If you’ve just spent time trying to convince people who work for you to accept a promotion, you’ve probable got a few questions in mind. Questions like, “Why won’t these guys take a chance?” or “Where is their drive, their motivation, their commitment?”
These may be the wrong questions. The real question should be “Why the heck can’t I sell a promotion?” This really translates into “What the heck is wrong with our organizational culture?”
As Wally Bock pointed out in his recent post, supervisory roles are in crisis. Wally’s point is well founded; companies have been promoting people right up to their level of incompetence for years. The other point he makes that resounds with me is that the younger folks amongst us are less likely to want to take on these roles if the examples they’ve seen either aren’t doing a good job or are receiving the corporate head smack at every turn. After all, why would you want to replace the person you’ve just spent the last two years feeling sorry for?
Does your boss look like this? Want his job?
If you are a leader, have a look around at the supervisor’s working for you. Have you created an environment that attracts good people? Have you created an environment that makes people aspire to the jobs you’re offering?
Food for thought.
Who doesn't love Bingo?
As I look around the leadership blogosphere, I was reminded of a game we used to play during senior officer pep talks. Now, by sharing the secrets of senior officer bingo, I’m probably only ensuring that it happens to me, but it’ll help me make a point about the pitfalls of motivating groups. Here’s how the game works – you and your wingers sit down ahead of the meeting and make a list of all the tried and true motivational one liners of your organization. Once you have a good selection, you make bingo cards. As you sit through the meeting, check ’em off until you get a full line. What to do if you win? Easy, put your hand up and ask a question. Just be sure to use the word “bingo” so all your friends know that you won…
Here’s a shopping list of the types of phrases I mean:
- “Ton for ton, the best ships in the world”
- “What’s your job? Best one I ever had.”
- “Pound for pound, the best sailors in the world.”
- “World-class (insert noun here)”
See what I mean? Everyone of us who’ve ever worked in a large organization can probably sit down and make a bingo card right now.
Here’s the thing. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with engaging with your team. There’s nothing wrong with motivation. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with fostering pride in your folks. So why does this bring out cynicism? It’s because our tried and true one-liners of motivation are vague. They lack concrete terms and aren’t linked to specific, sticky things that people can touch, feel, taste or smell. For further guidance on concrete and sticky messaging, have a look at the Heath Brothers book, Made to Stick.
The way ahead? Think carefully about the message you send when trying to motivate you folks. Does it fit with the organizational culture? If you’re trying to change the culture, will your message help move in the right direction? Is you message sticky? Is it concrete? Can everyone touch, feel, taste, or smell what you’re trying to say?
For me, a successful motivational talk would be one where the bingo game has no winner…
Anyone care to share the organizational one-liners that they love to hate?
Sometimes, writing a blog on leadership takes care of itself. Consider this letter to the editor, outlining someone’s advice to aspiring leaders. Advice that, if someone actually implemented, would surely see them fail. Well, maybe they wouldn’t immediately fail, but the long-term damage that someone armed with this advice could do to an organization is significant.
Let’s hit this point-by-point, shall we?
- “Any aspiring leader would do well to adopt the following cliché as a personal mantra: Do as I say, not as I do.” Seriously? This is exactly the sort of thing that people immediately notice and chalk up in the “lack of respect” column. I suggest you go the other way.
- “Leadership is about inspiring others – not effecting real change.” How can this be? How many of us are inspired by the “that’s how we’ve always done it” school of management? And, yes, you may have heard a snort of derision in my use of the word management. At least in this context.
- “The private life and personal values of the leader should remain out of view; “integrity” is merely a buzzword used to distract from the real measure of a leader’s success: control.” I view leadership as the whole package. Anyone who views integrity as a buzzword needs to seriously consider their focus in life and examine the damage they may be doing in their current role.
- “The leader alone remains in a position of authority and power – everything useful comes down from the top.” Wow. If the road to engaging your team ever had an off-ramp, this is it. Seth Godin has it right – a great boss approaches life with the reverse perspective – you work for your team, not the other way around.
- “Granted, it may become necessary to provide the illusion of a democratic process; people in today’s society need to feel that they have some degree of influence.” If you are anything like me, you try to surround yourself with smart people. People who value honesty and authenticity. People who will see through this manipulative tactic for what it is.
- “These consultations can even be held after a course has already been charted, as long as the participants are made to feel that their input will be considered.” What’s missing? Oh, I know, I know, pick me! How about actually considering your team’s input vice making them feel like you are?
- “In summary, the most useful tools leaders have at their disposal include a ready array of stock phrases and clichés, as well as a thorough disregard for democracy in the interest of an effectively administered organization.” While I agree that most organizations don’t operate democratically, they do operate on the backs of the potential of their members. Slick lines made up of stock phrases do nothing to leverage that potential.
What can we learn from this? There are many sources providing leadership advice. Choose carefully.
In an outstanding example of failing to understand psychological noise, a British Ambulance service has apologized for asking 4,000 employees to rate how cool Adolf Hitler was as a leader. What’s that, you ask? How did they get to this point? Excellent question.
