building a culture of trust

People always ask me how we deal with “failure” at Nottingham Spirk. The simple answer is, we don’t. As Nelson Mandela reportedly said, “I never lose, I either win or I learn.” This may sound like the slogan from a cheesy inspirational poster, but really it’s the scientific process: Observe, question, hypothesize, experiment, analyze, repeat as needed. Time to pause, regroup, and pivot if necessary, is built into our process. We want our Innovation Center to be more like a farm, where ideas are nurtured and grown, than a factory.

A lot goes into establishing and maintaining a culture of creativity, but the single most important factor is trust. Whatever your arrangements with your associates, they must believe that if they give you their best, you’ll have their backs. This can’t be something you express only upon hiring someone, or at performance reviews or annual meetings. Trust must be earned, every day, in ways big and small. Especially small. There are only so many times you can award raises or bonuses, but there are countless opportunities to demonstrate empathy, if you’re involved and tuned in.

Mad Men - You never say thank you
Scene from Mad Men ©Lionsgate


There’s a scene in Mad Men in which ad executive Don Draper responds to his assistant Peggy’s complaint about never thanking her by shouting, “That’s what the money is for!” The show is set in the 1960s, but Americans still seem to have an uneasy relationship with gratitude in the workplace, according to a 2013 survey by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.

Ninety-three percent agreed that grateful managers are more likely to succeed, and only 18 percent thought that gratitude made them “weak.” … But here comes the messed-up, mysterious, and interesting part: Almost all respondents reported that saying “thank you” to colleagues “makes me feel happier and more fulfilled” — but on a given day, only 10 percent acted on that impulse. A stunning 60 percent said they “either never express gratitude at work or do so perhaps once a year.” In short, Americans actively suppress gratitude on the job, even to the point of robbing themselves of happiness.

The GGSC offers suggestions for fixing this. The first: “Start at the top.” “It’s up to the people with power to clearly, consistently, and authentically say ‘thank you’ in both public and private settings.”

From there, you need to make it clear that your organization supports not just innovation, but the steps involved in getting there. Every disruptive innovation was a crazy idea at some point, and without strong, consistent C-suite support — verbal and tangible — people will keep their crazy ideas to themselves.

Back up words with actions

Daniel Pink makes the case that people are motivated most powerfully by the desire for “autonomy, mastery and purpose.” Of those three, autonomy may be the most lacking in corporate cultures, which tend toward top-down control and restricted roles. At Nottingham Spirk, we have found that assembling a unique team for each project, instead of moving it through departments assembly-line style, provides many new opportunities for our associates to take leadership roles. In our Vertical Innovation™ process, the team is with the project from beginning to end, giving everyone skin in the game and a stake in each other’s success.

We also believe that it’s also important to recognize that innovating is demanding, requiring many hours of intense effort. To stay sharp, creative people need to recharge through time spent with their families and on other passions. We long ago replaced our vacation-time policy with DPTO, discretionary paid time off. “Discretionary” means just that — our associates decide how much time to take, within certain guidelines to ensure that projects don’t stall. When a partner-client needs us to sprint, our associates can put in extra hours, and be happy to do it, because they’re not already over-worked and they know they’ll get time to recuperate.

We try never to miss an opportunity to show our associates that we trust their judgment, appreciate their efforts and value their contributions. In return, they work hard, and they stick around — the average tenure at NS is 15 years, which is rare in creative fields.

A few years ago, John Nottingham was invited to give a presentation to a trade group. Upon arriving at the event, the young associate accompanying him realized that he’d failed to bring the laptop on which John’s deck was stored. The associate was mortified, but if John was annoyed, he hid it well. “It’ll be fine,” he said, and delivered his speech from memory. John has probably forgotten about this, but the associate never will.

Bill Nottingham is Nottingham Spirk’s Vice President of Growth. 

Learn more about why Nottingham Spirk is a trusted leader in innovation.

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Topics: business innovation firm, creative environment, Business Culture, News, product development strategy, business innovation, business innovation strategies, creative business culture, empathy in business

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