Posted: 02 Mar. 2021 5 min. read

To spark imagination, dial up the drama

(This is the ninth post in the Breakthrough Manifesto series, an exploration of Business Chemistry and how to tackle solving really tough problems. If you missed the introduction, read it here.)

“The most precious things in speech are pauses.” – Ralph Richardson

The ninth principle of the Deloitte Greenhouse Breakthrough Manifesto is dial up the drama. In other words, use storytelling or other ways to engage emotions or senses as you solve a problem.

Each year on New Year's Day, the Poetry Project holds a marathon event composed of performances from 150 or so poets, musicians, chorographers, and comedians. In a typical year, the performances take place in the 200-year-old St. Mark's Church in lower Manhattan. Each performer gets only two to three minutes at the podium on the altar, a strictly enforced rule that's necessary to get through all of the performances in one day. In 2020, producer Sean Cole attended the program and witnessed what he called a "rule-shattering moment." And one day last summer, I listened to the public radio program This American Life, captivated as he shared his experience and a recording of one particular performance.

Jerome Ellis, composer, performer, and writer, took almost three drama-filled minutes to deliver these two sentences: "The Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul has a law mandating that cell phone companies offer a 50% discount to their customers with breaks in the timing and fluency of speech. That is, the customers who have speech impediments, like myself." To say that there were long pauses between Ellis's words is a huge understatement. You really must listen to the clip of Time Bandit to get the full effect, but Cole reported that he initially had no idea what was going on as Ellis stood at the altar trembling, with the silences stretching out longer than the bursts of speech.

Ellis then went on to speak for a total of nine of the most uncomfortable minutes I have listened to—it took more than four minutes for him to deliver his final sentence—opining on the concept of temporal accessibility, and what it might mean to create environments that are accessible for differently abled speakers. He explored the fairness of a two-to-three-minute time limit for all, if we don't all speak at the same pace. Cole said in describing the performance: "I'd gone from barely paying attention to being totally rapt. Everybody was ... We were all just kind of spellbound—partly, I think, because, as Jerome said himself, what was happening on stage seemed so very unpredictable."

Ellis's performance is perhaps the best example I’ve ever seen of what we in the Deloitte Greenhouse mean when we say dial up the drama. He brought hundreds of people simultaneously into an experience he lives every day, and showed rather than told why rules created in the spirit of fairness are maybe sometimes not actually so fair after all. For me, Ellis's words and how they were delivered resulted in feeling highly engaged in the ideas of temporal accessibility and relative fairness, as well as the lived experiences of those who are differently abled. Because of its drama, his performance is seared into my brain, and I have discussed, shared, and written about it more than any other such experience I've had. And isn't that likely just what he wants? For me and others to carry his messages forward? That is the power of dialing up the drama.

Perhaps there is something you'd like your team to enthusiastically engage with. Maybe it's solving a thorny problem or reenvisioning the team's purpose. Maybe you want them to give 110 percent effort on a new project or to proactively suggest improvements to your processes. You could tell them why it's important. Or you could ask them to care about it. And that might work. But if you can make them feel something, that's a whole different ballgame.

You may be familiar with the elephant-and-rider analogy that psychologist Jonathan Haidt introduced in his book The Happiness Hypothesis and that authors Chip and Dan Heath further popularized in their book Switch. (Note that this elephant analogy is different from the one I highlighted in my last post). Haidt describes the elephant as the emotional side of your brain and the rider as the rational side. We often think the rider is in charge, but when push comes to shove, the elephant usually wins. So to get people to make a change, one of your primary goals should be to motivate the elephant in the direction you want it to go.

On January 20, 2021, Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman delivered her inaugural poem The Hill We Climb on the steps of the US Capitol. I was mesmerized, and I know I was far from alone. Among the images she painted with her words were these:

"Somehow we've weathered and witnessed a nation that isn't broken, but simply unfinished."

"If we merge mercy with might, and might with right, then love becomes our legacy, and change our children's birthright."

"Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest, we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one."

"When the day comes, we step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid. The new dawn blooms as we free it."

Gorman could have stepped up to the podium on that blue-skied day and said, "Let's adopt a positive attitude and try to work together, people!" But that wouldn't have had the same effect as her dramatic and evocative words.

Of course, not all emotions are the same, and you may be wondering whether it's better to arouse positive emotions or negative ones. Should Gorman have left us in the shade rather than showing us the new dawn blooming? Should she have focused more on how wounded our world is or how wondrous we can raise it to be? In the workplace, it may depend on what you want people to do. Nobel Prize–winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman says in Thinking, Fast and Slow that positive emotions enhance our intuition and creativity, but can leave us prone to logical errors. Negative emotions, on the other hand, may help us to be more analytical.

In 2015, psychologist and creativity expert Scott Barry Kaufman published an HBR article in which he says: "The long-standing view in psychology is that positive emotions are conducive to creativity because they broaden the mind, whereas negative emotions are detrimental to creativity because they narrow one’s focus. But this view is too simplistic for a number of reasons." He goes on to discuss research by Eddie Harmon-Jones and his colleagues suggesting that the motivational intensity of an emotion (i.e., how strong the urge is to move toward or away from a stimulus) may be even more important than its valence (i.e., whether it's positive or negative). Milder emotions like contentedness or sadness can broaden your cognitive scope and make you more open to new opportunities, whereas more intense emotions like desire or anger can narrow your cognitive scope to help you complete a specific task or achieve a particular goal. Kaufman himself has found the extent to which people are open to the full breadth and depth of their emotions to be a better predictor of artistic creativity than IQ or intellectual engagement, and he cites research by Christina Fong that suggests the simultaneous experience of positive and negative emotions contributes to creativity. In other words, emotions are both important and complicated.