Initial plan for survey? Maybe...
This explosive question was part of a survey designed to tease out employee opinions on the topic of leadership. The idea, I suppose, was to galvanize these thousands of workers into thinking about what makes a good leadership figure in the hopes of fostering the climate necessary to grow leaders within the organization. In actuality, what happened is that workers completing the survey found the message drowned out in the noise surrounding Hitler’s very name.
What’s this about noise? Simple stuff really – as leaders and communicators, we all need to be aware of things, or noise, that reduce the strength of our signal. In technical terms (supposing one was building a radio) this means controlling the signal to noise ratio. In any case, we can break noise down into three broad categories:
- Physical Noise – interference created by physical conditions such as cold or hunger. In the practical sense this can be overcome in the business setting through simple measures like making sure everyone attending a meeting has a chair, making refreshments available, or scheduling health breaks.
- Psychological Noise – interference caused by forces within us. Extreme feelings, beliefs or trauma from past experiences are included in this category. Dropping Hitler into a leadership survey to rate his coolness certainly qualifies. The less noticeable instances of noise (i.e. someone’s family problems interfering in their ability to listen) can only be dealt with if you know the people you are dealing with. In other words, you need to be an engaged leader to combat psychological noise…
- Semantic Noise – interference caused by language issues. I often see this when someone speaks in jargon or acronyms. Local dialects might count too… Easy fix – monitor your communications to remove jargon and gigantic words that nobody has ever heard before. Hint – if you see people accessing an online dictionary while reading your memo, you may have lost your signal to semantic noise…
The ambulance company’s survey example goes from bad to worse. Not only did they choose poorly in using Hitler as an example, their “after-action” comments sound like they’re defending their choice. At the end of the day, no one will remember the attempt to inspire leadership within the ambulance employees, but everyone will remember being asked about Adolf Hitler as a “cool” leader. Psychological noise at its best.
Anyone care to share an example of noise interfering with leadership?
I recently came across a post by Andrew Bryant on his Self Leadership Blog that provided some insight on how to spot unmotivated people in the workplace. From my experience, he’s right on the money – the signs stick out a mile away and can include:
- frequent absences – these can be traced to social events and, as Bryant notes, generally fall either side of the weekend. Remember Office Space – the accusation of missing a lot of work was answered with, “I wouldn’t say I’m missing it, Bob.” Good for a laugh, but true
- minimal effort – these folks are my favourite – they tend to follow instructions right to the letter; no more, no less. I’ve always thought that if you didn’t remind them to breathe, they might just pass out
- back of the pack – next time you have a meeting that can potentially result in work assignments, have a look towards the back of the crowd. You’ll find them there, hiding behind more engaged people, avoiding eye contact; after all, if they can’t see you, you can’t see them, right?
There’s no question that the disengaged people exist in almost any organization – specialized groups like Doctors Without Borders, Special Forces, MI-6’s Q-Branch from James Bond are probably immune do the high reliability nature of their work and the types of folks they attract and screen for. After all, unmotivated people don’t tend to run a mile in under 5 minutes or do 100 push-ups in a row. Or become brain surgeons. But for most of us, these people can be found within our spheres of influence.
OK, so you found them. What do you do about them? Most organizational cultures have ways and means of getting their employees’ attention. Most of these ways and means are meant to provide a solution for the organization and are administrative in nature (written warnings, performance reviews etc). Most of these ways and means actually fail to address the problem, and dare I say it, tend to make the problem bigger for the individual. So placing the manager’s process-driven handbook with all of its flow-charts and consequence tables aside and putting on a leader hat (mine is white with gold trim), we need to find other options. Some of the strategies that I’ve found successful include:
- Getting to know your folks. This means going deeper than “nice tie” or “how’s the project coming.” It means actually knowing things about them that go beyond cubicle number and arrival times. How many kids do they have, what interests outside of work, what stresses them out, etc. If you exercise some people skills, you can get a pretty accurate picture about the person you’re dealing with, and more importantly what might be causing them to hang back.
- Hand out some responsibility. I’m not suggesting you hand over the keys to your office to the guy who takes Fridays off. I am suggesting that you give them some specific responsibility to the team that causes them to have to perform. Couple this with positive feedback for the small steps that are done right and emphasis on learning points for things that are not going as well as hoped can help somebody turn a corner. After all, anyone who has ever been on any team knows that actually contributing to the goal with people relying on you is a powerful motivator. It’s one thing to let down the manager, but another to let down your peers.
- Have an open discussion about the work environment. Honest approaches go a long way. Sit down and mention some of the things you would like to see change (about the workplace, not the employee) and ask them what they think. If you can get them to talk and you do your part by actively listening, you may discover that some small changes can make all the difference.
If, in the end, your leader hat fails to get the desired result you may be forced to take the other, less optimal options in the managerial handbook. But in my opinion, a good leader is bothered by motivational failures and uses them as a learning tool for the next time.