Changing frustration to inspiration

If you inherited an unhappy, low-morale department that had many frustrating, high-pressure, reptilian-brain-inducing jobs, what actions would you take to transform it into a more creative, fun, and free-mind work environment?

One of the most head-pounding and frustrating jobs imaginable is that of a purchasing agent attempting to buy the contents of hotels for a large hotel and casino company. These highly skilled and specialized agents buy and help coordinate the installation of hundreds of millions of dollars annually in fixtures, furniture, and equipment (FF&E) to meet tight hotel construction deadlines. Billions of details could go wrong, and many do. Steel containers of furniture have been mangled by hurricane winds during shipment, and headboards have gone bouncing down Las Vegas Boulevard because a driver forgot to lock the truck doors. If the deadlines aren’t met, the company can lose millions … daily. No pressure, right?

When one director took over an FF&E department, it was in a state of war and very close to despair. Two departments had been merged. Daily finger-pointing episodes raged among department members and came clashing in from the outside. More than a few managers would consider this situation hopeless, while others would insist the solution was a new “process” or “reorganization.”

Under the new director, the FF&E purchasing department launched a new project that helped to create a dramatic shift in employees’ thinking. Working together, they created a five-minute black-and-white Charlie Chaplin-esque video depicting the range of disasters and problems they faced every day. In a humorous and entertaining way, they communicated their roles, responsibilities, accomplishments, and crazy challenges. They shared it with top brass and other departments – all of whom laughed heartily while gaining new understanding of and respect for this group’s challenges and commitment to meeting their deadlines. Other departments hustled to create their own videos to humorously depict their trials and hero stories. Suddenly, challenges that used to be fuel for head-banging episodes became sought-after fodder for future video updates and a source of pride for agents sharing their creative solutions.

One of the most powerful resources that a leader can tap into to free minds at work is the natural human desire to take on challenges and prevail. There is a reason that human history is filled with stories of the hero who takes on extraordinary challenges and succeeds. Prevailing in the face of a challenge releases the “happy drugs” that I’ve written about in previous blogs. They create a natural high that everyone has a strong desire to feel. People pay money to attend movies and sporting events to get close to it.

Unfortunately, modern humans have become so habituated to being armchair observers who watch others prevail that we often forget that every one of us not only has this innate ability to find ways to prevail in the face of challenges but also the hunger to experience the high it generates.


In the case of the purchasing department, working together to create the video changed the group’s focus from fear and frustration. Instead of focusing on what went wrong in the past (the instigator of finger-pointing), they are now inspired to be doing what they really wanted to be doing – laughing together at the crazy things that have happened. They now take new pride in what they are capable of achieving and have found positive ways to gain recognition for their contributions.

The director has taken many other actions to help the agents feel more respected and appreciated. That said, this one gift of providing the opportunity for them to remember their desire and capability to prevail will serve them well in any job or life situation in the future. Thankfully for organizations that know how to tap into the human hunger to prevail in the face challenges, it is a capability that can transform revenues and profit in any economic situation. 

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