What the Liberty Bell Can Teach Us About Change
In April 1917, as “the war to end all wars,” and its attendant horrors raged on, the United States was in trouble on a different front – the financial battlefield. To raise money necessary to fund the war effort, the Treasury had undertaken the largest war-bond drive in history. Their goal: Raise more than $2 billion dollars in just six weeks. That would be in excess of $40 billion today. An effort of this magnitude meant basically inventing the modern concept of publicity, and officials tried everything: movie stars were enlisted to persuade people to buy, 11,000 billboards were erected, streetcar ads went up in over three-thousand cities, and fliers were dropped from planes. Still sales lagged. The situation appeared dire, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.
It was then that Treasury Secretary William McAdoo and his team happened upon an audacious idea: they would actually ring The Liberty Bell. As perhaps the most iconic symbol of American independence, the Bell had deep resonance will every citizen, who looked upon it with awe and reverence. But the idea was not without risks, first and foremost among them the chance that the bell’s famous crack would split the rest of the way, rendering the endeared artifact into a two-thousand pound pile of metal. But the plan went forward, and was indeed enhanced. On June 14, 1917 the bell would be rung in Philadelphia, and just a moment afterward every other bell in the nation would sound, reminding every American of the sacred gift of freedom and hopefully signaling a rush to the bank to purchase war bonds.
By all accounts, Philadelphia Mayor Thomas Smith looked understandably tentative as he raised the hammer for the first of thirteen strikes on that June day (one for each of the original colonies). Minutes later the sound of bells filled the nation, and in the days that followed Americans heeded the beloved symbol’s call, raising well in excess of the desired two billion dollars.
Today, the literature on change and persuasion is rich in its breadth and maturity. Modern leaders possess any number of levers to pull when it comes to motivating behavioral change among their teams. However, for my money, there is nothing as powerful as aligning people around a shared vision or sense of purpose, and perhaps the best way to do that, as illustrated by the Liberty Bell story, is to link the change with a powerful symbol of your organization and mission. Sounds great you say, but what if we don’t happen to have a two hundred and sixty year old object resting in our foyer, providing ongoing inspiration for today’s and future cadres of employees? Fortunately, that’s not a prerequisite for drawing upon the power of shared values and mission.
In his book “Give and Take,” Adam Grant demonstrates convincingly that forging the connection between an employee’s work and the ultimate beneficiary of that effort can drive impressive results. He studied paid employees in a university’s fundraising call centers, whose job it was to contact potential donors and solicit contributions. The employees were split into three groups. Group A was the control group, and just did their jobs. Group B read stories from other employees about the personal benefits of the job: learning and money. Group C read stories from scholarship recipients about how the scholarships had changed their lives. Groups A and B saw no difference in performance. Group C, however, grew their weekly pledges by 155 percent. Grant wondered if actually meeting scholarship recipients would lead to even greater result, so he arranged for a group of fundraisers to spend five minutes with scholarship recipients. Over the next month, weekly fundraising rose by over 400 percent!
Paychecks can motivate us to a certain extent, we all have bills to pay, but at the end of the day every human being desires meaning and purpose in their work. Creating the line of sight from what we do to the person at the other end – whoever or wherever they may be – provides meaning and significance that surpasses financial compensation.
When you launch any kind of initiative within your organization, the first battle you will wage is for employees’ commitment. “Why should I pay attention to this?” is a question they are sure to wonder, even if it is never publicly shared. If you can link your actions to a stronger sense of purpose you are clearing perhaps the highest hurdle you’ll face. And, once again, you don’t need a Liberty Bell equivalent. Perhaps it’s the compelling story of a customer’s success because of your work, or an anecdote from your founders that carries resonance and meaning to this day. Find your bell and let it sound!
The Liberty Bell story is drawn from: Stephen Fried, “Saved by the Bell,” Smithsonian, April, 2017.
I was introduced to Adam Grant’s work in: Laszlo Bock, “Work Rules: Insights From Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead,” (London: John Murray, 2015)