Addressing Engagement and Burnout in Two Easy Steps

Those phrases are fast joining the legions of leadership buzzwords (like “pivot” during the pandemic) that prompt staff to roll their eyes, wondering what those words really even mean. While the concepts certainly reflect real leadership concerns, the words have become such an abstract catchall for employee-related challenges that they have been diluted to . . . well . . . overused buzzwords.

Thankfully leading leadership thinkers have supplied us with a more targeted approach to addressing employee engagement and reducing burnout.

Marcus Buckingham, in Love + Work: How to Find What You Love, Love What You Do; And Do It for the Rest of your Life, challenges individuals to identify what they love about their job — activities that energize them, that they can get lost in — and find ways to incorporate more of that into their day. Now for those who are thinking, “I can’t let my employees only do what they love and expect the work to get done,” Buckingham has good news. His research indicates employees only need a 20% threshold of activities they love to build engagement. 20%! Yes, that 20% will look different for different people . . . and therein lies the key for leaders. While you should absolutely have outcome expectations for teams, the most engaged teams are allowed flexibility in how they get there.

Patrick Lencioni, in The Six Types of Working Genius: A Better Way to Understand Your Gifts, Your Frustrations and Your Team, also looks at why some aspects of our jobs energize us while others deplete us of energy. As the title suggests, he has identified six types of “working genius.” Sorry, but none of us excel at all six. For most people two of the six are energizing, two are draining, and the other two typically lie somewhere in the middle. What if you consciously built a team where all six types of genius are represented, and then distributed responsibilities based largely on a team member’s area of genius? What do you think would happen to the team’s energy and engagement, and ultimately the outcomes they achieve?

Stated another way, both Buckingham and Lencioni are challenging us to find ways for those who work with us to maximize their unique gifts and graces. Unique . . . as in it doesn’t look the same for everyone. As long as you have all the bases covered on your team, why force someone to carry out tasks that suck the life out of them if someone else finds those same tasks energizing? In Let Your Life Speak, Listening for the Voice of Vocation, Parker Palmer noted, “Though usually regarded as the result of trying to give too much, burnout in my experience results from trying to give what I do not possess— the ultimate in giving too little!And as Buckingham and Lencioni identify, what one team member does not possess may be the ultimate sweet spot for another.

Struggling with engagement and burnout? Give your people more of what excites them and less of what drains them. It really might be just that simple.

Calling All Elephants

Originally Published November 4, 2014

In virtually any leadership team, no matter how high functioning, there will be times when the group is hesitant to bring up a question or concern. Perhaps it is because the topic is something about which the leader is passionate, or really committed to making happen. Maybe they feel like a decision has already been made, or the organization is “too far down the road” to change course, or that sharing a concern will undermine a relationship they have with someone else on the team. Regardless of the cause, an attuned leader may sense the caution in the room, but not be able to put a finger on the source of the unease. It is times like these that a team needs someone who is willing to “name the elephant in the room.”

I am blessed to have a member of my leadership team who willingly takes on this role. She is rarely the first one to speak up, but when she senses people are dancing around something that is weighing on them, she will either name the issue if she knows what it is, or point out that she senses some hesitancy and asks about it. She is able to do this in a supportive, non-confrontational way that makes it feel safe for people to speak their mind. (Not that speaking their mind is usually a problem with my team, but you catch my drift.) Her simple acknowledgement or inquiry has the effect of almost instantly making the conversation more “real”. You can almost feel the room take a deep breath because questions or concerns can now be openly discussed. At times, with additional information, the concerns are allayed. Other times, we tweak the direction or change course all together based on the conversation. In virtually every case though, we all leave the meeting feeling better about it. There is no need to have a “meeting after the meeting” because we addressed the concerns where they should be addressed — amongst the entire team.

If you don’t have someone on your team who naturally assumes this role, why not assign the task of naming the elephant in the room? If it has been assigned to someone, there won’t be the hesitancy of speaking out of turn … they are simply doing what you asked them to do. The effect is the same whether the elephant namer is a voluntary or assigned role. You as the leader have an added layer of protection against unnamed undercurrents that could ultimately undermine your efforts.

One note of caution … This strategy only works if the leader is willing to hear and respond to  feedback, even when that feedback messes with well-laid plans. Elephants only come out to play when it feels safe to do so. And if an elephant gets shot down in an embarrassing or derogatory way, don’t expect other ones to show up at future meetings. They’ll instead decide to dance around amongst small groups after the meeting.

