Are you energizing and inspiring your people?

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 64 months to go!”

You would think that Bill represents a small 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 are your people doing?” I often get a stock answer of, “My people are excited and in great shape.” However, when I interact with the organization, I often find people to be uninspired and uninspiring.

The bar for what passes as ‘inspired and energized‘ in corporations today seems to be quite low.

Oddly enough, many leaders still do NOT seem to view the creation of inspiration as a critical aspect of their roles or the success of their business. Some believe it’s a ‘nice to have,’ but many still think it is not up to them to inspire. A few even view inspiration as irrelevant altogether. Many leaders often believe that the only or main thing that truly motivates people is pay, objectives, compensation, and bonuses.

Quite frankly, I believe that money as the most significant source of motivation is a big myth!

Please don’t misunderstand me; I am not disparaging pay, compensation, or bonuses. They are indeed an essential 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 own success and satisfaction, as well as for their company success by collaborating with genuine commitment and passion.

My point is that being energized and inspired is something that comes from within, not from external circumstances. Yes, external stimuli can help, but ultimately they are not the primary source 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 has to start and come from the top.

So, how can you, as a busy leader energize your 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 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 don’t do what they said, they don’t acknowledge this and/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 on 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!” every day, and it goes a long, long way to engage and motivate people. One of the biggest complaints in organizations today is the 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 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 increase ownership and defeat cynicism.
  5. Encourage, promote, and reward high ownership and accountability. People who are making a difference from time-to-time make mistakes. The only way to avoid this is to play so small that your mistakes are irrelevant. When employees play big, the impact of their mistakes tends 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.


Success through Rigor, Clarity, and Responsibility

Often when managers and employees feel frustrated about other’s lack of accountability, and they describe the reality as: “They promised to do X and didn’t deliver!” there is more to the story than that.

I have seen many times, in situations of conflict or dispute, person A insisting that person B promised to do or deliver something and simply did not do so, while person B denies ever having made the promise in the first place.

Both parties feel frustrated and resentful. Each one believes their version of the story represents the facts and truth. However, in many cases, when both parties step back, look a bit deeper, and try to view the situation more objectively, they realize that it was not bad intent caused their heartache, but rather the lack of rigor and clarity in their initial interaction.

If you want to avoid the common issues that happen when requesting or promising, there are a few things to pay attention to:

  1. Make sure what you are requesting or promising is clear, understood, and agreed to in the same way by both sides. Often, instead of explicitly spelling it out, people assume the other person knows what they are requesting or promising. It probably won’t be an exaggeration to say that, more often than not, people simply do not understand and/or are not aligned about what is being promised or requested. Needless to say, this causes mismatched expectations, that always lead to upset.
  2. Make sure the time frame of the promise or request is clear. For example, if you are asking for additional resources or budget for a strategic project, be specific about the time frame (the ‘by when’). Don’t leave it vague, or hope they’ll understand your urgency or act on it rapidly. And, if the person you are requesting this from promises to make it happen, “As soon as possible,” don’t settle for the lack of clarity… And don’t fall into the trap of assuming you will get what you need in the time you need it. Furthermore, don’t feel disappointed if your expectations were not met.
  3. Make sure the level of sincerity and commitments toward the promise is explicit. When you make a request and someone responses with “I’ll do my best” or “I don’t see any reason why not,” don’t make the mistake of taking that as an affirmation of commitment. A promise is clear, explicit, and unconditional. This doesn’t mean that a promise is a guarantee and, therefore, will always be fulfilled. However, when someone says: “I promise,” “You can count on me,” or “You have my word,” that represents a much stronger, sincerer, and more committed intention to do what they said. People often avoid this level of clarity because it is uncomfortable, and they fear it could lead to the realization that they may not get what they want.
  4. Check-in, follow up, and support the promise while it is being delivered. When someone promises you something, and they are in the process of working on it, your job is not over. You need to stay engaged and involved throughout the duration of the delivery cycle as a committed and vested partner in order to keep the promise alive. This interaction will look different depending on the nature of the promise and person you are dealing with. Sometimes it may mean checking in on a frequent basis. At other times, it may mean looking the person in the eye at the onset to get a sense of confidence that they really mean it, understood it, and will follow through. The main reason for avoiding this conversation is because it is disruptive and uncomfortable. People fear it could lead to the realization that they may not get what they want.
  5. Manage undelivered promises with integrity. No matter how sincere the promise, it is never a guarantee. Things happen, and people who promise sometimes fail to deliver or change their mind. If you understand and accept that simple fact, you will be in a much better mental place to deal with undelivered promises. For the most part, people know ahead of the deadline that they are not going to deliver what they promised. But unfortunately, while people seem to have no problem not doing what they said, they do have a problem being straight up and upfront about it.

