Is your team ‘energized and inspired’ or ‘cynical and resigned’?

Some time ago, in a meeting I was facilitating, people were going around introducing themselves. One of the long-time veterans of that organization stood up and introduced himself in the following way: “My name is Bill. I don’t remember how long I’ve been here, but I have 54 months to go!”

You would think that Bill represents a rare minority of cynical people. However, my experience says otherwise. Unfortunately, I find cynical and resigned people at all levels of all organizations.

When I ask senior executives, “How is your leadership team doing?” I often get a stock answer of, “My leaders are excited and in great shape.” However, when I attend their meetings, I often find them to be uninspired and uninspiring. The bar for what passes as ‘inspired and energized‘ in corporations today seems to be low, very low.

Oddly enough, a lot of executives and leaders still don’t seem to view the creation of inspiration as a critical aspect of their roles. Some think it’s nice to have, but many still think it’s not up to them to provide. A few even view inspiration as irrelevant altogether. These executives often believe that what truly motivates people is pay, objectives, compensation and bonuses. I call these the myths of motivation.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not disparaging pay, compensation or bonuses. They are indeed an important part of any motivational strategy. However, I have seen situations where people could double and triple their bonus if they collaborated and worked together, but they still stayed siloed and didn’t work together. On the other hand, I have seen situations where people had no financial incentive to collaborate, but they still did the right and best thing for their company by collaborating with genuine commitment and passion.

My point is that being energized and inspired is something that first comes from within, not from external circumstances. Yes, external circumstances can help, but ultimately they are not the main determiners of how people feel and act. When people feel included, valued, cared for and that they can make a difference, they can’t help themselves but get energized and inspired. And, because any organization is always a reflection of its leaders, inspiration and energy have to start and come from the top.

So, how can today’s overwhelmed and overworked leaders energize their staff on a day-by-day basis and make sure people are not cynical? Here are a few simple tips to start you off:

  1. Show up and listen. I have often heard the complaint in organizations that leaders and managers simply don’t listen. If you want to energize your people spend some dedicated time each day, week or month walking the floors, showing concern, interacting with team members, asking people how they are doing and what you could do for them. And, then follow up with whatever comes out of those interactions and conversations.
  2. Follow up and follow through. So much of the cynicism that people have, especially in organizations, comes from a lack of follow up and follow through. Teams make decisions and then there is no follow-up or follow-through. Leaders and managers promise things and then they leave things vague, they don’t do what they said and they don’t acknowledge or change their promises. When it comes to acknowledging what was promised, following through and doing what you said there is no difference between big strategic promises and small tactical ones. If you don’t follow up and follow through even in the small things, people will become skeptical and cynical around you.
  3. Praise, recognize and thank people. I have written so much about this. It doesn’t cost a penny to say “Thank you!” and it goes a long, long way to engage and motivate people. However, another big complaint in organizations is a lack of recognition. Well if you want to energize your people and avoid cynicism, go out of your way – every day – to praise, recognize and thank them. In fact, always recognize people in public and criticize them in private. This way they’ll feel respected and trusted.
  4. Encourage, promote and reward high ownership and accountability. People who are up to something from time-to-time make mistakes. The only way to avoid that is to play so small that your mistakes are irrelevant. When employees play big the impact of their mistakes tend to be big too. However, responsible people go out of their way to learn from their mistakes and correct them. By showing them that you respect ownership and accountability they’ll play even harder, bigger and with more commitment.
  5. Encourage new ideas. There is always more than one way to get anything done. In addition, different people have different ways ideas and styles about how to effectively make things happen. As long as the objectives and key ethical values are clear and adhered to, it’s actually healthy to allow employees some room to innovate. And, it goes a long way to strengthen ownership and defeat cynicism.


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Stop Prioritizing!

Crazy advice, right? Perhaps not.

“Get your priorities straight” would seem to be the obvious solution to dealing with the overwhelm, stress and burden of too many commitments, too little time and scarce resources. But there is a hidden pitfall to this thinking, which perpetuates the frustration, fatigue and endless lists of incomplete items that occupy our days (and increasingly, our nights and weekends).

“Setting priorities” typically involves writing down everything we are supposed to do, want to do, said we would do and have to do. We then typically take that list and through some form of screening criteria, rank each in order of importance, avoidance of pain for neglect, sense of opportunity or obligation.

In doing so we relieve ourselves of a significant amount of stress simply by getting things out of our head and onto paper or electronic list. However, just getting this far requires a level of diligence and rigor, which is beyond what most people have.

We then act upon each the items on the list in order of importance starting with the “A” priorities then, as time and capacity allow, getting to those ranked “B” and “C”. We check off what we have done, and add new items as they arise.

