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?”

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

New, Seasoned and Wise: Why “seasoned” isn’t necessarily good.

In my many years of management training and executive development work I have come to know three types of managers.  It doesn’t matter what level they are (first line supervisor, VP or CEO) – these are the three:

The New Manager

Pros: eager to learn, wants to do it “right”, open to ideas and best practices

Cons: wants to do it “right”, can lose forest for the trees, lack of context makes training “unsticky”, now knows enough to be dangerous

The Seasoned Manager

Pros: confident, lots of experience to share with others, doesn’t waste time or money on professional development

Cons: self-assured, been there-done that, HR signed them up for the mandatory course, “Yeah, I got this”, has known enough to be dangerous for awhile now and you could probably water ski on the resulting wake.

The Wise Manager

Pros: interested, open, thoughtful, understands that not in a hundred million years could a manager experience all that the human condition can deliver up and so is happy to learn yet another technique just in case.

Cons: often caught chuckling to self and smiling knowingly at New and Seasoned classmates

We’ve all been there.  Strive for Wise.

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!!

When Opportunity Knocks…You Find a Bush Growing In Your Tree!

There is a bush growing on a branch of a pine tree in our backyard.  Though we weren’t present when it happened, we imagine that a seed from a bush alighted on the pine tree branch, found a comfy little nook and took sprout.  We noticed the “growth” this past summer: a completely different set of needles (denser, darker, a completely different shape) growing UP from the branch.  At first it was a novelty – the “hmm, that’s interesting, let’s see what happens” sort of novelty.  It’s doing quite well on the branch.  Getting bigger, heavier, more lush…

From an organizational perspective, new growth should be happening all the time: a new product is developed, a new hire introduces a novel approach, a team is formed around an innovative idea.  Each of these early buds takes a good deal of energy to get formed and start growing but they each have a chance to develop into a sturdy branch of their own and provide sustenance back to the core.

The bush in our tree is not that kind of growth.   Our tree unwittingly gave this seed an opportunity to use its resources for its own gain without any hope of returning the favor.  This too happens in organizations all the time and to remain strong, here are a few tips for staying vigilant:

1. The “Let’s Try It!” Attitude: Don’t be afraid to try new things.  Innovation stems from a “let’s try it” attitude where staff at all levels of the organization can spot an opportunity and nurture it to fruition.  HOWEVER – many a novel idea has grown unchecked and done significant damage to its host organization.  Indeed, just because you CAN doesn’t mean you SHOULD.  Avoid unchecked, damaging growth by having a clear business plan for the idea including a defined market, confirmed market need, launch budget, project roles, milestones, metrics and kill criteria.  (Which brings me to my next tip)

2. “Let’s Kill It!” Resolve: An organization I worked with had “Let’s Try It!” as one of their 10 corporate values.  The eleventh value (that they didn’t inscribe on the plaque but practiced almost religiously) was their “Let’s Kill It” resolve.  This is an extremely healthy environment for innovation.  People throughout the organization knew that ideas were welcome and that trying them (see Tip #1) was encouraged.  They also knew that if the idea didn’t contribute to organizational success, they would be rewarded for responsibly identifying that fact and shutting it down.  With clear cultural support for this cycle, morale is preserved to a greater degree when things “don’t work out”.  Responsible risk is accepted, responsible failure is tolerated.  The whippings only begin when the business foundation isn’t there to support the decision process.  Combine Tips #1 and 2 for best results.

3. Decide and Deliver: Be clear about your core, be clear about realistic market potential, create and abide by decision criteria for new initiatives.  Most importantly, ensure that every decision maker in the organization understands and abides by those criteria.  (Combine Tips #1, 2 and 3 for best results)

The bush in our tree is thriving.  The pine tree itself may not even be suffering any noticeable damage yet.  But the bush needs water and its roots are burrowing into that branch and as it grows it will strain the branch – maybe even break it.  And then the tree will be exposed at the break and be without the protection and sustenance it was receiving from that branch.    Trying new things is NEVER a bad idea.  But letting them drain energy from existing resources – time, energy, people, systems – without a solid plan and a supportive culture – will damage your core every time.

Finding Nemo: The damage one fish can do to your organization

You wouldn’t think it had to be said but, when you use the phrases “organizational change” or “employee engagement” or “performance improvement”, it should mean that you expect change for the entire organization, to engage every employee and to expect improvement in all performance. While it may be idealistic to think that your effectiveness initiatives will completely transform every nook and cranny, it is not unreasonable to go into those initiatives with that intent.

The One That Got Away
Without the intention – and the courage – and the business accountability – of extending your improvement expectations to all aspects of your organization, you expose yourself and your business to risk: the risk of undoing all the good stuff you spent time, energy and money on. Why? Because of the one that got away.

Nemo is Your Nemesis
In the movie “Finding Nemo”, there is a scene where a school of fish – including Nemo – are netted by a fishing boat. Not knowing where they are being taken but fearing certain death, the fish are quickly inspired into action by Nemo who implores them to “Swim Down!”. If you haven’t seen the movie, you can imagine an enormous net of fish all swimming toward the ocean floor thereby straining the boat’s motor and winch and essentially stopping the boat’s progress until the winch breaks and the fish break free.

Nemo in Your Company
The Nemo in your company is the one person, project, micro-culture, etc. that you let “get away” with not having to comply with or adjust to the new change/engagement/performance expectations. Whether actively, passively or simply by example, this outlier “fish” causes drag on your business, your culture and your employees. For what to do about fish, check out my earlier post. Hmm…I seem to be talking about fish a lot these days. Wonder what’s up with that.