The lack of courage to acknowledge and take responsibility for promises that won’t be delivered often goes both ways – to the one promising and the one being ‘promised to.’ Have you ever been in a situation in which someone promised you something, you had a feeling they may not come through, and still you avoided confronting them about it?

Regardless of your position and seniority – if you are not going to deliver on your promise, letting others find out at the last minute and be surprised is not acceptable. It undermines trust, credibility, confidence, and success.

If you can’t deliver what you promised, communicate in a timely and responsible manner. Then the two of you – together – can figure out alternative solutions and routes to rectify the situation or take a different course.

People want to fulfill their commitments and succeed, but they also can handle the truth, even if it is bad news. By interacting with rigor, clarity, courage, and responsibility, you are promoting respect, emphasizing other’s strengths, and enabling success.


Are you driving outcomes or activities?

So often, when teams define their strategy, they tend to target activities instead of outcomes.

For example, they promise:

  • ‘Installing a new order shipping tracking system’ instead of ‘80% of our orders are shipped on time’;
  • ‘Create a process that gives visibility to post-sales issues’ versus ‘all post-sales issues are resolved within 24 hours’; and
  • ‘All sales employees have gone through our sales training program’ instead of ‘we have raised the average productivity of the sales team from 2 million per person to 3 million.’

While activities are essential for executing and delivering the results, they should not be the starting point of any strategy.

The job of leaders is to make strategic choices about where they want to take their organization. When it comes to strategic outcomes, there are no right or wrong answers. In fact, no matter how much analysis you do, you never really know if your bet will succeed. We have all seen sure bets fall short, and unexpected bets succeed beyond expectations. In order for a team to create a powerful strategy, the leaders must be 100% aligned on their strategic choices/commitments.

While outcomes are derived from choices, activities should be derived from the outcomes. Outcomes change when leaders feel there is a strategic reason to change them (for example, market change, merger & acquisition, etc.). However, activities should be periodically inspected and adjusted any time they are no longer useful or effective. Needless to say, the focus and direction of activities could change much more frequently than outcomes.

When a team locks into clear outcomes, that higher purpose helps the managers and employees determine their action plans and activities. But when leaders lock into activities, this often creates busyness in the organization.

I can’t tell you how many times I see people being so consumed with busywork that they have lost track of the higher purpose that led to the busyness in the first place.

In addition, the focus on the activities (means) versus outcomes (end) hinders the ability of the team to assess the effectiveness of their activities and make the necessary changes if they are not effective. Most organizations are good at adding activities, but they rarely stop them.

Lastly, the activity-based approach undermines accountability. Real accountability is always for clear outcomes. Accountability for clear results fosters a mindset of overcoming obstacles. The activity-based approach tolerates shortfalls and promotes a circumstantial mindset of blame and excuses.

People often justify the activity-based approach with statements like: “We can’t control/guarantee the results. We can only control/guarantee our activities…

But that is like searching for your lost car keys under the lamp post versus where you actually lost them.

Yes, you may be able to control your activities. But the activities you can control may not get you to your desired outcomes.

When it comes to strategy, there seem to be two schools of thought:

Promise your desired outcomes and then put the activities in place to fulfill them.”

Promise the activities that you assume will get you to your desired outcomes and hope they will be enough.”

Leaders who believe in the first seem to have a more powerful paradigm and approach towards outcomes.

They seem to believe that they do have control over achieving their outcomes. They seem to believe that:

  1. If achieving their outcomes requires enrolling others who are not part of their team to the task, they have the ability to do so.
  2. If achieving their outcomes requires coming up with new ways of doing things, they have the ability to figure that out.
  3. If achieving their outcomes requires investment in resources and budgets, they have the ability to make the business case for that.
  4. And, if achieving their outcomes requires some “magic” and “luck” if they stay optimistic, positive, and determined in their attitude, conversations, interactions, and energy, they have a higher chance to succeed.

