We’re reading a lot today about how important it is for leaders to motivate employees in their work. We know motivated employees drive higher productivity, better performance, higher customer satisfaction and ultimately higher profits. Yet, many leaders are losing energy in the midst of declining profits, employee layoffs, and complex changes in their organizations. We asked Leigh Bailey and Barb Krantz Taylor to chat with us about how leaders stay engaged.
How important is if for leaders to take the time to engage themselves in their work?
(Leigh): Totally important. If a leader is not excited and energized by the work, there is no chance that she will be able to inspire others. So what can a leader do to stay motivated and optimistic in difficult times?
(Barb): Take a gut check…right now. How engaged are you as a leader in your organization? On a scale of 1-10 (1 = not very and 10 = totally)…where are you? If you’re above a 7—keep it up. Clearly, you’re in an engaging environment and you are doing the right things to become and stay engaged. Become aware of those things that ARE working! Recall them whenever your engagement level starts to wane…
If you’re below a 5, something is missing. What is it? Don’t just list what’s WRONG, list what is MISSING…. While there may be plenty of things wrong, asking what’s missing opens up potential solutions, instead of staying stuck in a negative cycle. Like they say in the airline safety instructions, you have to put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others.
(Leigh): Barb, I like your suggestion. It is always good to stop and take stock, and then take action. But it occurs to me that you have to distinguish between dis-engagement and “exhaustion.” I find that most of my clients are not disengaged. They are just tired. The past nine months have been some of the most challenging many leaders have ever experienced. Revenues are off 30-40%. Many leaders had to lay-off staff, find new sources of working capital, and just plain work longer hours than ever before. At some point, the energy tank is empty and needs to be refilled. What can a leader do about that?
(Barb): I hear you Leigh. I find my clients are on a treadmill. So much needs to be done and there are fewer people to do it. Just when you need to take some time off and give your mind and body a rest, it feels impossible to do so. However, just like an athlete needs rest to strengthen their muscles after a hard workout, so too must leaders rest in order to renew their energy. If you can’t take a week, take a day. If you can’t take a day, take an afternoon. Go do something fun or meaningful (without your Blackberry!). When you get back, figure out what you really don’t need to do anymore. Tell your inner “high achiever” to relax and prioritize ONLY the things that really add value to your organization. Just because you WANT to get it done and someone says it SHOULD be done, doesn’t mean it needs to be done.
(Leigh): Barb, I can tell you’re not a guy. For most guys I know, working hard is a symbol of strength. It would be embarrassing and “non leader-like” to tell colleagues that you need to take a break. Some of the most powerful myths in sports revolve around players who kept playing with broken bones and other injuries. I recognize that this is crazy thinking, but it pervades many leadership cultures. How do you convince a leader to do something that feels so contrary to what they have been socialized to believe?
(Barb): Hmmm. Interesting perspective…and you’re right, I’m not a guyJ. I wouldn’t have considered that…but I have 2 reactions:
- I’d borrow from Dr. Phil and ask the leader how is “working hard” working for them at this moment? If it’s leading to exhaustion and disengagement, I’d say it’s NOT working well. That said, if “taking a break” seems “non leader-like”, what would be acceptable that achieves the same outcome? What allows you, as a leader to re-charge and gain new perspectives? If that is on-the-job, so be it!
- It also sounds like the idea of “taking a break” feels uncomfortable… I’d explore that discomfort, because, as Twyla Tharp once said “our ability to grow is directly proportional to our ability to entertain the uncomfortable.”
(Leigh): It is a low blow to bring Twyla Tharp into the discussion since I used to have that very quote sitting on my desk. And since when do you take leadership suggestions from Dr. Phil? J
That said, I agree that feeling uncomfortable about something is not reason enough not to experiment, particularly if what a leader is doing is not working.
Here is what I have found to be “palatable” for my clients: I suggest a “strategy day” away from the office (at home, at the cabin, at a rented office, whatever). It is ideal if there is a place to walk or exercise nearby. I tell my clients to bring along reading they want to catch up on, a notebook to write on, and any materials they might need if they get inspired to do some thinking about a longer term strategic issue that they have not had a lot of time to focus on. I also suggest that they only check e-mail and voice mail at lunch and at the end of the “work day”.
The “assignment” is to spend the day reading, walking, thinking and writing. This provides the opportunity to get away, get inspired, get some rest, and do some thinking about the future. And the reading and writing and exercise satisfy the need to be productive. In the evening, a dinner with friends or with a significant other can provide some fun and relaxation.
My clients usually come back from a day or two of this feeling energized and focused. What do you think about this approach?
(Barb): I love the approach. You have also suggested to clients a six week “assignment” to stop for coffee or tea once a week and spend 45 minutes planning their week, writing in a journal or reading. Why not do this at your desk once you get to work? We are too tempted by the telephone, e-mail, office clutter and interruptions. Why six weeks? We need the experience and practice over at least six weeks to be convinced of the benefits.
Taking a step back from the day-to-day stresses will make you a better leader — you will find a coherent strategy for making change that moves beyond the technical fix. Leaders must adapt how they work and lead others through change with conversations that engage employees in the solution.
(Leigh): That says it all. Thanks for the conversation!!
Learn more about employee engagement at www.motivatingtoexcel.com or check out our recent blogs on employee engagement: http://thebaileygroup.com/blog/category/employee-engagement/
For more articles like this sign up for our Newsletter.