By Isaac Jeffries, TDi Senior Consultant
When I look at the most impressive people I’ve met in the social impact industry over the last 10 years, there’s a huge amount of demographic diversity. Interestingly, there’s a lot of psychographic similarity – attitudes, worldviews and beliefs that they hold in common. Some of this is probably a shared vision for the future of society, but a lot of them are mindsets and philosophies for working in community without burning themselves or those around them.
Here are some of the mindsets and outlooks these difference makers have in common:
One of the grubbiest feelings in sales is when you can tell that someone is pitching you something that specifically benefits them and not you. This “Win-Lose Mindset” is profitable in the short term, but doesn’t work in a small community when your reputation is easily spread. If people know that you’re always self-serving in your offers, they’ll start each conversation with their guard up and a desire to leave the discussion. Self-interest is great when paired with empathy – thinking about the other party’s self-interest as well as your own.
The best difference makers bring up opportunities that start with “Hey this might benefit everyone…”
Intrinsic Motivation (Or Extrinsic With Initiative)
If you haven’t come across these terms before, extrinsic motivation is when you do something because someone is offering a reward, whereas intrinsic motivation is when you do something because you find it interesting or satisfying on its own. e.g. doing the right thing for a photo opportunity vs doing the right thing for your own satisfaction, or reading for a school assignment vs reading for pleasure/curiosity.
Good difference makers are doing their work because it is innately fascinating or compelling or addictive.
They don’t need a carrot or a stick. Now, as a caveat here, there is a scenario where extrinsic motivation serves you well – when it is paired with initiative. For example, they might be on TikTok to help them grow a following for their cause, and see TikTok as faster/cheaper than other platforms – an extrinsic motivator. But this can work if they’re also taking the initiative to learn more and more about content creation and engaging a community. They don’t need to have a genuine interest in the platform if they’re good at taking initiative to learn how to get those extrinsic rewards.
They Know When To Be Vulnerable
Vulnerability is a popular topic in the last 10 years, one that I think has mostly been helpful.
In a lot of cases, speaking about your emotions, uncertainties, failings and hopes can be really beneficial for those around you, and also makes you more relatable.
There are times where vulnerability is unhelpful, and wise difference makers know when not to lift the curtain.
I feel like that’s not a popular thing to say, but it’s true – too much honesty or mistimed vulnerability can draw focus to the wrong things, so deciding when and how to be vulnerable is a valuable skillset.
A Genuine Interest In People
It’s in the name – social impact, social enterprise, social change. If you don’t like people, or see them as objects or a means to an end, your work is likely to become frustrating. People do business with people, and they do business with people they like. If they can tell that you’re not genuinely interested in them, they’ll steer clear of you.
If you don’t find a particular group of people interesting, don’t try and be the person who comes in to “solve” their challenges. This is a common trademark in “White Saviour-ism” – people who want to be helpful but aren’t keen to learn the full context or listen to local voices. These people might be well funded and well intentioned, but they’re unlikely to find lasting success.
Great difference makers show up ready to listen, without preconceived ideas, and offer support without being domineering.
Most importantly, they prioritise people over Gantt charts, and would rather throw out their timelines than overstep their boundaries.
Clarity On Whether They Want To Work Solo Or In A Team
Not every difference maker needs to be a CEO, so you get to decide whether you want to go solo, be part of a team or lead an organisation.
Generally speaking, the most impressive difference makers I’ve met are very clear on how they want to work and who they work with.
As they say, if you want to go fast, go alone.
If you want to go far, go together.
They Actively Avoid Being Bullies
One of the most devastating labels in this industry is “bully”, and for good reason. The work is not prestigious, easy, or well-paid. We are here because we want to be here. If you make people not want to be here, the money and the job title aren’t keeping us around against our better judgement. Bullies don’t get willingly invited into interesting projects, they don’t attract good people, and they definitely can’t retain their team.
There’s a strong moral reason to not be a bully, but also a practical one: this is an expensive character flaw.
You’ll spend so much more time trying to repair your reputation, need to pay overs for team members and experience costly churn when people inevitably leave. Interestingly, I hear about people long before I meet them, and it’s always saddening to hear that someone who posts great content is a horrible person to work with/for. Every organisation has their skeletons, but if it’s left unaddressed or the behaviour is celebrated, the pattern will continue.
They Actively Avoid Being Possessive
Business is a team sport, and big problems require a collective effort in order to make just the slightest of dents in a problem. The best people go out of their way to bring others along with them, including into the well-paid work, so that everyone can sustain their energy and their teams.
Playing politics and being defensive about who gets into positions of authority or who signs the contracts is a really bad look, and great difference makers are invariably dedicated to being inclusive.
They know that there will be plenty to go around, and that it’s not worth penny-pinching in the long run.
They Are Happy To Try Things That Might Not Work
We don’t have cookbooks for social change – it is innovative by definition. For example, if we’ve never ended homelessness before, then we’ll need to do something (probably lots of things) differently. That means trying things that might not work. Two things usually hold people back from experiments – fear and ego: Fear that the test will fail and they’ll be somehow ruined, ego that their ideas are so strong that they don’t need to be prototyped or tested.
Difference makers go in with curiosity, flexibility and the willingness to pivot.
When they embrace this uncertainty, they massively lower any perceived risks – and low expectations are easy to exceed.
They Value A Mix Of Stories And Data
A good story is gold for a difference makers – it brings clarity, empathy and a memorable example of a broader issue. Good data is also gold for a difference maker – it brings validity and evidence that are much stronger than hunches and guesses. But each of these on their own is insufficient. They say “the plural of anecdotes is not data”; six stories of a problem does not make an epidemic. Vice versa, data without context or clarity becomes trivia, and can often be twisted and misinterpreted.
The combination of data and stories becomes the basis of every pitch, tender, project evaluation or partnership proposal.
We should be good at gathering and sharing powerful stories, as well as using numbers to show what’s happening below the surface of society.
I highly recommend joining a community of practice in your industry, so that you can meet and learn from a wide range of good people. We don’t need hero-worship, and you’ll notice I haven’t named any of my favourite 30-40 people. By examining a range of good operators, you’ll see the common threads for themselves. Don’t just take my word for it, have a look at the people who make a genuine difference and see how they look at their world. They might not be super accessible as personal mentors, but you can borrow their worldviews and mindsets for yourself.