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Congratulations for what?

Saturdays and Sundays are my days to slow down and write. I dedicate roughly two hours to reading, writing, and reflecting on the smorgasbord of randomness collected over the week. This past Saturday as I was walking home to begin chapter two of the day, a lady was walking toward me on the sidewalk. My mother raised me to offer a smile accompanied with a good morning as a token of “paying forward” in life. So I gave my smile and a friendly “good morning” to the passer-by. In exchange, she said “congratulations.”

My walk from the coffee shop to my house is a little over 20 minutes. During this entire walk and practically for the rest of the day I mentally wrestled with random strangers’ comments. What was she congratulating me for? Did I look like someone who just ran our local 10k and maybe won? I had a hoodie over my bald head, so was she maybe congratulating me for protecting my head from the sporadic sprinkling of rain that was coming down? I even drifted to think she might have been an angel and gifting me to reflect on all of the fortunate things I have in life. Congratulations, you started your day off right. Or… Congratulations, you passed another test in life.

Richard H. Thaler, acclaimed author of the book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness would have called this experience a “nudge.”

A nudge, as we will use the term, is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. - Richard H. Thaler

Regardless of the reasoning, she enabled me to reflect on my energy and how I choose to exothermically use it. I am empowered to choose how I was going to approach the day and how I was going to conduct my tasks and engagements. Her choice of words, or at least how I elected to interpret them, wasn’t a form of incentive. The gift that she gave me wasn’t tangible and I couldn’t show or give it to other people in its original form. It was only one word consisting of five syllables and 15 letters. Per Wordfinder, she could have used 3912 other 15-letter words in the English language, but she didn’t. Instead, the word she chose encouraged me to use the energy I possess for the betterment of society’s energy balance.

Within manufacturing and the business world in general, leadership has to find that balance between motivation and discipline of their teams. Those of us being led choose to either take the direction being given or not. We know performing the direction given can have consequences either way. Additionally, we get to choose if we are going to do what’s right or not, balancing ethics, morals, and values. I truly believe we consciously know when we do shady work, and our teams have some form of measurable guilt when they haven’t given their all. As a leader, we are challenged to transition and maintain our team to continually give their energy to our messaged overarching cause. And as followers, we must ensure we are devoting our energy to a cause that we believe in.

Once someone starts to believe that a change could be easy (or at least doable) to make; that the rewards of making the change will outweigh the costs; and that the change could become normal – that is, that it could be “the way we do things,” then that person starts to be willing to operate in the new ways the change requires – they’ll learn and do the new behaviors, and the change can occur. - Erika Anderson, HBR

Along the trek of leading and following, Richard H. Thaler has it right. There is an alternative way to organically convince our teams to apply their energy correctly for the betterment of the microcosm. It’s in these little moments that we can switch to focus and consciously do the right thing. The energy will always net out in the form of the production of waste, but when we take the right action on these nudges the energy balance becomes more efficient. We each can give nudges to others and say something as simple as congratulations. Additionally, we each can use our energy for the betterment of the team’s effectiveness in the future.

Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. There the authorities have etched the image of a black housefly into each urinal. It seems that men usually do not pay much attention to where they aim, which can create a bit of a mess, but if they see a target, attention and therefore accuracy are much increased. ― Richard H. Thaler, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness


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