Beware of mischief

However, a more fundamental problem comes into play once these lists are made.

First, our “To Do” list is, at its core, a set of commitments that most often involves others from our professional or personal network – peers, subordinates, bosses, vendors, customers and/or family members – who have their own lists and don’t necessarily care how busy or important we are.

In addition, rightly or wrongly, when we miss a commitment to any member of our network people often interpret it as a lack of caring or commitment. When we prioritize and start working on our “A” priorities, leaving the “B” and “C” items for later – or never – we are implicitly saying that the individuals associated with the B and C tasks are less important or not important at all. Sometimes that may be the truth and sometimes it may not be. However, in many cases, it could be the feelings that others in our network have in these situations.

Consider that every time we don’t do what we set out to do or what others from our network expected from us and then we justify it with: “Well, I haven’t gotten to it yet – I had other priorities”, “I had a hectic day and couldn’t get to it. Hopefully tomorrow”, or “Sorry, but something more important came up”, we now have a de-motivated, less engaged partner in our midst, and this could well affect our ability to deliver on future commitments to which they are connected. And that is something we should be concerned about.

A new way to look

Please consider the following

First, that it is highly unlikely that any one of us will keep 100% of our commitments 100% of the time, or certainly within the timeframe originally stated. In fact, it might not be unreasonable to say that while keeping all our commitments all the time is honorable and desirable, if someone manages to do that consistently, he or she are probably playing it safe and not stretching themselves very much.

Second, that making commitments is more about creating mutual satisfaction regarding specific commitments, opportunities, issues or concerns, therefore, how we manage our commitments is more influential on the ultimate level of satisfaction than a simple binary accounting of whether or not we delivered what we said.

For example, you could be in a situation where you have delivered on a commitment, but you still don’t feel satisfied or confident because you feel you are carrying the burden of the project alone and you don’t have a strong enough partnership with others who are critical for continuous success. On the other hand, you could be in a situation where you haven’t delivered on a commitment, but you feel genuine satisfaction and confidence because you have strong partners who are co-owning the game with you, and together you’ll continue to do better in the future. I am sure you have experienced both sides.

How you manage your commitments has everything to do with your own peace of mind, sense of fulfillment, and the level of engagement of those around you.

As an example: a recent Harvard survey indicated much higher levels of patient satisfaction among patients who felt their doctors cared about their well-being, independent of whether or not the advice they were given actually cured their illness.

Start promising and stop prioritizing.

If you embrace the notion that we are continuously engaged in a dynamic process of managing commitments, “promising” becomes a much more powerful tool than “prioritizing.” Why?

  • People have a different relationship to promising than they do to prioritizing. As my friend’s 8-year old son said to his dad: “Daddy, if I make you a promise, I’m going to keep it.” Of course, there are no guarantees. But we’ve already recognized that prioritizing has a built-in “something more important came up” excuse that can be invoked should we fall short.
  • When people promise to do something it creates a much stronger level of ownership and accountability on their side. I don’t know about you, but if I am going into battle with someone, I want them fully committed, not merely “doing their best…”. You are only going to get that level of commitment from someone if they promise to do something.
  • As mentioned, there are times that we will keep our promises and times that we won’t. That’s a fact. By making explicit promises to each other we are carving out a clear path for fulfillment. By doing so we are reducing the chances for surprises, excuses, and drama, especially when challenges arise, and we are increasing our mutual confidence and satisfaction.
  • While the dialogue around priorities is often a one-way street – I decide what my priorities are and I am the one to tell you that “I just couldn’t get to it today” the dialogue of promises by design is a two-way street. The minute I ask you to promise and you do so we are now tied at the hip. The promise is no longer just your commitment – it becomes our The success of this project is now our success. The dialogue of promising evokes a much deeper and more powerful dynamic of open, honest, courageous and effective communication, and trust. It also generates a stronger sense of owning each other’s success. A joint approach is more satisfying and fulfilling than going it alone.

To summarize – when people have a more earnest relationship with their promises it causes two things.

First, they are much less casual about saying “I promise” than the myriad of ways people add a priority to an already overflowing list. “I’ll do my best”, “Let me see what I can do”, “I’ll get to it as soon as I can”, “I’ll try”, “Leave it with me”, and many other half-hearted statements that fill the conference rooms and corridors of corporations. This makes sense – given the impossibility of fulfilling every commitment, people are hesitant to be unequivocal about whether or not their backsides are really on the line. However, this behavior just perpetuates the problem.

Secondly, when people make a promise to do something, and at some point prior to the time it is due they realize their promise is in jeopardy of not being fulfilled, they are far more likely to reach out to the receiver of that promise and attempt to negotiate – in advance – a mutually agreeable solution. While this may appear to be no different than the “it was a lower priority” justification, the experience to the receiver is more empowering, and together people can figure out alternative ways to fulfill the same commitment with new or different promises.