In today’s complex, fast-paced, circus of a world, it takes everyone’s best thinking to achieve the optimum outcome. And sometimes, you can only get to that best thinking by seeing, and naming, the elephant in the room.

Reclaiming The Island

Sanibel Island, Florida. Until two weeks ago, you may not have heard of this tropical paradise that I have often referred to as “my happy place.” Then on September 28, this little slice of heaven was ravaged by hurricane Ian, which hit with an intensity just 5 mph short of being considered a Cat 5. Major pieces of the three-mile causeway that connected Sanibel and Captiva islands to the mainland were swept away. Total gut punch. And yet I heard yesterday, just shy of two weeks after the devastation, trucks were traveling across the temporarily reconstructed causeway. (Think about it . . . how long do bridge projects usually take in your area?) That takes a whole lot of people committed to reclaiming the island.

Your organization could be hit by a “hurricane” just as easily as Sanibel Island. You could be devastated by variables totally outside your control that could irrevocably change the landscape over which you and your team have toiled. You followed all the rules. Everything was going so well. Just a few days before, it looked like you would escape the brunt of the storm. And then the winds and currents changed, and all you could do was prepare as best you could for the storm to make landfall. Pandemic. Loss of a major customer. Illness. Some other unpredictable catastrophy. There are a myriad of external circumstances that even the best leaders simply can’t control. But here’s the good news. There are also a host of internal steps you can take to help your organization weather the unforeseen storms and, if necessary, reclaim the island.

Start with culture.

While many see culture as the soft stuff that is difficult to measure (true), it is also the glue that will hold your organization together in difficult times. Do your people feel supported and cared about? Do they take pride in being part of your organization . . . do they want to wear the shirt? While leaders don’t get to determine the culture (your people do) you can take steps to positively influence it. Not sure how? Ask your people. They have lots of ideas.

Reinforce with trust.

Do you give your people enough autonomy to make decisions, to test a strategy and refine as needed? Are staff rewarded for trying something new, even if it doesn’t go exactly as planned, or are they criticized for “failing”. People who feel trusted to make decisions in the best interest of the organization will do just that, in good times and in bad. They become your calvary ready to respond to unexpected developments as they unfold.

Succeed with teams.

Do you truly have teams in your organization, or merely groups of people who meet and call themselves that? Teams include people with different skills sets and perspectives, who don’t always agree, but who are committed to the greater good. It is teams that do the heavy lifting, collectively working toward the identified target. The stronger the team, the greater the impact. What are you doing now, while the sun is shining, to strengthen your teams?

And that’s the trick of it . . . if you wait until the crisis hits to start worrying about culture, trust and teams, it is too late. What if you took one specific action each day, in each of these areas? You’d be prepared if you ever have to reclaim the island.

A Method to the Mess

Originally Published April 22, 2015

My desk is a mess. I don’t mean at this moment in time, I’m making a general statement. My desk is a mess 90+% of the time. I have quit apologizing for the way it looks because frankly, after all these years, it seems unlikely that I’m going to change my way of functioning. While many areas of my life are neat and tidy, I think my desk is probably a reflection of how my brain works best — nestled between fluid piles of information that I can adapt and respond to at a moment’s notice. You’d be amazed at the opportunities for innovation that surround me every day as I sit at my desk . . .

Because here’s the thing . . . innovation is messy . . . and I happen to believe that fostering a culture of innovation is part of a leader’s job. Think about it. No matter how many detailed, well-thought-out plans you may put together related to a new opportunity (and we put together a lot!), it’s never going to go exactly as you planned. Even the military — which I consider to be very planful and orderly — has something known as “commander’s intent” to let personnel know what success looks like, so when things don’t go as planned they can find alternate routes to achieve the end goal. Commander’s intent is a clear acknowledgement that things get messy, and leaders need to have a comfort level maneuvering through unexpected detours and roadblocks if they hope to have a successful outcome.

Admittedly, every organization beyond a small start-up also needs individuals who ensure that systems and processes are implemented . . . there a many people in our organization with desktops that don’t have a paper clip out of place. I value and admire these people, I just don’t happen to be one of them. My assistant is, bless her soul, which frees me to build a culture of innovation with the confidence that our infrastructure remains solid.

