Transforming Our Organizations Through Elevation

December 6, 2010 / General /

By Ryan W. Quinn

I have become curious, lately, about the what happens when people feel elevated at work. So, when an opportunity arises in the conversations I have with people, I ask them, “Will you please tell me the story of a time when you have felt elevated or inspired at work?” The answers I have been receiving are both interesting and inspiring.

What Do I Mean By “Elevation”?

“Elevation” is the name that my colleague, Jonathan Haidt, here at the University of Virginia, has given to an emotion that fits the following description, given by Thomas Jefferson:

When any … act of charity or of gratitude, for instance, is presented either to our sight or imagination, we are deeply impressed with its beauty and feel a strong desire in ourselves of doing charitable and grateful acts also. …[I ask whether] the fidelity of Nelson, and generosity of Blandford in Marmontel do not dilate [the reader’s] breast, and elevate his sentiments as much as any similar incident which real history can furnish? Does he not in fact feel himself a better man while reading them, and privately covenant to copy the fair example? (quoted here).

This description suggests that:

  1. Elevation occurs when we see or hear about virtuous action.
  2. When we experience elevation, we feel warmth in our chests (and sometimes, as Haidt adds later, a “tingly” sensation) and a desire to act in virtuous ways ourselves.
  3. People commit themselves to be more virtuous when they experience this.

So do people experience this at work? And if so, does it make any difference?

Elevation in a Mine

Last week I asked my question about elevation to a manager in a mining company. He thought about it for a minute, and then described his CEO. He talked about how his CEO “actually comes down into the mines and talks to people.” Because of this, employees know that this CEO really cares, they feel more committed to the leader and the organization, and this manager feels elevated by seeing this.

(This manager used the word “actually” because he was comparing this CEO to other CEOs he had worked under. It turns out, in his experience in the mining industry, that having CEOs come into the mines is a pretty rare experience, and as a result, employees believe that the CEO and other top leaders believe that they are too good to enter the mines.)

This story is illustrative of Haidt’s (and Jefferson’s) observations. In this story, the mine manager (and other mine employees) felt elevated because they saw their leader act virtuously: he was humble enough to enter the mine, cared enough about them and their work to spend time with them, and so forth. Because these employees are elevated by the CEO’s actions, they want to be more virtuous themselves. They act in ways that show more commitment to the organization, and exhibit other virtues as well.

I have heard many stories like this over the past few weeks. So far, a few observations strike me as important:

  1. Everyone I have asked this question to is able to tell me a story. This means that, in spite of all of this decade’s ethical collapses from Enron to Wall Street, there are still many virtuous actions that are happening in the business world.
  2. Stories in the business world are generally consistent with Haidt’s observations: virtue inspires more virtue through the emotion of elevation.
  3. Many people say that they feel elevated when they ability to act virtuously themselves, and therefore, they find particular elevation when they have bosses who create opportunities for or support them in their efforts.

So what?

So people have moments of elevation at work. So what? It’s nice that people have positive emotions, but does it make any difference? In fact, it would seem that acting virtuously may compete at times with meeting business objectives.

Certainly, life presents us with trade-offs. There is no question about that. And virtue may tend to favor long-term value creation more than short-term value creation (which explains why virtue can be so hard at times). Even so, achieving excellence is a virtue itself that needs to be weighed with other virtues, and there are plenty of examples of times in which virtuous action creates economic value as well as social value. For example:

  1. Virtuous action creates value for customers because true caring for customers ensures that the products and services they receive meet their needs. (See this blog for a great example.)
  2. Meeting customers’ needs, in turn, tends to create value for shareholders by bringing in revenue.
  3. Meeting customers’ needs (internal as well as external customers) inspires employees and helps them find meaning in their work. (See this blog for research and illustrations.)

Double Impact

Consider the following story as an example of how elevation can have an economic as well as a social impact on an organization. A young man we know of went to work in a manufactured home company. It was a rough environment. He said that people swore at each other all of the time–especially if someone bothered them by asking for help. Our friend was a little disturbed by this organizational culture. Instead of complaining about this culture, though, he asked what he could do differently. He decided that from then on, every time he heard someone at work ask for help, he would jump up, run across the room, and help them before anyone else could yell or swear at the person.

When our friend did this, people were shocked, and then elevated. It took time, but eventually people stopped yelling at each other. Then they started helping each other more. They stopped swearing around this friend of ours. And eventually, the swearing in the office diminished considerably.

The young man who told this story made the goal to start helping others because it was the right thing to do. He was just trying to change the work environment. He was not trying to improve company performance. But the triumphant sentences that he ended this story with were, “And do you know what?  We’re making more money now too!”

Conclusion

Elevation holds the potential to be a powerful mechanism in lifting and changing our organizations, and perhaps even in ways that we cannot anticipate. The actions you can take are clear. Simply:

  1. Identify a virtue that your organization would benefit from if there was more of it.
  2. Ask yourself what you could do to live that virtue more fully.
  3. Whatever the answer is, do it and do it consistently. Be specific about what to do and when.
  4. Let elevation do its work.

We suspect that if you do this, you will enjoy the ride!