Buying a lottery ticket has an extremely low chance of paying off. Yet many people, at least in countries where it's legal, do it anyway. In the United States alone, it's estimated that almost half the population plays the lottery; and recently Americans spent an estimated $1.46 billion buying tickets for the Mega Millions game, even when the odds of winning were 176 million to 1.
Why do so many people play such long odds? The answer is: It gives them an opportunity to dream. People are willing to invest in dreams, even when they know the odds are against them. But what if the odds were much better than one in 176 million? Would you double your investment? Would you put in time and effort in addition to the cost of a lottery ticket?
I ask these questions because, like the lottery, organizations can shape their employees' dreams, and when the dreams are exciting and the odds are believable, employees will dramatically increase their investments in making them come true. Conversely, when the dreams are mundane and lack credibility, employees disconnect and pull back on their investment.
Some dreams, of course, are about money. In many professions, people are willing to work 80-hour weeks and travel non-stop at least partially because they expect to receive large bonuses or payoffs. But for others, chasing this kind of financial dream alone is not enough. There also needs to be some deeper and more personal aspiration.
Not long ago, I listened to a senior executive in a pharmaceutical company talk to a team of managers about the limited availability of a particular medicine. Most people in the room knew that a number of inter-connected problems were causing the firm to miss its targets, such as inaccurate forecasting, inadequate IT systems, and materials shortages.
However, what they didn't fully appreciate was the human cost. In just a few short sentences, this executive reminded everyone that the purpose of this medicine was to reduce the mortality rate of a specific disease, and that 4 million people would die unnecessarily in the next few years unless they received the company's product. Suddenly every person in the room was willing to put aside other priorities and work to solve this problem. The executive had tapped into their dream to create a healthier world.
While not every company delivers services that save lives so directly, all organizations create value for their customers, stakeholders, and society. Part of a leader's job is to help employees connect to and relate to that value so that the company's mission becomes part of their own dream. Without that connection, employees will, at best, go through the motions -- and at worst become demoralized and detached.
As the lottery demonstrates, most people are willing to place long-shot bets in the service of a personal dream. Great leaders help their people understand how those personal dreams can be aligned with the organization's goals, and why upping their investments will improve the odds of success.
How have you seen leaders tap into their people's dreams?
Cross-posted from Harvard Business Online.
Follow Ron Ashkenas on Twitter: www.twitter.com/SchafferResults