Maybe you can be a role model for the messiness of exploring unique possibilities and still have a pristine desktop. Good for you! (You were probably one of those kids who could pat their head and rub their tummy at the same time, too.) My point is, the nice neat rules and processes that got us to this point are not likely to spur the breakthrough thinking that will be needed to prepare for and respond to a totally new set of variables. And as a leader, part of your job is to create an environment where it is safe to try new things, change course, and if necessary start again to reach the desired end goal.

One final point for the tidy types out there . . . a messy desk is not necessarily the same as a disorganized one. You would be amazed at how quickly I can find a specific document buried in one of my piles. I can often get my hands on it more quickly than if it was neatly filed away. In the same way, while you’re in the midst of it, innovation may sometimes look like a bunch of disconnected piles of activity. It’s only when you take the long view that you realize, there really was a method to the mess.

Winging It

In the intro to the book The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, author Charlie Mackesy notes, “When I was making the book I often wondered, who on earth am I to be doing this? But as the horse says, ‘the truth is, everyone is winging it.’”

As leaders we may think, or at the very least want others to think, that we have it all figured out. How many times, however, are we called on to make choices where there are no rules, no precedent, to guide our decision-making? Sure, we have experience to inform our decisions. We have gut instinct. We can extrapolate from other leaders or industries. Yet, in many a case, when we make a decision we are well and truly winging it.

If you are an emerging leader and I have just burst your bubble about the calm assurance you are striving for, perhaps the best I can offer is that, over time, you will become calmer and more assured in how you go about winging it. You will come to recognize that stepping into a decision, with no guarantee it is the right one, is part of being a leader. As a leader, you get to take a chance on . . .

. . . A job candidate who doesn’t have the experience that others do, but something about them is compelling . . .

. . . A strategic initiative that a host of people you respect have tried to talk you out of, and yet you believe will position your agency for long-term success . . .

. . . Speaking out on a cause or issue you believe needs to be highlighted, even at risk of losing supporters who see things differently . . .

Truth be told, much of leadership is made of such decisions. Management is about creating stability — following proven processes and approaches. Leadership is about creating change. Change is hard, and the outcome is not assured. Even when we have considered a range of scenarios and variables, change still involves the unknown and the unexpected. It often takes longer, costs more, and presents twists and turns not anticipated by even the most experienced leader.

Of course, that’s why we need leaders in the first place — to make a decision, pivot when necessary, and motivate followers to embrace the vision and bring it to life . . . even when there are no guarantees. Gather data? Yes. Get input from others? Absolutely. But in the end, it’s your call. Do you have the courage to step out and wing it?

Unintended Messages

Originally Published February 8, 2017

As a leader, you are sending messages all the time. Unfortunately, sometimes the message you think you’re sending is not the message that people are receiving. How does that happen? It all comes down to intent and context – your intent and their context.

You know what you are trying to accomplish — your intent. But unless those you hope to lead are mind readers, they may see your “what” but not your “why.” For example, you may have some team members you have not been spending as much face time with as others (the what). Your intent (the why) may be that you know they are doing a great job, and frankly they just don’t need that much guidance from you (in other words, you think you are sending a positive message) or maybe there is another “hot spot” that requires more of your attention (a neutral message), or it just doesn’t occur to you that your actions are sending a message at all (hint, you are always sending a message).

Depending on their context — their past experiences, perception of the current environment, personality, what they have going on outside of work — your people may interpret the “what” (in this example, not spending as much face time) as a negative rather than the positive or neutral message you intended. They might interpret your “what” as meaning that you see their role as less important, you are not as excited about what they are contributing to the mix, or something else entirely.

How can you make sure that the message you think you’re sending is, in fact, the one your people are receiving? Tell them your intent. Such an easy way to avoid an unintended message, but one we leaders often overlook. We tell ourselves that, “they know you  . . . (trust them . . . need to focus your energies on a unique opportunity . . . fill in the blank that applies to you). I’m here to tell you, that whole expectation of mind-reading staff really doesn’t work out so well. Tell them your intent.

