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  • Writer's pictureJayaram Krishnan

Skin in the game: collective effort for shared goals

Have you ever found it difficult to motivate or inspire people, and get them to do the things you want them to do? It could be your children or other people you are responsible for, like members of a team you lead, students that you teach, youngsters that you are tasked with mentoring; Or it could be your peers either in a structured organizational setup, like colleagues in other teams, or even peers in an unstructured group like a residents group, a community group, commuters in traffic or just other citizens; Finally, it could be people even above you, or with greater bargaining power in any formal or non-formal hierarchy, such as seniors in the organization you work for, directors on the board of your company, elected political leaders and so on.

Surely, we have all faced such situations, and continue to do so every day. We suggest that one major reason common to most situations in which we cannot get people to act the way we want them to, is because they do not have skin in the game (let us call it SITG for short). SITG is broadly defined as investment in a process and a stake in the resulting outcome, including both upside (gain) and downside (loss). SITG has often been used in the context of entrepreneurs, business people and investors, to explore whether they are invested sufficiently in a venture, to share the gains and losses achieved by the venture. The underlying assumption here is that if an entrepreneur or investor has enough to gain personally from the good performance of the venture (upside) as well as to lose from poor performance (downside), then they shall take more interest, and make more efforts to improve the performance of the venture in whatever way they can. That is a reasonable assumption, which also forms the basis for our logic. In fact, it is likely that you would find the general concept of SITG and its importance to influencing behavior, to be absolutely obvious, familiar and common sensical. However, in this article, we build further on the above SITG construct, to do the following:

  • Apply it to general interactions with children, team members, peers, leaders or anyone else we may want to influence, to achieve successful outcomes. This means that, any people who we are trying to work with, must have SITG, or investment (material, emotional or both) into the pursuit of a common goal. They must benefit from common upside (gain) or suffer from common downside (loss) for them to cooperate and contribute to the pursuit of the goal. In this article, we shall often refer to the process of achieving commonality of goal pursuit, and securing investment from relevant people, as “securing SITG”.

  • Explore why SITG does not fall into place naturally and get applied to our everyday situations, although we feel it should, and it makes clear common sense for all the people involved

  • Discuss how we can secure SITG successfully to influence people positively to act the way we want them to

Universal application

The beginning of successful application of SITG lies in recognizing that all people we try to influence have intelligent and analytical minds, moral frameworks, individual beliefs and diverse aspirations. Some may not (like even our own selves in some cases), be consciously aware of all their own beliefs, aspirations and ethics, but they do have them anyway, or at least the building blocks for each. Sometimes, these beliefs, aspirations and ethics may be latent, only to get discovered by incidents and experiences.

Secondly, we need to jointly discover the relevant thoughts of the people we interact with and develop as correct and comprehensive an understanding of the same, before we secure SITG. What we see may not be what we shall finally get. For example, a child may pretend to like a particular activity, subject in school, or sport because of parental or peer pressure. And when based on this belief the child is pushed to make sacrifices for this particular activity, we may find noncooperation and lack of interest. Building SITG on weak or nonexistent motivation is like building a huge building on a weak foundation – a recipe for failure and disaster.

So the basic starting rule for SITG, irrespective of level or profile of the persons we are working with is, we must first try to understand their motivational and moral frameworks. If these are not clearly articulated, we may have to go through a process of discussion and discovery to identify them correctly.

WHY attempts to secure SITG may fail

  • Expectation of “dutifulness”: To continue the discussion from the previous section, we often expect team members, employees, our children, even our leaders or peers, to perform their roles flawlessly, because, after all it is their duty. We shall not debate now whether this point is right or wrong. But we definitely believe, that we shall get far better results by securing SITG properly, i.e. securing a commonality of goal pursuit and a commitment of material and emotional investment from relevant people, than just expecting them to "do their duty".

