In June 2018, after three days of intense competition and only a single event to go, the Women’s NCAA National Outdoor Track and Field Championship title remained up for grabs. The top three teams were separated by less than ten points. Sitting in third place, the University of Southern California Trojans were still in the running, but their path to victory was narrow. To win they needed nothing short of a first-place finish in the final event of the meet, the 4 × 400-meter relay.
Unfortunately, the Trojans’s first two runners ran slightly slower than expected. USC’s third runner, Deanna Hill, was supposed to make up ground, but she became entangled with her teammate, Kendall Ellis, during the final baton hand-off.
With a title on the line, Ellis got her bearings and took off sprinting. She looked strong, but with one hundred yards to go, she had a lot of work to do: Ellis was still forty yards and two runners behind first place. It seemed a USC championship was unlikely, if not impossible. But then Ellis dug deep. She unleashed a scorching finishing kick and overtook a competitor from Oregon.
Finally—with mere inches to spare—Ellis brought herself even with the lead runner, leaning forward just enough to fly across the finish line first and clinch a national championship for USC. The clock reflected a superhuman effort, too. Ellis had turned in an astonishing split time that was 0.15 seconds faster than she had run in her individual 400-meter race earlier that day.
Even though Ellis occupies a rarefied space in elite running, the dynamic at play in her stunning come-from-behind victory applies to us all. This is a story about having a why. It’s something we’ve all experienced at one time or another: when we know people are counting on us, we rise to the occasion.
The Köhler Effect
Social scientists call this the Köhler effect, after industrial psychologist Otto Köhler, who observed members of the Berlin rowing club lifting weights. In the 1920s, Köhler asked rowers to curl a ninety-seven-pound bar as many times as they could until they were too tired to go on. After this Köhler had the rowers do curls in groups of two or three, holding a bar that was exactly two or three times as heavy to ensure each rower was lifting the same weight as before. He found that the rowers were able to do significantly more repetitions in groups than they could on their own. Subsequent research has indicated that this happens, at least in part, because people don’t want to be seen as the weak link holding everyone else back. They are more motivated when they know a group’s outcome is depending on their performance.
A company isn’t an athletic team, and yet we still work harder and produce better results when we’re all rowing in the same direction with a clear mission and vision—and when we know other people are counting on us, whether they’re our coworkers or our customer. As a business leader or manager, the most important thing we can do is to emphasize that our collective purpose is bigger than any individual and that every single person has a stake in fulfilling it.
The insurance industry understands that when an individual’s fate is tied to that of a group, everyone benefits. This is especially true at Guardian, which, as a mutual company, is wholly owned by our policyholders. However, mutuality doesn’t have to be baked into a corporate infrastructure to be a core value. Mutuality is about more than ownership. It’s about making sure all employees know that they are part of something bigger than the bottom line. It’s about demonstrating that even in the smallest daily actions, each person is upholding a commitment to customers, one another, and the broader community.
Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider By: Deanna Mulligan, the Board Chair of The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America. Excerpted from her book Hire Purpose Copyright (c) 2020. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
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