Make ’em cry: To grow engagement, build emotional capital

A brief video played at a corporate managers meeting nearly a quarter century ago has stuck with me. I’d be willing to bet real money that it has stuck with others who saw it at that meeting. It speaks volumes about what it means to make work an experience for an organization’s employees.

Somewhere around 1991 or 92 — while I was heading up corporate communications for Allergan in Irvine, California — the time to plan the quarterly managers meeting rolled around. These were usually held in a ballroom at Hilton hotel not far from the company’s offices, which didn’t have a space large enough to accommodate everyone with a manager-or-above title. (Sadly, the Hilton ballroom wasn’t big enough for all employees, and I never convinced my bosses to spring for a room where everyone, not just managers, could participate.)

At the time, Allergan was busily promoting one of its newest and soon-to-be-blockbuster products: Botox. It hadn’t yet been approved for the cosmetic uses, just two ophthalmic conditions (in case you just have to know, they were blepharospasm and strabismus) and was in clinical trials for some other uses. One of the clinical trials targeted juvenile cerebral palsy.

The company had just obtained video footage of a clinical trial patient, a young boy (maybe 8 or 9 years old) confined to a wheelchair. The video showed him at progressive stages of his Botox treatment. Before his first treatment, he couldn’t get out of his wheelchair. After one treatment, he was able to drag himself along a wall by holding onto the handrail with both hands. After two treatments, he could walk with one hand on the handrail, just for balance. After three, he was running up and down the hall with no assistance at all.

Somebody involved with planning the manager’s meeting (I don’t remember who) said, “Let’s show that.” After the video ended and the lights came up, I turned around from my front-row seat to see the reaction. For a beat, there was complete silence. Then the leadership of this multi-billion-dollar company rose to their feet and applauded. Many had tears streaming down their cheeks. I could see a couple hardened pharma execs weeping openly.

The tears didn’t flow over great news for the company’s bottom line and leaders’ bonus checks. It was because a product in trials for their company could help a wheelchair-bound child walk — run. Suddenly, the people in the room weren’t corporate managers, directors, and vice presidents. They were part of a community making a difference in somebody’s life in a very tangible way. These weren’t dry and dispassionate clinical trial reports. This was a real boy. He couldn’t even stand up and now he wasrunning…and we did that.

The boy in that video (who would be pushing 30 today) isn’t the only child suffering from juvenile cerebral palsy who is able to walk thanks to Botox. But the benefits of one or another prescription drug isn’t the point. Rather, it’s the fact that everyone in an organization, including senior leadership, feels more connected to the company and the job if they can see with their own eyes how their work is part of something much, much bigger than a balance sheet.

Watching that video was an experience for those managers.

The work experience

I am convinced (as I have been saying for about a year) that one future of business is wrapped up in the idea of making work an experience. Recent numbers from Gallup reveal that levels of employee engagement have barely budged since the last time they were tallied. In the U.S. in 2014, 31.5% of employees were engaged. Last November, it was up to 32.1%. That’s a .6% increase over a year despite all the programs implemented at all the companies whose CEOs were bound and determined to get those numbers up. (After all, when nearly 70% of your employees are either not engaged or actively disengaged, the impact on the company can’t be good.) The answer isn’t implementing programs. Nor is it designing experiences at work just for the sake of having them (though it can’t hurt). The answer is more of an overarching strategy to make work in general an experience. And a big part of that experience is helping employees understand that they are part of something bigger than themselves.

That they are part of a community of people who share similar values and whose cumulative contributions matter to someone other than shareholders and option-eligible executives. This kind of experience builds emotional capital among employees. Emotional capital is the collective feelings and shared values that allow employees to build successful relationships with each other, to feel that they’re part of a community, something bigger than themselves. Emotional capital is a core element of social capital, defined as “the value of the relationships of people who work…together and the knowledge and skills they share.”

I doubt there was much emotional or social capital built at Turing Pharmaceuticals, where former CEO Martin Shkreli infamously jacked up the price of a 62-year-old infection-fighting drug from $13.50 to $750 per tablet. The message to employees was clear: Nothing — nothing — matters but the bottom line. Today’s employees (who are also part of the larger population of consumers) increasingly want to work for companies that exist — that set significant goals and make significant investments — to serve more than just investors. As much as they seek to earn profits, they also want to make the world a better place.

The rejection of profit for its own sake

That’s not wild conjecture. There is a growing mountain of research to support it, at the pinnacle of which is the 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer, which found trust low in organizations because, in part, respondents believed greed and money, along with business growth targets, were the drivers behind innovations in business — “greater factors than a desire to genuinely improve peoples’ lives (30%) or make the world a better place (24%). As a result, there is a great disparity in the levels of trust in the different, new business developments.”

If we could turn around those engagement numbers — 70% engaged — trust me, companies would make plenty of money (and, in turn, happy investors). However, directing every nickel of profit into executive income or dividends will continue to have the opposite effect.

It was also at Allergan where I had to develop communications and training materials to support the adoption of Shareholder Value Enhancement (SVE), which the C-Suite had decided to embrace before I arrived. Under this philosophy, everything the company does, no matter how insignificant, must support growing the bottom line to improve the payoff for investors. (SVE was the underlying principle at Enron. That might give you an idea what institutionalized greed can do to a company.) I simply could not (and still can’t) imagine employees leaping out of bed in the morning, hearts racing with excitement so they could get to work early and stay late and work hard to enhance shareholder value. I can imagine them doing so because they’re part of a team helping children walk. How much more excited would they be if they knew that 30% of every dollar of profit earned from Botox sales went into programs that benefited children suffering from juvenile cerebral palsy (leaving 70% for shareholders)?

Showing a video isn’t the answer to low levels engagement. It is, however, the kind of thinking that should be factored into all internal communications — assuming the company is sincere and it’s not just internal greenwashing. (Great communications can’t mask a greedy company.) We’re not talking about traditional tick-off-the-box Corporate Social Responsibility here. We’re talking about making work an experience. We’re talking about a different approach to business in which employees (and everyone else) can see that the company’s efforts are designed, in substantial part, to make the world a better place.

Who wouldn’t be engaged by that?