The leader I spoke with was frustrated. It seemed like issues were popping up everywhere. He was facing conflict on his team. Employees didn’t seem motivated. Departments wouldn’t play nice together. There was a general sense of organizational malaise. Personally, he sounded tired. Unfocused. Pessimistic.
I started to recount all the unique stressors that he and his company experienced this year. Some were directly related to COVID and the tumultuous election season. Some were unique organizational challenges and changes. Some were personal to him and his family.
“You’ve been through a lot.” I reflected. “Your people have been through a lot. Given everything they’ve been through – what you are describing makes perfect sense.”
People are not machines. We create our own stress, pick up on the stress of others, and react to ambient stress. It wears people out. Creates friction. Sets the conditions for disorganization, conflict, lack of focus, reduced productivity, low morale. If we aren’t careful, we can accidentally reflect and focus that stress back into our organizations.
I love this quote from Franklin D. Roosevelt, “A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.”
Leadership isn’t needed when the times are calm and the way ahead is clear. It’s needed in chaos. Or when people are tired. Or when the future looks bleak or uncertain. This seems obvious, but it’s often forgotten. Leadership is a relationship. Leaders lead people. Our work is people.
We may have other responsibilities. But the “leader” part of our title or job description is about people. During challenges, when people are struggling or demotivated – the leader has to dig deep into the “people” side of leadership. This starts by answering these three questions:
Motivation, especially through challenging times, comes from grounding yourself and your people in your common interests and goals.
A new executive was facing an acute crisis. She didn’t know what to do. I asked her to review the organizational values and vision and see what guidance came from that. Her response, “Those things don’t help.”
Normally, she’d be right. Many organizations develop these as an intellectual or marketing exercise. Once completed, they are often forgotten. But, I knew her organization well and had helped them do deep work on defining their values and vision and connecting them to the culture they wanted to build.
We were on the phone. I asked her to pull up their short value and vision document. She read through it. In her voice, I could tell she was recalling her own values and what attracted her to this company. I could hear her thinking out loud as the answer for moving forward became clear. All she did was read through their values and vision statement. It was like pulling out a GPS.
Leaders need personal clarity about their values. About their purpose. We often get lost in the weeds or we just forget. The more these statements reflect what is actually important to you – and what you intend to achieve – the more useful they are as tools. They are the leader’s equivalent of a carpenter’s measuring tape and pencil. Carry them everywhere and use them often.
The people you lead are motivated by many things. Typically, they boil down into some variant of what I call the Three S’s:
The more that someone can realize one or more of the Three S’s through their work, the more motivated they will be. Conversely, if someone feels that any of those three are threatened or will not be achieved through their work, you can expect them to be high unmotivated. It’s pretty simple.
A company was struggling to attract high performers. I asked how they recruited. Because they were desperate for employees, they used the lowest common denominator language to try to get people to apply. Through our conversation, they changed this. Their recruiting language and processes began to reflect the culture and expectations – informed by their values and vision.
Unsurprisingly, they started to attract people motivated by those values and vision. The key to motivating your workforce is not to motivate them. It’s by connecting to the motivation that is already within them.
The better you know what is important to them and help them see (or create ways) for their motivations to be met through working with you – the more of their motivation you’ll see. In some cases, you’ll both discover that your organization isn’t the right fit for their goals. That’s ok.
The result of leaders doing the usually invigorating, sometimes challenging, work of answering the questions? A strong, positive increase in employee motivation.
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