Alive at Work: Giving Employees Freedom Within the Frame

A recent Deloitte study shows that over 87 percent of America’s workforce is not able to contribute to their full potential because they don’t have passion for their work. And according to both US and global Gallup polls, about 80 percent of workers don’t feel that they can be their best at work, and 70 percent are not engaged at work.

Here’s the thing: many organizations are deactivating the part of employees’ brains called the seeking system. Our seeking systems create the natural impulse to explore our worlds, learn about our environments, and extract meaning from our circumstances. When we follow the urges of our seeking system, it releases dopamine—a neurotransmitter linked to motivation and pleasure—that makes us want to explore more.

Leaders need to know how to activate people’s seeking systems. As the case of KLM Royal Dutch Airlines shows, when you increase enthusiasm and excitement, you improve problem solving and creativity.

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines

Remember Eyjafjallajökull? The Icelandic volcano erupted in April 2010, resulting in a massive ash cloud that spread across Western and Northern Europe. Flights stalled for six days, stranding thousands of passengers. During this time, KLM and other airlines also experienced an eruption—customers’ requests for information jammed their call centers. The overload blocked their ability to provide customer support when it was needed most.

To solve this problem, some KLM Royal Dutch Airlines employees decided to try something new. They provided service updates on Facebook and Twitter. It may sound obvious to us now, but these were the early days of social media. Twitter was only three years old at the time. Most organizations were not using social media to communicate with customers.

And remember, KLM was no small startup. For more than ninety years, the airline has operated flights throughout the world. With more than thirty-two thousand employees serving more than 133 international destinations, KLM is one of the largest and most successful international airlines. And, the airline industry is very regulated—there are a lot of rules when you are moving people 500 miles per hour 30,000 feet above sea level. So you can imagine the frame for employees is fairly established, which could have thwarted creativity and innovation unless employees were encouraged to experiment.

At first, the freedom to use social media to communicate with customers paid off. It was a lemons-into-lemonade situation, because KLM received positive publicity during the crisis. In fact, Jeffrey Mann, a member of the Gartner Blog Network, wrote, “KLM shows how to use social media during ash crisis, and Air France how not to.”

But the airline’s social media experiments did not always work exactly as planned. Of course they didn’t; employees were still experimenting and learning with a new way of communicating. For example, the Netherlands beat Mexico during a World Cup match and emotions were running high. A KLM employee tweeted a picture of an airport departures sign under the heading “Adios Amigos.” Next to the word “Departures” was a man with a moustache and sombrero. On the one hand, KLM got a lot of exposure—the post went viral, creating millions of social media movements. On the other hand, Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal tweeted to tell his 2 million–plus followers that he would never fly with KLM again, and hundreds of other people complained.

This outcome at KLM offered important learning about social media communications. Employees had the freedom to use their interests and strengths to contribute to the team.

KLM could have fired the employee and shut down its social media experimentation. Instead, the company apologized to the public, deleted the post, and tried to learn where the frame became broken.

This outcome at KLM offered important learning about social media communications. Employees had the freedom to use their interests and strengths to contribute to the team, but they needed to learn how to use this freedom within the frame of customer commitments and legal regulations.

So the airline continued to encourage employees to experiment with social media within the frame of normal operations. For example, a KLM leader at Schiphol Airport told me how a small group of flight attendants and other employees who were intrigued by social media were encouraged to experiment with a budget of €10,000. None of the employees had to do it; just those who were interested in helping. This self-selected team decided to first scour the internet for people who mentioned KLM in their tweets or Facebook posts, or who checked in using Foursquare. Then they developed ways to surprise these social media-savvy customers. Using people’s profiles on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, the team found interesting facts about passengers to come up with creative, personalized surprises for them.

For example, the team found out that Tobias Hootsen was on his way to Dubai indefinitely. So, they created a “homesick package,” and tracked him down in the airport to present it to him. Another traveler, Willem van Hommel, tweeted that he would miss an important soccer game of his team because he was flying to New York. The KLM team surprised him with a Lonely Planet guide to the city with all soccer bars marked in blue to make sure he wouldn’t miss the game. Another passenger going hiking in Rome received a sports watch that tracks distances and walking speed.

Freedom Within The Frame

This is how KLM balanced the freedom in the frame. Employees were not ordered to use social media, and the approach was not scripted by senior management. A small group of willing employees was given a small budget to experiment with social media, mostly to learn how its audience responds. KLM monitored how recipients responded to their surprises—whether they tweeted about it or mentioned it on Facebook. In this case, the forty gifts created a social media storm: the KLM Twitter feed was viewed more than one million times in three weeks. Not bad for an experiment based on something that the employees found intrinsically interesting and were excited to try.

Together, KLM’s experiments with social media have helped it stay connected to tech-savvy customers. KLM now has 150 social media customer service agents who generate $25 million in annual revenue, and the company is regularly voted as the most social-media-relevant airline. KLM recently was recognized for its digital presence with six “Webby Awards”—known as the Oscars of the internet—along with Airbnb, the New Yorker, Lady Gaga, Google and the Washington Post. The behaviors that led to this learning, and this relevance, were not pre-scripted by senior leaders: they were invented by employees with activated seeking systems.

Within an organizational frame, KLM encouraged self-expression, experimentation, and experiencing the impact of work. These are the triggers of the seeking system, which led to employee enthusiasm and creativity that helped the organization adapt and innovate.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do. Copyright 2018 Dan Cable. All rights reserved.

Dan Cable

Professor of Organizational Behavior at London Business School

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