Opinions

Elephants and riders, part 1

18 December

Jonathan Haight argues in his book The Happiness Hypothesis that we all have a divided self within us which he names the elephant and the rider. The elephant is our emotional side which is impulsive, operates with little or no effort, and is difficult to regulate. The rider is our rational side that takes more effort, is overly analytical, and can think much longer term. Dr. Haight argues that when this divided self of elephant and rider are deeply engaged and valued, there is a focus and energy or flow that is unleashed within our lives. However, when they split and go in different directions, we invariably end up worn out and frustrated that we can’t find success and happiness.

In our research we’ve found that companies also have a divided self, an elephant and a rider so to speak. The rational side of business consists of the mission, strategy, structure and processes. These are characterized by long term thinking, complex analysis, formal rules and regulations, all of which require an enormous amount of organizational energy. If this is all we did to run our organizations, we would all be worn out and frightened. Fortunately, there is also an emotional side of our organizations that is found in the culture, team environment, and interpersonal relationships that we form. This side of our organization provides the fuel and when it is working, things can seem effortless.

We see examples of both sides of an organization at work in a number of successes and failures. Famously, Southwest Airlines has built a culture of LUV and yet balances it with a clear long-term strategy of delivering low fares. The online retailer Zappos has done the same with its Zani culture along with Fast, Free Shipping. Just as interesting are the failures, companies like Pan Am, Pets.com, or eToys.com, that have built either a strong emotional or rational side to their business without the other.

In our own work, we’ve seen this balance as a key factor for success. One large industrial client built their entire B2B customer experience around a set of desired service behaviors (elephant) and effective processes (rider) while another client spent time engaging broadly with front line staff(elephant) while focusing the product portfolio(rider) to achieve the scale required for their market. In both cases, they drastically outperformed their industry across a number of factors and became examples of success that have been documented in numerous case studies

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