The last paragraph may seem not tangible or real to you… However, ask any Olympic athlete or championship sports team about the importance of positive, high-energy mindset to winning and the amount of focus and time they spend on this topic, and you will be surprised by how tangible and real this dimension is for winning.

In today’s world, where opportunities are abundant, resources are scarce, competition is fierce, and everyone is looking for ways to scale and do more with less; you can’t afford to waste time and cycles on busyness and activities that may not deliver the results you want. You have to be much more deliberate and powerful than that.

The job of a leader is not to track and report on activities. It is to cause outcomes.

So, if you are not going to promise to cause specific outcomes, don’t promise anything at all!

Can you tolerate brutal honesty?

There are two types of leaders – those who can only tolerate brutal honesty and those who cannot tolerate brutal honesty at all.

Leaders who are relentless about driving a culture of open, honest, and courageous communication around them are typically extremely committed to high performance. They have zero interest in, or tolerance for, internal drama or politics. They operate at a high level of personal integrity, authenticity, and ownership. And, they expect and demand the same from people around them.

They make it difficult – if not impossible – for people to get away with doing the things that undermine and weaken the organization, such as pointing fingers, adopting a victim mentality, indulging in destructive politics, and “cover-your-ass” behaviors.

These dynamics and behaviors distract everyone from the goals of the organization, and even if these behaviors are subtle, they drain energy and waste everyone’s time. Eventually, people begin to feel that they cannot make a difference, and the organization loses focus and cannot achieve the results it seeks. In today’s environment of growing competition and limited resources, no company can afford this.

In contrast, leaders who avoid brutal honesty at all costs are part of the problem. They enable and permit unclarity and vagueness in roles, decisions, and objectives.  Lack of clarity often fuels politics. Contrary to their declarations, leaders who lack courage thrive in political environments. In fact, they use the politics to hide and manipulate people to do what they want them to do without having to do the tough ‘dirty work’ of taking a stand, expressing how they feel, making clear decisions in sensitive areas, and giving direct feedback and coaching to their people.

I was working with a senior executive team of a very large global service company. At the start of our engagement, I interviewed all the senior executives and a handful of managers to gain insight into the culture and dynamic of the organization and its senior team. The interviews revealed significant issues and dysfunctionalities in the levels of trust, cohesion, collaboration, and communication between lines-of-business and functions, as well as between the senior executives themselves, including the CEO.

When I presented my findings, all the executives confirmed the issues. While people were somewhat startled by my summary, everyone seemed extremely relieved that the truth was finally out.

The executives were eager to engage in open and honest dialogue to address the issues and start driving change.

While there were no disagreements about the issues, the CEO took the dysfunctionalities personally. Despite his declarations to the contrary, he behaved in a defensive and passive-aggressive way, suppressing all courage, goodwill, and progress. Needless to say, the executives became weary and fearful of expressing their views. The dialogue became inauthentic and useless; everyone left the conversation feeling frustrated and discouraged about the lack of senior openness to change.

I could see over a short period of time, following the meeting, that the executives started to disengage and invest less of their commitment, passion, and energy in trying to change things.

Any manager or employee can be the catalyst for change, even reversing damage created by past-behaviors and establishing new high-performance team dynamics. It takes courage to be a role model and hold others to account. In fact, in an environment where people are used to only voicing what they think their leaders want to hear, managers need to stand for a higher standard of brutal honesty, refusing to settle for any less than that!

No matter which method they use, they must make their unconditional commitment to honesty known and must convince their people that they mean it. It’s not enough to declare it. Managers need to demonstrate through action that they are genuinely open to feedback, criticism, and input, including about themselves.

As we all know:

It takes ten rights to fix one wrong and one wrong to undermine ten rights.

The leadership philosophy of open, honest, authentic, and courageous communication can be messy, lonely, and painful at times. However, when leaders have the courage to behave authentically every day, a powerful platform of authentic team ownership, commitment, and accountability emerges around them.

Brutally honest leaders inspire, empower, and equip the people around them to tackle any challenge and/or opportunity they encounter, no matter how unfamiliar, complex, or difficult, in a powerful and unstoppable manner.

Nothing can beat that!