Dialing up the drama isn't just about poetry and performance. It's about anything that engages the senses or taps into emotions. Imagine watching a movie without the soundtrack—it's a different, and less engaging experience. In describing the 13 scariest horror film soundtracks ever written, Rosie Pentreath, a managing editor at Classic FM, highlights string stabs, piano tingles, and "bone-melting organ and synths theme music...bringing the Rocky Mountains to life with nauseating slices and swoops of electronic sound." She uses the words foreboding, alarmingunnerving, gruesome, and nightmarish. A good soundtrack isn't just about what we hear, it's about what it leads us to feel.

Music also plays an outsized role in some of the fitness trends that keep us coming back for more, but it's not the only method they use to create drama. Spinning studios pair that music with pulsing LED light shows to get everyone peddling together. Yoga studios set the mood for down dog by candlelight. And fitness instructors don't just instruct; they perform. My latest workouts happen in my living room in real life, but in virtual reality, I'm working up a sweat in the most beautiful locations in the world: Isabela Island in the Galapagos, Ethiopia's Erta Ale Volcano, and Machu Picchu. Of course, I don't need to exercise on the beach or in the mountains, but especially since I'm stuck at home in real life, these views are a lot more inspiring than staring at the dog toys littering my carpet as I'm trying to get fit.

One way to characterize what I'm talking about here is storytelling. You may already know something about the power of storytelling beyond getting your kids to sleep at night—these days, it's often seen as a critical leadership skill. But the point of the dial up the drama principle is that there are lots of different ways to tell stories. You don't need to start with once upon a time or even use words at all. What storytelling can do, through a process called neurocoupling, is to engage your brain as if you were actually experiencing whatever is happening in the story. When the story is about another person, this can help us build empathy. Which brings me, finally, around to Business Chemistry and how all of this relates to your team, who likely doesn't meet in a spinning studio or the crater of a volcano (real or virtual). If you instead spend your time together in conference rooms or video meetings, you can still apply these concepts.

In the Deloitte Greenhouse, we merge music, imagery, lighting, video, storytelling, movement, food, humor, and technology to engage people's emotions and senses and get them solving problems together creatively. With a bit of thought and attention, you too can dial up the drama of your meetings by considering not just what you want people to know or share, but what you want them to feel and do. We know that Guardians and Drivers are less likely than Pioneers and Integrators to say they're comfortable expressing their emotions or that they experience others' emotions. But this doesn't mean they can't or don't tell stories or that you shouldn't dial up the drama to engage them. In fact, it might be particularly beneficial to do so, since they can be less likely to naturally bring their emotions into the workplace. You will, however, want to pay attention to whether you are expecting people to stretch just a little bit out of their comfort zones, which can be beneficial, or asking too much, which can backfire. I have written before about how to create experiences (rather than just boring old meetings) that can engage all of the Business Chemistry types without losing any of them. Check out part 1 and part 2 of How to Plan a Meeting People Won't Dread for ideas.

Actions in summary for encouraging your team to dial up the drama:

  • Consider what you want people to feel or do
  • Choose positive, negative, mild, or intense emotions, depending on what action you’re hoping for
  • Engage emotions and senses with music, imagery, and stories of all kinds
  • Use drama to get people to stretch a little, not necessarily a lot

To learn more about making the best of unexpected changes, read my next post, which focuses on the tenth Breakthrough Manifesto principle, make change.

And if you simply can't wait to learn more about our Breakthrough Manifesto or how the Deloitte Greenhouse Experience might help your team attain breakthrough results, explore and get in touch here.

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Suzanne Vickberg (aka Dr. Suz)

Suzanne Vickberg (aka Dr. Suz)

Research Lead | Deloitte LLP

Dr. Suz is a social-personality psychologist and a leading practitioner of Deloitte’s Business Chemistry, which she uses to guide clients as they explore how their work is shaped by the mix of individuals who make up a team. Previously serving in Deloitte’s Talent organization, since 2014 she’s been coaching leaders and teams in creating cultures that enable each member to thrive and make their best contribution. Along with her Deloitte Greenhouse colleague Kim Christfort, Suzanne co-authored the book Business Chemistry: Practical Magic for Crafting Powerful Work Relationships as well as a Harvard Business Review cover feature on the same topic. She also leads the Deloitte Greenhouse research program focused on Business Chemistry and is the primary author of the Business Chemistry blog. An “unapologetic introvert” and Business Chemistry Guardian-Dreamer, you will never-the-less often find her in front of a room, a camera, or a podcast microphone speaking about Business Chemistry. Suzanne is a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate with an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business and a doctorate in Social-Personality Psychology from the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. She has lectured at Rutgers Business School and several colleges in the CUNY system, and before joining Deloitte in 2009, she gained experience in the health care and consulting fields. A mom of two teenagers, she maintains her native Minnesota roots and currently resides in New Jersey, where she volunteers for several local organizations with a focus on hunger relief.