Remove obstacles to productivity and unleash performance, from the Minneapolis Star Tribune Business Forum

Minneapolis Star Tribune Business forum: Remove obstacles to productivity and unleash performance
Tor Dahl
Published Jan 6 2002

Americans are being harshly awakened to significant change. The trigger was an emotionally precise terrorist assault that obliterated more than human lives and skyscrapers. The criminals of Sept. 11 converted our humanness -- made of feelings and emotions -- into a weapon that incapacitates.

Watching emotion cripple an entire society is a frightening circumstance. But it provides new knowledge about the potential in igniting emotions and minds to be productive.

If terrorists discourage souls in order to create mountain-like obstacles, what is the capacity of encouraged hearts to generate new, uplifting realities?

We all must learn more about removing obstacles to productivity and unleashing the performance improvement power in individuals, teams, businesses and industries. And it's not only this country. America's productivity interruption is temporary; we will overcome the pain.

Meanwhile, there are entire countries and economies permanently mired in despair that is hammering productivity and undermining prosperity and peace.

Football coaching legend Vince Lombardi, revered for his inspirational oratory on leadership and what it takes to win, always gave credit to the potency in triggering human emotion. "It is essential to understand that battles are primarily won in the hearts of men," Lombardi said. "Once you have won a man's heart, he will follow you anywhere."

September's terrorist attacks on U.S. soil marked the start of a battle for the hearts of Americans. And for America's heart.

Diabolically planned to paralyze us individually and nationally, terrorism is a real-time demonstration of the dominant nature of productivity. Or, more exactly, the destructive power of its absence. But it's not productivity in the statistical, economic index sense.

Monthly analyses that take the temperature of commerce can't diagnose the health of the heart. Yet that is where productivity lives or languishes. Professional terrorism is schoolyard bullying elevated to orchestrated, murderous levels. Interestingly, it's also the evil twin of what every productivity-seeking sports coach and business leader applies in unleashing the power of emotion.

The difference is that leaders optimize performance by uplifting people, and bullies sabotage performance by debilitating their spirit.

Charismatic leaders know intuitively that provoking a change -- such as improving an individual's performance -- takes place only in the mind's affective domain, the home to emotions that fuel desires.

This place is distinct from the cognitive domain, which houses thinking and judging. It is critical to understand what is possible, and what is impossible, within each domain.

Teaching offensive linemen to execute the Green Bay power sweep was a cognitive exercise. Inspiring the team to exceed the opposition's will to win required Lombardi to maneuver in the affective domain.

Operating only in the cognitive domain explains why performance improvement work fails in so many companies. Beautiful plans to enhance productivity evaporate when they encounter reality because the actual change can take place only in the affective domain.

Terrorists orchestrate emotion-charged events to trigger the power of the affective domain. Activity-and soul-freezing terror doesn't result from material damage, injury and death. Those outcomes simply are mechanisms that bring about the self-multiplying impacts our feelings and emotions can provoke.


Terrorists generate and leverage three feelings in particular: dissatisfaction, a sense of having lost control and negative stress. Dissatisfaction is the most negatively powerful. It makes us unproductive. And being unproductive manifests itself in behaviors -- such as the changes rippling outward from Ground Zero -- that bullies seek. Panic. Turning inward. Cowering. Distrust. Disengagement. Loss of optimism. Even curtailed consumerism.

Behaviorists have mapped dissatisfaction. We know this state-of-mind creates not only the greatest number of productivity obstacles, but also the most damaging. It's true at work, at home, in school or in relationships. When we are dissatisfied, we become inactive. Frozen. Or, we operate on automatic. We stop innovating, stop taking chances, and cease striving to change things.

It's a fact of the human condition, especially in the context of organizational performance improvement: As dissatisfaction increases, productivity decreases. This truth is known from approximately 25 years of behavioral research tracking the cause and effect of productivity in business organizations: When contrasting the performance of satisfied people operating in high-productivity domains against those struggling with dissatisfaction, we can document and measure obstacles that produce 20 times more wasted time.

Conversely, productivity takes hold when people feel satisfied, are experiencing positive control, and stress is sensed as a challenge rather than discomfort. By creating fertile ground for satisfaction, we can enhance performance by a factor of 20.

How do we nourish satisfaction? It exists when certain human needs are fulfilled. Two of these needs are in view at the World Trade Center site. First, we respond to the intimacy that comes from genuinely working together. Second, we find energy when an "other" orientation replaces self-involvement. We're motivated by the perspective that this is about all of us.

These triggers reflect some remarkable emotional engineering that we don't fully understand or value. Tremendous inner potential lies all but unknown, just beneath the surface. Consider the flood of outward patriotism and national unity that the events of Sept. 11 inspired.

Will we ever forget New York City firemen and other emergency personnel refusing to stop working in the early aftermath of the attack? Today these people still work long hours, with no hope of finding survivors, simply to recover as many victims as possible. That's productivity. It's sad duty, but there's a sense of control. There is stress, but it's positive stress. They're proud to be doing jobs that are completely oriented toward others.

Terrorism -- particularly against Americans on our own land -- takes direct aim at another irreplaceable ingredient in productivity: freedom. The more freedom you possess, the greater your productivity. The United States generally is recognized for enjoying the most expansive freedom. So it's no surprise that we feel its theft most acutely. Be assured that terrorists rely on this correlation. The September events were calculated to restrain our freedom to travel, assemble and even correspond.

America has been bullied into a low-performance domain in which the principal weapons are the loss of freedom and our own dissatisfaction.

We are experiencing, temporarily, the same combination that is holding down -- or freezing -- entire economies and aspiring emerging countries. There is a one-to-one correlation between a society's freedom and its productivity. Grade various countries according to the freedoms they enjoy. Now score them according to produced wealth. The rankings are consistent. A country receiving a B grade for freedom rates a B in wealth. Failing grades for freedom are accompanied by failing scores in wealth.

Such countries as China, Mexico and Russia are awakening to the prosperity-and peace-creating power of productivity improvement.

It is no coincidence that the world's most productive society also is the leading model for freedom and self-realization. Evildoers behind the acts of Sept. 11 ultimately will be dismayed by the capacity of the American community. To draw together. To reclaim our freedoms. To come back not only wiser and more alert, but more determined and more productive.

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