Anyway, what examples do YOU have of organizational Nemos?

Funerals for Fish

Valentine died.  We think he died yesterday although it may have been the night before.

We haven’t told the kids.

We also have not disposed of Valentine so he’s still in his bowl.  They haven’t noticed.

But we know they’ll be upset when we lovingly tell them about fish, and how sometimes they die and that a fish funeral involves flushing.

As leaders, managers and change agents we struggle with the need for fish funerals all the time.  And we often don’t handle them well.

Because we feel guilty that we didn’t take better care of the (project, relationship, process, performance)

Because we know that, even if the (staff, colleague, manager, customer) wasn’t terrifically involved, they’ll have a reaction that we’re going to have to deal with.

Because we’re not ready to decide whether we should revive, replace or bury the thing.

And although we know, rationally, that if we don’t do something quickly it’s going to start getting gross, and worse…

…we wait.

Management Lesson:

1. Take care of your fish.  If your fish (projects, relationships, processes or performance) are important to your business then give them the attention they require to meet your business goals.

2. If you are not taking care of your fish, ask yourself why and do something about it. Stop the project, repair the relationship, improve the process or manage the performance.

3. If a fish dies, deal with it quickly so that it doesn’t start to stink.  Communicate to all stakeholders early, often and transparently.

4. Just because the fish was only $4.99 and the kids like having a fish does not mean you should get a new one.  Evaluate your current business needs and determine what projects, relationships, processes or performance are required to support your goals now.  It may be time for a new direction.

The Toughest Weed of Them All (3rd of a 3-Part Post)

The Fallen Star Weed:  This one is tough.  Several organizations I’ve worked with have struggled with this one and in each case, the organizations were undergoing significant industry change.  Entire business models were shifting.

Unfortunately, the revenue wasn’t shifting as fast as the models which required the organizations to preserve the existing streams as well as they could while they reshaped for the new environment.

The J.M. Torrels quote applies perfectly here.  An employee who, in the “old” business, was an out and out star performer, was now, in this new environment and through no fault of his or her own, a weed.  These long time, high performing, well-connected, revenue producing employees were now becoming obsolete.  So of course the plan was to promote them.

Well, yes. To preserve the revenue and retain the employee during a tumultuous time of change, each of these organizations planned to (or did) promote these individuals into a “special” role.   A win/win for everyone, no?  The organization secures the revenue through the transition, the employee is recognized and rewarded and the organization…well, that’s why it’s not a win/win/win.

The problem with the preservation/promotion approach is that the organization gets a mixed message.  The “old” business model and all it represents is the lucky recipient of the political, cultural and HR capital that is desperately required by the organization toward the new direction.

In the best case, the employee sees the move for what it is, understands and accepts the transition role, and is expressly supportive of the new direction whether or not he or she is part of it long term. Worst case is the employee uses the promotion as “proof” that the old business is still intact and will prevail.

A Note on Good Weeds
Weeds do have their good side. Under controlled circumstances, many of them can greatly benefit our gardens and organizations. They hold top-soil (market position), pull up water and nutrients (revenue/clients), help control insects (competitors) and more.  If your Fallen Star Weed is one of these – by all means preserve them for the transition.

Gardening Lesson: Remember: “A weed is a plant that interferes with management objectives for a given area of land at a given point in time.”  Be honest with yourself, with your star employees and in your commitment to organizational objectives.  That’s why you get paid the big bucks.

How to Grow a Flourishing Garden/Organization
1. Good soil / Fertile market and clear business objectives
2. Landscape plan / Strong culture, talent and management practices
3. Ruthless weed management / Strict adherence to cultural and performance standards
4. Respect for all plant life / We’re talking about people here folks.  Transform or transplant when possible and treat everyone with dignity.

The Weeds in Your Employ (2nd of a 3-Part Post)

Here are a few examples from organizations I’ve worked with that have been plagued by weeds:

The Mourner Weed: After a particularly traumatic downsizing of a company, one department had a particularly difficult time accepting the change and supporting the new direction.  The entire department including the manager expressed their dissatisfaction by securing and retaining the nameplates of all the former employees and displaying them on the outside of the department area.

Understandable grieving?  Absolutely.  But when it went unchecked for months, the culture of discontent took on a life of its own and disrupted the team’s ability to succeed.

Gardening Lesson: Conduct a downsizing with respect for the dignity of all affected individuals including both the departing and the remaining employees. Extra attention to those remaining – in the form of communication, resources, and articulating their connection to the future of the organization – is essential.  If counterproductive attitudes and activities persist, deal with it early on.

The Loyalty Weed:  One organization struggled mightily with a division whose leader was focused more on division success than on organizational success.  Employees were instructed not to share information with other departments, to agree with but not to follow through on organizational initiatives and to report positively on employee satisfaction surveys (else be sought out and punished for their transgression).  The problem was that the leader was considered critical to the success of the organization in terms of client and industry relationships.

When employees are employed and rewarded based on loyalty to the leader rather then on the meeting of shared and transparent organizational performance metrics the garden can get ugly.

Gardening Lesson: Weeds can have deceivingly beautiful flowers, making it easy to believe that they are adding value.  Out of sight, however, under the soil, their roots are spreading and choking out those of other “good” plants.  You have two choices: get rid of the behavior or get rid of the weed.

But the really tough weeds take an honest and committed gardener.