And how are you supposed to know the myriad of factors (the context) that may impact how someone interprets your actions? Well for starters, once people understand your why, many of what you would consider to be “misinterpretations” are easily cleared up. When you tell people your intent, one of three things can happen 1) something that made no sense to them now does; 2) they have the opportunity to ask questions, share their perspective or offer an alternate suggestion; or 3) they still have a different interpretation of your message, but at least you are aware of it and have a chance to respond.  Simple step . . .  big impact. 

What unintended messages are you sending to those you hope to lead?

When It All Comes Together

“I love it when a plan comes together.”

I recognize that I am seriously dating myself by acknowledging that phrase takes me back to the 1980’s television show “The A-Team.” Uttered with a smirk of confidence by Col. Hannibal Smith, at the successful conclusion of efforts whose outcome appeared anything but assured, his words are a reminder that reaching an important goal is often messy and includes unintended twists and turns. That is why it is so critical for everyone on your team to be crystal clear on, and committed to, the identified outcome.

Far too often we focus on the plan, the steps we intend to take, rather than the intended end goal. Now, I am a big believer in plans . . . as a starting point, as our best thinking at the beginning of an effort. That said, I can’t think of a single major initiative that played out exactly as I thought it would when I was working on the plan. I have written before about the importance of the military concept “Commanders Intent,” which clearly identifies what success looks like so WHEN things don’t go as planned, those involved can make the best decision at the moment.

As a leader, where is your focus . . . on the plan or on the target? We have to be able to model that when the variables change, our plan may also need to change. To do that, however, we have to keep our eyes on the horizon, not solely on the next step in our plan. And, we have to give our people the autonomy to do the same. Often times, they are closer to “the front line.” They are aware of important information that we can’t see from our vantage point. In your organization, do those on “the front lines” feel safe enough to speak up when they identify a barrier to success? Do you listen to them when they do?

The trouble is, we tend to fall in love with our plans. We convince ourselves that, as a result of our wisdom and experience, we have it all figured out. Except we usually don’t. What if, instead, we considered our plans to be the starting point and we let our people know that we expected that plan would have to change over time? How much easier would it be for them to speak up if you as the leader clearly communicated that it was their job to look for possible pitfalls and to identify alternate routes to your intended destination?

Much of the excitement and energy on The A-Team came as a result of how the team creatively changed course when Plan A (or B) was no longer feasible. There may be fewer pyrotechnics in your organization than on a TV show, but the same type of energy and excitement can be unleashed when you trust your team to find the best path forward. And when that happens, feel free to smirk and proudly announce, “I love it when a plan comes together.”

Strong Enough to Change Your Mind?

Somewhere in our finger-pointing, judgmental, “either you’re with me or you’re against me” culture, changing your mind in the face of new information has come to be viewed as “waffling,” or lacking in a strength of convictions, when actually . . . it’s just smart. It takes confidence and integrity to sincerely consider perspectives that are different from your own, to acknowledge the credibility of someone advocating for a view that is counter to what you have experienced. And yet, that is what the best leaders do.

I was recently in a meeting where a group of high-performing individuals, all with different roles and perspectives, assessed the same set of information. I assumed their conclusions might differ slightly, but on the whole would be fairly similar to my own. I assumed incorrectly. And as I listened to their rationales, there were some areas where I changed my mind. In others, while I still advocated for my initial perspective, I at least had an appreciation for how someone might see the situation differently.

Now granted, in this instance I was working with individuals who all had the same end goal. There is less risk in considering alternative points of view when there is a common understanding of what constitutes “success.” But what about those situations where what you are advocating for appears diametrically opposed to what someone else sees as the “right” solution? Ah yes, that takes much thicker skin. In such cases you are likely to be pummeled from both sides — those who want you to wholly “come over” to their perspective, and those who feel you are abandoning a shared understanding of the situation. In many cases, a willingness to sit in that discomfort is what leads to a path forward.

You see, we shout about the what of a situation, but it takes someone willing to listen sincerely and non-judgmentally, to peel back the rhetoric, to find the “why” of each position. And once you understand the why of each “side” (which are usually not the same) you can begin to craft a path forward that takes each perspective into account. The goal here is progress, not perfection, for there are as many definitions of perfection as there are people seeking it.

And for the cynics out there, yes, there are occasions where someone’s position appears to fly directly in the face of some of your deeply held values and beliefs. I’m not suggesting that you compromise your values. I am suggesting, however, that if you take the time to truly try to understand someone’s rationale there is a strong likelihood that you will find some measure of common ground, or at the very least a better understanding of how a smart, respected individual might advocate for a position that is different from your own.

