What’s Working?

The “What’s working?” question is a corollary to the constructive venting I talked about in an earlier post.

The organizational development approach of Appreciative Inquiry posits that identifying and leveraging the good stuff is as or even more effective than finding and fixing the bad stuff.

I’m not quite as idealistic as the hard core AI’ers so I like to start with a spirited and invigorating bitch session (for lack of a more delightfully appropriate phrase) followed by the “baby out with bathwater” question.

Spent from the exertion of spewing venom about one’s circumstances (ie: management-doesn’t-support-the-goals-we-don’t-have-the-resources-to-do-our-job-leadership-is-inconsistent-I’m-not-paid-enough-for-this-s$#t-why-does-XYZ-department-get-flex-schedules-and-we-don’t?-…) folks are ready for it.

Wow.  There’s A Lot Wrong

A team in the throes of improvement needs to hear some acknowledgement: “Wow.  There’s a lot wrong.  Sounds like we’ve got our work cut out for us.”  The thing is, if your team thinks there’s a lot wrong, then there is.  Until your team feels like things are going reasonably swimmingly, you will continue to peer through from the sorry-end of the knothole.  So you might as well acknowledge it so that they can move to the next stage.

Baby Out with the Bathwater

Once we’ve vented and once we’ve acknowledged the monumental problems that need to be addressed, we wonder: “Is there anything working well that we should take care to preserve?”  Afterall, we wouldn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater…

If you give the venting enough genuine space and time to breathe, then when you ask this next question, you are likely to hear about some pretty important (and leveragable) aspects of your organization that can help you get to goal.

Forget Positive Thinking

We’ve been beaten repeatedly about the head and shoulders in recent years to remember to “think positively”.  Woe to the team member who voices concern.  The trusty contrarian is now disdained and the nay sayers are summarily silenced.

Ironically, by squashing these Negative Nellies we are slowing down positive progress toward our most critical goals.

Research shows that our human brains are wired against change.  Introducing a new direction (information, competition, pace, etc.) causes a physiological stress reaction against the change.

The Value of Venting

Interestingly, one of the fastest ways to reduce the emergency brake effect of this stress reaction is to allow a bit of venting.  “What don’t we like about this news?” “What problems will it cause?”  “What can go wrong?” “Why is it stupid?” What may not have been taken into consideration?”

Our stress response is linked to survival.  Adrenaline is triggered which sets off flight/flight/freeze behavior.  At work this takes the form of the contrarian who fights back, the star team member who dusts off her resume to prepare for flight, the long timer who’ll bide his time, frozen in place.

Brain scan technology shows that just naming the threat – thinking it, saying it or, even more effective, writing it down – counteracts the threat response.  By giving credence to the stress factor and addressing it, we return out of threat mode and can enter a more rational state.

Once all the big bad stuff has been vented, we are in a physiologically more receptive place to ask: “How will we handle this?”

Tell Me More

Oh, how I love this phrase.  It has unearthed hidden diamonds of insight, helped avoid certain disaster, calmed raging emotions and has forged more meaningful relationships.

Try it.  The next time someone offers an opinion, an emotion, an idea, a problem to solve.

Dependency on External Motivation / Seth Godin

The following post is taken from Seth Godin’s fabulous blog.  See the original post here.  (And subscribe to his feed if you know what’s good for you)


“One of the characteristics of the industrial age was the reliance on external motivation.

Go to work on time or the boss will be angry.

Work extra hard and the boss will give you a promotion.

If you get paid to work piecework, then your paycheck goes up when you work harder.

This mindset is captured by the Vince Lombardi/pro sports/college sports model of the coach as king. Of course we’ll have our non-profit universitiess pay a football coach a million or more a year, of course we need these icons at the helm–how else will we get our players to perform at their best?

I was struck by a photo I saw of male fencers at Cornell who practice with the women’s fencing team. Clearly, they’re not allowed to compete in matches (though the university counts them for Title XIV). I got to thinking about what motivates these fencers. Are they doing it because they’re afraid of the coach or getting cut? Would they fence better if they were?

