A Primer on Serious Introductions
What is a Serious Introduction
It’s giving the basic info on yourself (e.g., name, relevant data [e.g., department, where from]), and then telling a story about you at your best. It’s both that simple and that challenging!
The hardest part is overcoming the temptation to talk about getting an award or an achievement, which usually isn’t a time when you were at your best. Rather, that’s a time when you got recognized for something, which often says more about the recognizing body than it does about you. You might be proud of the achievement, but the real question is what you did to get the achievement, and thus it’s not getting the recognition that’s you at your best, but the story behind it.
Often, the best stories you hear are the ones that never win awards. They are the parts of everyday greatness that show you what people are really made of. They are the times you stood up to the crowd, the moment you went beyond your personal best, or the moment you stood your ground when everything you believed in was being challenged.
Every single person has an incredible story, and using this exercise has consistently established a culture of respect on a team — it’s hard to hear all of these tales and not be awed by the people around you.
(While I focused this article on using serious introductions at work, the information below applies in a host of settings. I often use serious introductions in my classes, following the lead of my advisor, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)
Leaders should begin by preparing their own serious introductions and some reflections on their interests, talents, and motivations. Then, incite others to do likewise.
To get started on preparing a serious introduction, consider the following questions:
You at Your Best
-What is the moment/event of which you are most proud?
-What is your greatest achievement to date?
-What are your top talents?
-What do you do best?
-What are you like when you are at your best?
-If your spouse or best friend were asked to describe you at your best, what would (s)he say?
-Why did you choose your line of work?
-Why did you choose your company?
-How does your line of work, and the company’s mission, fit in with your overarching life goals?
-What do you enjoy doing?
-Which tasks do you do well, and why?
-In which work tasks can you get so involved that you wonder where the time went when you finish them?
-Which work tasks are invigorating challenges that you like tackling? (If your answer to this is “none,” then determine which work tasks/assignments you would like to take on as an invigorating challenge — consider suggesting to a decision-maker that you actually take these on!)
-If you could design your own job and task list at this company, what would it be? (If you need to, start with an unrealistic answer, and then work back into reality from there, but DARE TO DREAM!)
As you move into a specific project, have everyone consider the following:
-What can you contribute to this project?
-Which tasks do you hope to do?
-How does this project fit into your job?
-In which ways is this project an invigorating challenge? If it isn’t yet, how can you make it so?
-How does this project and task list fit into your motivations, life aims, and career goals? If it doesn’t, what can you add or change that will make this task more than just an assignment?
Remember that these questions are for both employees and managers/leaders. If leadership isn’t engaged, and managing is just a grind, the results are as bad (if not worse) than employees doing their jobs as drudgery.
Also, people may want to discuss these with friends/spouses first.
Challenge: We don’t have time to do this!
Solution: You don’t have time not to do this! Consider this: you need to prepare the answers to the fundamental questions only once. Understanding others’ motivations, as well as your own, can enhance buy-in to the tasks, drive to complete them superlatively, and willingness to go the extra mile, both for yourself and others. Consider the improvements in the work, the engagement of the people involved, and the extent to which the work will be far more pleasant. That is decidedly worth an hour or two of everyone’s time up front, and 5–15 minutes per person for each project/task.
Challenge: We already did this!
Solution: Do it again! People may be familiar with one another, but this gives everyone a chance to become further acquainted, and you will find that these serious introductions improve with practice, right along with the buy-in and motivation. Not only that, but continued use of serious introductions can change the culture of the workplace to one of engagement, motivation, and shared understanding. People become self-managing because of their buy-in to the mission of the company/projects, and likewise because the shared understanding gets renewed in each round of serious introductions. Thus, don’t think of it as “doing it again,” but rather “renewing it.” For the matter of that, people uncover new depths to themselves through processes like serious introductions, and may surprise themselves and others by what they find. Promote the evolution by renewing each person’s introduction!
Challenge: Employees have to do the assignment whether they want to or not, and I/we have to manage it whether I/we want to or not.
Solution: Ultimately, yes. But, everyone can have a voice in the creation and management of the project, particularly in terms of integrating the task into a person’s talents, interests, and motivations. Moreover, having a voice means that people can add or change aspects of the tasks to improve its fit. And, no matter how dull or mundane the task, it can be framed as important. The person who stocks office supplies at Cape Canaveral is still helping to launch a rocket!
