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Engagement & Performance

Lessons from Fukushima?

There are rare moments when real world events illustrate perfectly the elements that underpin how we perform as people and how we apply that in business.

This morning was one of those moments, a single radio report on the BBC gave an update into the tragic events at the Fukushima power plant nearly a year on.

In Roland Buerk's radio report from the site, where 3,000 people are striving to bring the situation to a close, he mentioned at the end, "their motivation is the return of the local people to their homes". That single sentence struck a chord and gave me reason to consider how this awful event and its aftermath illustrates the key elements that drive us to behave and perform to the levels we do.

Behaviour Change and Business Performance

Senior executives and management may kid themselves that employees will alter behaviour, and consequently performance, because of simple employment and work related factors, determined by their strategies and so on. The reality is more close to home and straightforward. We change behaviour for two reasons: 

  • Because we HAVE to
  • Because we WANT to

'Have to' is just that. We 'have to' meet these targets, deliver this project, perform to this standard. Realistically, the outcome will be compromised because if there is no 'want to', then it is highly unlikely to realise any satisfactory results and change for the better. 

Behaviour changes because we 'want to'. Only 3% of human behaviour changes because we 'have to'.

In the case of Fukushima, I imagine that initially the 'have to' driver was initially primarily due to the emergency situation, however, once stabilised and under control, the performance of the teams is driven more from a 'want to' motive.

The Three Levers of Behaviour and Personal Performance

However much we like to convince ourselves that we act rationally, typically 77% of behaviour is governed by emotion. So the core question is how can we manage, as individuals and business leaders, the three fundamental elements that can counteract irrationality and contribute to higher levels of performance? The three levers to use are:

Goal Setting

Goals are key. Without a goal, performance is compromised and the simple truth is a goal is a statement of personal intent, it comes from within and it taps into the psychology of the ego. Avoid failure, achieve recognition. This is powerful stuff, and, like objectives, SMART goals are the ones that deliver, especially in business, within the context of clear vision and strategy.

Emotional Engagement

The second lever we can manage is emotional engagement. It's the willingness to do something we're not asked to do, it's the reason why brands exist, advertising works and determines how engaged we are at work.


Things happen if we're focused. I apologise to the female half of our species, but multi-tasking doesn't exist, it can't. Brain science states that things happen sequentially, not simultaneously. We can manage this in our business lives, where, again, clear vision and strategy are essential.

The Reward

The rewards that deliver optimum performance are non-cash rewards - luxury goods and travel are the best. The underlying reason for this is because we can visualise them, they connect with our ability to dream and imagine.

And for the Fukushima workers it struck me that they have:

  • Goals: they explicitly stated they want the locals to return to their homes
  • Emotional engagement: are inextricably engaged in the challenge
  • Focus: they are bringing laser-focus to their tasks
  • Rewards: their intrinsic reward is the satisfaction of a job well done that benefits their compatriots

The situation at Fukushima is rare, but the ability to bring these forces to bear is quite normal. Every one of us in our everyday lives at work can set goals, be emotionally engaged, and be focused. Without making light of the situation, the teams and individuals are to be applauded - if nothing else than for the intensity of their efforts. After all, it could be considered that adversity determined the situation and the subsequent behaviours to deal with it.  And I will bet anything they remain goal oriented, focused, and emotionally engaged until they realise their reward years from now. That stellar performance is based on very pedestrian tools and we can learn lessons from it.

In recognition of the events in Japan a year ago we have donated £100 to the Japanese Red Cross fund - it closes on the 31st March 2012 if anybody still wants to help.

And the Sunflowers?

Nearly 80,000 people within the 20km exclusion zone had to evacuate their homes and the land has lain undisturbed. Koyu Abe, a Buddhist chief monk, has been distributing sunflowers and their seeds to be planted all over Fukushima. They are known to absorb toxins, and although they don't break radiation down they can be destroyed once harvested. Sunflowers are now growing between buildings, in backyards, alongside the nuclear plant, and anywhere else they will possibly fit. At least 8 million sunflowers and 200,000 other plants have been distributed.

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