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London Business School Professor Daniel Cable who has spent years studying what helps people activate their ‘best selves’, recently stated, “There is a new war for talent happening in the workplace today,”. “And it’s not about wooing employees away from competitors, but unleashing the enthusiasm that is already within employees, just dormant.”

Here, he describes an experiment that focused on a very simple — but effective — intervention aimed at new hires.

Cable went on to use a single example –

Adesh awoke, his mind was consumed and anxious with the fact it was his first day at work at Wipro, an Indian IT company. Making first impressions on co-workers, fitting in and making sure he was as good as everyone else — it was all very stressful.

Then there were concerns about the role itself. As a call-center rep, talking to faraway customers and trying to solve their problems, this was all new to him.

Adesh knew parts would be a tough. As he’d be assisting people in the US, he had to work during their business hours — his shifts would begin at 9 PM and go through the night. He’d be required to be calm and profession with potentially frustrated customers, who may be abrupt and rude. He’d also have to adopt a Western accent and attitude.

Also, new reps tended to quit after just a few months.

Upon arrive to his new role, Adesh was shown into a room with 18 other new hires. Experience with previous roles suggested that admin types would show up, and he and his colleagues would fill out paperwork and sit through an orientation about their job responsibilities.

This time, the experience was different. After a few minutes, a senior leader, entered. Instead of talking about procedures and responsibilities, the leader spent 15 minutes discussing why this was an outstanding company. “Working here gives you the opportunity to express yourself,” he told the group.

This chat wasn’t scripted either, after sharing stories about his time at the business, the man asked the new hires to take a few minutes and write an answer to a question: “What is unique about you that leads to your happiest times and best performance at work? Reflect on a specific time — perhaps on a job, perhaps at home — when you were acting the way you were ‘born to act.’”

Adesh initially stared at the blank paper. But, after a few moments, he thought about helping his nephew with his maths homework.

Adesh continued helping and slowly guiding him, and before long, the child had it and was able to complete the task and growing in confidence. Adesh saw the gratitude on his nephew’s face.

Now, at his orientation, Adesh happily wrote down this memory.

The leader continued, “I want each of you to introduce your best self to the rest of the group”.

Adesh felt confidence and comfort when telling his story and listening to everyone else’s. He felt his new colleagues already knew a lot about him, and vice versa. In this moment, he felt like his best self. After they all finished, the leader gave each person a badge and a sweatshirt customized with his or her name.

We’ve all been in Adesh’s shoes. Upon joining a new organisation, the first weeks are a bit of a blur. There are confusing acronyms thrown at us; we need to learn what our priorities are and the new norms. It’s like visiting a foreign country: everything’s unfamiliar, and we can’t rely on our previous relationships, routines and assumptions.

A new role is also a time to experience the need to fit in and be accepted —It’s obviously a stressful and vulnerable situation to be in. This is why organisations use the orientation period as a time to get their employees to absorb their values and ways of working.

Obviously, this is a tried and tested method and there’s nothing wrong with it. But when 605 new Wipro India employees across three different operations centres were studied, it was discovered that there could be a better way of onboarding new hires. Through ongoing studies and experiments with Wipro, the process of developing the new orientation process that Adesh just took part in was implemented.

Confirmed in later studies, an orientation where newcomers wrote about their best selves, and shared those stories with their new co-workers, led to greater performance and retention. Perhaps more important, it connected employees more closely to their organisations.

In the experiment, randomly chosen new hires were assigned to one of three conditions. The first condition (described above), new employees were asked to write about times they used their best characteristics, and shared these with the group. At the end of the session, they also received their work badge and a personalised sweatshirt. In the second condition, the new hires were asked to spend 15 minutes reflecting on the senior leader’s remarks. After discussing their answers with the group, people received a badge and a generic sweatshirt. And finally the new hires in the third condition, (or the control group), went through Wipro’s regular orientation, which focused on skills training.

After six months of tracking the participants, we found that Adesh and his colleagues in the “best self” condition outperformed their peers who had participated in Wipro’s typical onboarding. For example, their customers, reported an 11% satisfaction increase. The “best selves” group were also more likely to remain in their jobs: retention improved by 32%. Results for condition two (who reflected on the talk about Wipro’s values) were interesting too. Compared with the control condition, it reduced quitting by 14%, although no increase in customer satisfaction was seen.

At Wipro, the test attempted something new and small that has disproportionately large effect. It fixed something that makes people feel emotionally vulnerable.

By sharing their personal stories at the start, the new hires could express themselves more, showing their colleagues their most valued behaviours and traits. Consequently, they were viewed by their co-workers in the way they wanted to be seen — hence feeling more like their best selves.

So, does everybody have a best self? The answer is a resounding Yes.

A ‘self’ is just a story that we tell ourselves — you aren’t able to see or touch it. Although it is very real in the sense that the story affects how we act and how others respond to us.

If we change the story we tell about ourselves, we change our behaviours. As organisational psychology professor Laura Roberts and colleagues at the University of Michigan have defined it, a ‘best self’ is “the cognitive representation of the qualities and characteristics the individual displays when at his or her best.”

The best self is not a projection of what we could become, but based on our real-life experiences and actions. And the more our colleagues know who we are when we’re at our best, the more likely we can feel like ourselves at work.

The research demonstrated that this was why the people who experienced the wise intervention stayed longer and made their clients happier: because they could express themselves more authentically. One of the onboarding managers who helped with the study, stated: “People were proud to be recognised as individuals, it also gave them a distinctive identity within the organisation and helped them identify with the organisation much faster”

It’s important to note that ‘The best self’, like our other identities, requires activation. But as per the case study, it doesn’t take much to do that.

Because of the small change in onboarding, the new hires achieved additional meaning to their work. This likely led them to exhibit their best traits more often. Since their co-workers and managers appreciated their unique skills and traits, they were able to act more freely and authentically in subsequent interactions.

Perhaps, the best thing about the best-self activation technique, is that it creates long-term effects. For example, many of the employees demonstrated more enthusiasm, more productive responses to stress, better creativity and better interactions with colleagues and customers.

Author and poet David Whyte states “Companies need the contributing vitality of all the individuals who work for them in order to stay alive in the sea of changeability in which they find themselves.”

“They must find a real way of asking people to bring these hidden heartfelt qualities to the workplace. A way that doesn’t make them feel manipulated or the subject of some five-year plan.”

It’s up to leaders in these organisations to address this problem and activating people’s best selves is a great way to do it for two reasons.

  1. It’s good for us — research shows that when people identify and use their unique strengths, they report feeling “more alive” or “intensely alive.”
  2. If we feel like work is more like “real life,” complete with intrinsic motivations and positive emotions, we’re more apt to help our organisations adapt, innovate, and stay relevant.

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