This post first appeared in a newsletter I used to publish.
Leaders must create a climate of hope if they want the people they lead to stay motivated and energized. James Kouzes and Barry Posner put it this way in The Leadership Challenge: “The climb to the top is arduous and long. People become exhausted, frustrated, and disenchanted. They’re often tempted to give up. Leaders encourage the heart of their constituents to carry on.”
Recently, I heard of a study conducted by psychologists at Duke University. In this study, they put rats into containers with water that was too deep to stand in and far enough from the top to keep the rats from escaping. The rats had to either tread water or swim to survive. In my search to locate the source document, I found two different descriptions of the experimental set-up. At this point, I’m not sure whether this story is urban legend or real. Whatever the case, it makes a good point for illustration.
As the story goes, the researchers put one set of rats in the water and allowed them to swim until they drowned. This apparently took about 17 minutes. Then they put another set of rats in the water and removed them at about 15 minutes to rest. The second set of rats were then put back in the water and continued to swim for 36 hours. The researcher’s conclusion? When the rats had the hope of rescue, they fought for survival much longer.
It sometimes seems easier to threaten and push and prod people than to encourage, to create rewards and to inspire hope. The natural order of things tends towards negativity. Creating a positive, hopeful environment takes work and focus. The benefit is that people, like the rats in the story above, will hang on longer and work harder if they have hope in a bright tomorrow. Remove that hope and you have nothing but fear and intimidation to drive behavior.