Challenge: People may feel shy, and afraid to share.
Solution: The leader must lead, and likewise encourage people. By pointing out the role of the employee, and the importance of the work, the leader/manager can help the employee to accept that the work (s)he does matters, that (s)he can have a voice in the work and its purpose, and that (s)he has some room to shape the task to create fit. Also, some may not know how to start (see below for a recommendation), but there are ways to prepare ahead of time. Practice in front of a mirror, if necessary, as this exercise is worth it even for an individual working alone. Most people who have tried this in earnest have been incredibly surprised by the results, even when they just tell the story to a mirror!
Challenge: No one is going to take this seriously.
Solution: If not, start by recognizing that this is a function of the company’s culture! Then, remember that the leader must lead, and provide an overview of the new methods while giving a sincere and believable set of reasons for the change. This may involve even giving an honest critique of past procedures, and indicating why they needed to change.
Challenge: This is bragging, and people shouldn’t do that.
Solution: Bragging is meant to enhance your pride and your standing relative to others, which is not what serious introductions are about. This is not about showing off; it’s about showing yourself. It’s about highlighting your interests, motivations, and talents. When everyone is doing this, everyone remains on the same footing!
Using Serious Introductions at Work
Many managers complain that employees just do exactly what they are told without going any extra miles or taking initiative. From the employee’s perspective, the work is a drudge and (s)he does not feel any reason or obligation to put any unnecessary thought, creativity, or personality into the project. (S)he does not see the task as “my work” — there is no ownership of the project, no buy-in to its aims, and nothing but the sagging weight of bureaucratically-imposed demands. In short, employees feel demoralized, and unimportant, which can lead to increased absenteeism and turnover in companies. At the same time, managers feel shortchanged and stymied, and are frustrated by employees’ lack of motivation and effort.
Begin projects with a meeting in which each person gives a “serious introduction.” More than just one’s name and role in the company, the serious introduction involves each individual telling a story about being his/her best. This allows each person to feel heard and understood as a participant in the project, and also showcases the interests, talents, and personal motivations of everyone involved. If the story itself does not highlight all three of interests, talents, and personal motivations, take time for each person to demonstrate them so that everyone is able to understand one another, and everyone has demonstrated both good presenting and good active-listening.
Listening is especially important for the leader/manager, because it helps each employee to know that (s)he will be heard when (s)he has questions or concerns. As such, (s)he knows that his/her opinion matters, and thus any personal effort (s)he puts in will be recognized by the manager.
This exercise builds not just honesty and openness, but a shared reality in which people are able to give their best in their work for their own, personal reasons. The task may be assigned to a given individual regardless of anything said, but now the assignment can be framed and tailored to fit the employee’s interests and motivations. An assignment given with that kind of specificity, care, and fit can be accepted as a trust and a part of the individual’s personal mission. As such, the employee is far more willing to self-manage, will be strongly engaged in the project, and will likewise be willing to go the extra mile to complete the task superlatively.
As a personal example, a manager once tried to motivate a coworker of mine to get some extra research done for a white paper over a holiday weekend, which meant scrapping her plans, by telling her that the company paid her a lot of money. When she did not accept that as a motivator, her boss just insisted that she complete the work. Needless to say, that was the end of her motivation to do the assignment, and I saw several places in the finished product where her personal touch would have helped immensely. Her work was still good, the white paper was acceptable, and she did everything she was told to do, but the white paper could have been far better if she had put herself into the work. Had the manager known her better, he would have been aware that some of her proudest moments have involved helping people, and he could have pointed out that this white paper would contribute to improving quality of life in a third-world country (which it surely will!). My coworker might not have been willing to put off her holiday plans and put her all into the assignment for money, but she probably would have been willing to do all that to help people in a third-world country.
I have used this exercise with many groups over the last few years, and the other result that emerges is a deep level of mutual respect. Every person in the room brings a degree of “personal awesomeness” that becomes apparent when people tell stories about themselves at their best. People are amazed at how incredible the team is, and are energized to work with such fantastic people.
Drs. Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson developed and publicized the idea of serious introductions, and I was introduced to them by Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Seligman, M.E.P. (2004). Can happiness be taught? Daedalus, 133(2), 80–87.
Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2009). Character strengths: Research and practice. Journal of College and Character, 10(4), 1–10.
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