Leading through conflict is not for the faint of heart. Where some would dig their heels in, leaders must be willing consider alternate paths forward. The question is . . . are you strong enough to change your mind?

Structured Flexibility

Structure and flexibility may seem to be at opposite ends of a continuum, and yet for organizations to thrive leaders have to foster both approaches. One provides stability, the other fosters growth, and you want both of those things, right? So how exactly does one go about building both structure and flexibility into your organization? 

For starters, it is good to think about how you are wired as a leader. Do you lean toward structure or flexibility? Not sure? Ask your people. They know. And before you start second-guessing yourself, being pre-disposed to either structure or flexibility is not a bad thing. Both are needed, in different quantities at different times. Knowing your tendencies, however, can help you make sure there is a counterbalance of perspectives on your team.

So if structure and flexibility are at opposite ends of a spectrum, can they both exist in an organization at the same time? Absolutely. Organizations have found lots of ways to do this — through R&D, pilot projects, or departments/divisions focused on innovation while the rest of the organization follows more tightly structured ways of operating. With today’s increasingly volatile environment, however, it has become more and more important to incorporate both approaches into your daily operations. One way of doing this is by implementing a “guard rails” approach.

Guard rails provide boundaries of functioning. Think of it like bowling bumpers you might put in place for small children. There are lots of ways the child can get the ball down the lane, but the bumpers keep the ball from going too far in either direction and ending up in the gutter. In your organization, guard rails may take the form of budgetary constraints, timelines, and/or outcome expectations. Beyond those structural guard rails, however, you can provide maximum flexibility for how the ball gets down the lane. The structure is in the what, the flexibility is in the how. This is where things can get uncomfortable for the structure people . . . just because we have done things a certain way, with successful outcomes, for many years (the how), that doesn’t mean continuing in that vein will help us achieve our goals in the future. The pain point for the flexibility people can be the “width” of the guard rails, which may feel constraining when they are pursuing a totally new approach that may not fit with “old” ways of thinking. 

Based on a leader’s style, he or she may have a natural tendency to sympathize with one end of the continuum or the other. Don’t settle for an either/or. It is possible to find a productive balance. All it takes is a bit of structured flexibility.

Help With The Hard Stuff

When you agree to take on a leadership role, you are agreeing to deal with the hard stuff. Most of us realize that. The part we tend to miss is that we don’t have to deal with the hard stuff alone. Sure, we tell our people that they shouldn’t carry the burden by themselves, and yet, when they see us doing just that they are more likely to mirror our actions rather than our words. What about your credibility, the respect that others have for you, especially those who hold you up as a role model? I’d be willing to bet that they would prefer to follow a real live person, warts and all, than some artificial picture of leadership perfection.

Looking to others for support doesn’t necessarily mean baring your troubled soul to those who report to you (although, that may be appropriate in some situations), but it does mean that you need to build a network of friends/family/colleagues with whom you can be vulnerable – before you need to lean on them. Peers who understand the complexity of what you are dealing with, who can provide fact-based encouragement or call you on your stuff, whichever is warranted at the moment. People with whom you can dump your load, sort out the stuff that isn’t helpful, then pick up the rest and forge ahead. I hope one or two faces are coming to mind for you as you read this. Sometimes, a specific situation brings such allies to the surface, but more often than not your active cultivation now makes reaching out when you need to much easier.

At the risk of sounding like I am contradicting myself, if a trusted advisor is not readily available at a critical crossroad, try voicing your concerns out loud and consider how you would advise a colleague in a similar situation. Difficult situations tend to grow when they are rattling around in your head, and it becomes much easier to “catastrophize” the possible outcomes. Giving voice to the dilemma before you, or writing it down, is a bit like letting the air out of the situation. It becomes more concrete, less driven by emotion, and the risks or fears tend to be brought down to size. I’m not suggesting they will disappear — some decisions or actions carry a level of risk even when considered in the most level-headed of ways. It is still advisable to run your conclusions past a trusted colleague before acting, but serving as your own sounding board can work in a pinch.

When you are a leader, you will encounter difficult situations. The real question is . . . do you have the confidence to seek out the wisdom of others, and ask for help with the hard stuff?