The nature of our new economic system, that one that doesn’t support predictable factory work, is that external motivation is far less useful. If you’re looking for a big payday, you won’t find it right away. If you’re depending on cheers and thank yous from your Twitter followers, you’re looking at a very bumpy ride.

In fact, the world is more and more aligned in favor of those who find motivation inside, who would do what they do even if it wasn’t their job. As jobs turn into projects, the leaders we need are those that relish the project, that jump at the chance to push themselves harder than any coach ever could.”


It is extraordinarily critical for those of us who are leaders, change agents and educators to understand the implications of this.  Where do we currently build skill in internal motivation?  We understand the why of it.  We need to develop the how.

This time it’s hard core.

You want the truth???  You can’t handle the truth!!!!!

Actually, the truth is, we’re not handling this very well at all.  And now we have hard core facts to back it up.  Facts for what?   Employee Engagement.  Yes, that’s right: facts, data, numbers.  Yes, for Employee Engagement.  Don’t believe me?  Well we have my good, smart friend Alana Dros to thank for doing the hard work of pulling this info together.  Alana is the best technical HR person I’ve ever worked with.  She is the STJ to my NFP, ying to my yang…  You get the point.  Anyway, here’s a few tid bits from a fabulous presentation she gave to a group of senior managers recently.  She has graciously allowed me to share this gold with you.   Read on…

The above chart was May 2005 Health Stream Recognition ROI Survey.  Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton’s research found links between recognition and business results:There are three measures shown in this chart.

  • ROE – Return on Equity
  • ROA – Return on Assets
  • ROM – Operating Margin

According to the data, companies that effectively recognize excellence enjoy:

  • an ROE more than three times higher than the return experienced by firms that do not.
  • an ROA more than three times higher than the return experienced by firms that do not.
  • and have six times higher operating margins than by firms that do not!

Here’s another take from June 2009 research by McKinsey:

In other news:

•79% of employees who quit their jobs cite a lack of appreciation as the key reason for leaving

•65% of Americans report that they weren’t recognized in the least bit the previous year

A Picture of Purposeful Engagement

This is a picture of my kids from a number of years ago.  It sits on a shelf above the stove where I was making tea in the kitchen this morning.  It occurred to me that this is a picture of purposeful engagement in meaningful work.  Do you think so too?  Why?


Three Kids Helping

Purposeful Engagement in Meaningful Work

Value Stream Mapping the Engaged Employee

I inspire purposeful engagement in meaningful work.  In business settings, I see this as a three-part equation:

1. The organization’s role in providing a safe, responsible, resourced environment.

2. Management practices and culture that support productivity and engagement.

3. Individuals who are skilled in and accountable for their own motivation and engagement toward the work in which they’ve chosen to participate.

There’s literally a ton of guidance available on the first two.  It’s this last one that has me thinking.

In the workplace, I’ve found what I think is the best thing since sliced bread to build these skills – to build the self awareness, resilience, and talent-driven initiative in employees to meet business goals.  But what if we could get them earlier?  How are engaged employees made?  Where do they come from?

Enter: Value Stream Mapping. Wikipedia says that Value Stream Mapping is a lean manufacturing technique used to analyze the flow of materials and information currently required to bring a product or service to a consumer. At Toyota, where the technique originated, it is known as “material and information flow mapping”. It can be used in any process that needs an improvement.

Our Process Needs an Improvement

The engaged employee is the product.  The new workplace is the consumer.  The new economy is the market.

What is the flow of materials and information currently being used to bring an engaged employee to the workplace in this new economy?  I contend that there isn’t any.  Or at least not that much.  And definitely not on purpose.

Employees come from college (or not) and high-school (or not) and elementary school (usually) and homes (arguably).  Where in that value stream do we intentionally build capability in self awareness? Resilience? Identification of unique personal talent? Articulation of one’s contribution?  At best these are electives.

Why That’s Not Okay

In an industrial economy, that was fine.  There wasn’t much call for multi-career adaptability or innovation-at-all-levels initiative.  But the new economy and workplace demand it.