Obviously, if you don’t do what you promise repeatedly your credibility and the sense of partnership could erode or evaporate. However, the “lower priority” case simply assigns the cause elsewhere, leaving the receiver feeling devalued and the promisor off the hook for the eroded level of partnership and engagement their behavior produced.

The real point of prioritizing is not to be off-the-hook for the commitments we make, but rather to be more effective at making and keeping commitments that ultimately lead to mutually satisfying interactions and accomplishments. This being the case, making and managing promises thoughtfully and rigorously rather than hiding arm’s length behind not-up-to-me excuses of “priorities changed” puts us in the driver’s seat, and makes others feel like partners with whom we are committed to long-term, mutually beneficial relationships.


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Make 2017 the best year ever!

I love new beginnings. Starting a new year, chapter or phase brings with it new possibilities and hope.

Whether you want to improve your financial situation, increase your health or fitness, find true love or find your dream job, at the start of a new cycle we often feel that we have another chance to realize our goals—including those we tried but didn’t achieve before. I find this space of possibility and opportunity extremely empowering and exciting.

However, in order to truly experience a fresh start, you have to first understand and accept the fact that new possibilities and hope exist in your own heart and mind, not in the external circumstances. In fact, your ability to realize a fresh start depends on how you think and speak. The only person who can give you a fresh start and new beginning is you.

For example, I have a friend who has had his share of challenging circumstances. Every time I ask him how he is doing he says something to the effect of “Same day, different shit!”. Pretty much every time I talk with my friend about new possibilities and try to help him change his predicament, he is quick to push back and explain to me how things just can’t be different given his circumstances. I haven’t given up on him yet, but I am definitely less inclined to engage in these conversations any longer.

As another example, in my corporate work, I often encounter people who say they are open minded but when others try to enroll them in new possibilities, they are quick to push back and provide all the reasons for why these new ideas won’t work. When I point this out, they explain that their point of view is simply pragmatic, realistic, or merely giving an accurate account of the way things are. But most people around them experience them as skeptical, cynical, closed-minded or often simply negative.

Sometimes in order to create a fresh start you need to let go of old perceptions about yourself, the world, and/or people around you—especially the perceptions that have constrained your ability to improve yourself and your circumstances. Sometimes you need to forgive others or even harder – yourself – for past mistakes, shortfalls and disappointments that you are still holding on to, or holding a grudge about. And, sometimes you simply need to change your point of view, interpretation or conclusion about past events from disempowering to empowering.

And, if you are reading this and thinking to yourself: “I am so open minded, that I can’t see where I could improve in this area?” my advice to you is – ask someone who knows you well, loves you and who will tell you the truth to give you feedback, and then receive their input with openness.

In order to create 2017 as a great year, start by explicitly and boldly declaring what you want to, and what you will achieve in the new year. The notion of striving and working toward a future state that you are looking forward to and are excited about today is a very empowering one.

Use whatever framework works best for you to capture your objectives.

Here is one option that you may find helpful. Use the following questions as steps to create your 2017:

  1. What are the key areas of my life that I would like to move forward in 2017? By areas I mean life categories that would help you organize your thoughts. Potential areas could include Finances, Career, Job, Health, Family, and Love etc.
  2. In each of the key areas – what are the specific objectives I will achieve? In each area, you will most likely have a few objectives. For examples your objectives could look like: (1) Double my income, (2) Find true love, (3) Deepen my intimacy with my family, and (4) Get healthy and fit.
  3. In each objective – what are the specific projects I will take on to fulfill my objective? For some objectives, there could be one project. For others, the objective will become the project. However, for the more complex objectives, you may need a few parallel projects. For example: If you have a commitment to get healthy and fit, you may have a few projects: (1) Register to the gym and go 3 times each week, (2) see a nutritionist and start eating based on a health plan, and (3) Get rid of all my old clothes and but X new ones. Make sure the projects have clear end results, milestones, and execution plan.

After you have mapped these three levels of areas, objectives and projects summarize all your actions for the next 90, 60 and 30 days and make sure you review them every week or two.

New Year’s Resolutions have a bad reputation mainly because we say them out-loud, but we don’t follow up and follow through on them. If you want 2017 to be different, share your objectives and projects with one or more of your closest friends, family members, and/or professional associates and ask them to hold you to account for your 90, 60 and 30-day action plan. Schedule follow-up conversations with them to review progress and adhere to these, even if you are behind.

You have a choice whether to make 2017 the best year ever or merely another year filled with compromised desires and cynical explanations.

I wish for all of us that 2017 will be the best year ever!


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