  • No knowledge of other people’s goals: Lack of understanding of other people’s minds, their motivations, their interests, aspirations, ethical frameworks and beliefs can lead to invalid assumptions about their commitment levels to a joint goal pursuit. As mentioned in the example of the child earlier, these important aspects of a person’s thinking need to be clearly understood, and if necessary, even discovered jointly with the persons themselves.

  • Lack of open dialogue: Continuing from the previous point, the method for gaining knowledge and understanding of the other person’s mindset would require regular and continuous dialogue with an open mind and no inhibitions. It may require the use of examples and visualization to discover goals and also validate whether we have understood them correctly (Methods for goal discovery are described in our blog post #2, if you’d like to check that out!)

  • Assumptions and unclear communication: Often, we may make assumptions about the preferences, beliefs and mindsets of people we interact with based on stereotypes, which could also lead to a completely flawed set of assumptions on their motivation level and SITG for a particular shared goal. Also, in many cultures including the Indian culture that I operate in, often people shall not say “NO”, but sugarcoat disagreement in such an indirect way, that we understand them wrongly. If we are seeking joint agreement and cooperation for a set of shared goals, it is our responsibility to cross verify and validate our understanding of the mindsets of people we are interacting with.

How to apply SITG correctly

Below, we give some guidelines on securing SITG correctly (our term for achieving a true common purpose of pursuing shared goals). This pursuit shall require effort, unwavering focus, sacrifices, tradeoffs, and application of resources even in the event of conflicts. Hence, it requires upfront commitment and physical, material and emotional investment. Securing SITG therefore has the final outcome of each person involved in the joint pursuit committing firmly and having “skin in the game”.

  • Create a shared vision: this shall require open dialogue on an equal basis, exploration and discovery, discussion on examples, visualization, verification and validation. What do we mean by equal basis? In a clear hierarchy such as a corporate organization or a parent-child relationship in a family, the relationship between two persons is clearly not always equal. However, when we are securing SITG, every person has equal power, because they make a binary choice: do I commit my skin in this game, or do I not? Therefore, in terms of engagement and transaction, the relationship we need to build with them is an equal one. If their choice is based on circumstances or coercion to an artificial option (i.e., they are forced to choose to commit SITG for a goal, because they need to keep a job and earn money for a particular period), we need to keep in mind that if those circumstances change, then their SITG may reduce or disappear, thus jeopardizing our shared goals. (Look out for a future blog coming soon, on the various types of motivation!)

  • Define both upside and downside: It is important that the shared vision goals must have tangible and significant upside (gain) as well downside (loss). Hence, there is comparable motivation both to act, as well as to refrain from not acting in the desired way.

  • Secure agreement: Once SITG has been successfully applied and all relevant and concerned persons have agreed to invest SITG towards joint goal pursuit, it is important to secure the agreement between all in clear, unambiguous terms as simply as possible. The agreement could be written, or spoken, but must be articulated clearly and put on record.

  • Clear plan for next steps: SITG, even once committed, needs to be nurtured, strengthened and energized, instead of being left to weaken and collapse. Therefore, if and when agreement is reached with relevant persons for the application of SITG, we must build a clear plan for next steps and execution. Like all plans, this may require review, measurement, revision, modification. It is in our interest, if we want to influence people important to us, that we help in this process to ensure that SITG is always reinforced and not allowed to weaken.

  • Conflicts of purpose: Sometimes, a person may share goals with us, but with different levels of assigned importance and motivation. So, when resources such as time and effort become scarce, priority may be given to the goals that they consider valuable, even though a cursory level of agreement may have been reached on common goals earlier. Therefore a true of securing SITG has not been achieved.

Whether you are a Leader of a nation, an organization of any size, a virtual team or a family; Or whether you are an equal member of a team or community; understanding and securing SITG can go a long way in securing agreement, effort and cooperation from other people. Of course in reality, there could be many nuances and complexities which make the entire journey of joint goal pursuit far more challenging. But we hope that the above article shall help you build your own capabilities to apply and secure SITG from the people who matter to you!

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