More importantly, recent research shows that these skills are physiologically imperative to lasting motivation and engagement and, ultimately to the achievement of gratifying work.  We literally cannot learn, grow and adapt if we are not resilient in the face of challenge.  We cannot be as productive, innovative and satisfied if we are not actively applying our natural talents to our work. The research also shows that we can build greater self-efficacy and, that by doing so, we can more reliably tap into and even achieve our potential.

How to Improve the Process

1. As business leaders, students, parents and educators we have a responsibility to respond to the new demands of our economy, workplace and workers. (Download Llama Groomer workshops and curriculum 01212011 PDF to see an example of what I mean)

2. Skills in self-efficacy and being accountable for tapping one’s potential (we could call it “self-actualization” if that didn’t sound so woo woo but check out the definition – it’s not so far fetched!) should be introduced earlier and developed purposefully throughout individual’s development.

3. The idea of “success” should be broadened to include the many career paths our new economy allows now – including those that do not require college preparation, those that are better supported by a trade education or those that could be attained with a new track of entrepreneurial or business basics.

4. Organizations should demand, hire for and manage performance to these self-efficacy and self-actualization skills so that those in their employ are purposefully engaged in meaningful work.

It just means bringing your best self to what you choose to do.  What do YOU think?

Don’t You Hate Slow People?

The pace is so fast.  Change is constant.  Resources are tight.  There is not enough time for all there is to do.

So we rush. From one meeting/project/event/person to the next.

We do not have time for:

Reflection (so we can improve on processes)

Debriefing (so we can transfer information and institutional knowledge)

Refining (so we can deliver better products/service/experiences)

Relationship building (so we can count on another transaction/sale/favor/gift)

Listening (so we can answer the right way the first time)

So we rush.

Advice: Take the time.  Slow down.  Connect meaningfully.  Get more done.

Uncommon at a Location Near YOU!

A quick note to my faithful readers:

I’ll be on location at the the following open-to-the-public events.  If you’re near by and would like a dose of Uncommon, consider joining me for one of these sessions!

March 8, 2011 – A New Approach to Motivation and Engagement, Worcester Chamber of Commerce, Worcester, MA

March 31, 2011 – A New Approach to Motivation and Engagement, FREE Demo hosted by KGA, Framingham, MA

April 19, 2011 – the Neuropsychology of Motivation and Engagement: From Theory to Practice to Results (Appearing with Helle Bundgaard, Founder of Motivation Factor®!

This is a great way to get introduced to the remarkable Motivation Factor® framework and gain a new tool for breaking through those pesky obstacles that get in the way of your goals.

See you there!!

It’s Your Own Damn Fault

“…she is disrespectful, patronizing, doesn’t understand my value and has taken all my authority away.”

This is one of the many many many complaints I would field from a colleague of mine (for whom I was also “HR”) about her boss.  My colleague is a bright, accomplished, innovative professional in the IT field who has chosen to remain in a less than optimal employment situation. She is not interested in taking her complaint to the source, she is not interested in a mediated conversation, she is not interested in going to her boss’s boss, she is not interested in quitting.

There’s only so much I can take of this behavior and I don’t hesitate to say so.

“…she’s made it clear our jobs are at risk if we say anything bad on the employee survey.  That’s why the scores are always good”

It is not illegal to be a bad manager.  It is not necessarily a crime to demoralize, demotivate, embarrass and otherwise harangue employees.  It’s not illegal to “fix” employee survey results.  Would that it were.   Then maybe I could have ridden in on my white horse and saved my friend from certain disengagement in the name of organizational effectiveness.

What is unconscionable is the fact that scores of employees are “suffering” under the thumb of these ill-equipped managers.  That 60% of workers said they intended to leave their jobs when the market got better. That otherwise decent organizations are dragged down by immature, ill-conceived, ineffective management practices.

But what is even more unconscionable to me is that so many employees put up with this nonsense.  That they feel there is no where else to go, no one to help them, or – worst of all – are content to just bitch about it.

Change your situation or change your expectations.  Leave the job if it’s killing you.  And for goodness sake, don’t waste your life just bitching about it.