The Neglected Leadership Art Of Vision Casting

One of the traps that I see many managers fall into is the belief that people don’t change. Often they fall into this when they feel they’ve tried everything to motivate and engage their team without success. A cynical attitude sets in followed by a commensurate reduction in expectation. The next step is a decrease in productivity, and the downward spiral begins.

But people do change. Even if the specific evidence around us says otherwise. Subjectively you may tell yourself that people don’t change but science tells us that they do. As a matter of fact the very definition of life is the ability to change. Anything that isn’t changing is dead (a lesson for business).

The science behind motivation shows that people will change when they’ve been motivated properly. The problem is that we often use extrinsic rather than intrinsic motivators because they’re easier to apply.

We’re at a place in our business history where leadership and management are experiencing diminishing returns on their extrinsic investments. Incremental pay raises and fringe benefits aren’t producing the commensurate increase in productivity that we were looking for. And it’s getting harder and harder to retain great talent. Many employees aren’t that interested in more external rewards if it means just doing more of the same work.

Something or someone needs to tap a nerve in the worker that will generate an internal vibe that motivates them intrinsically. This can be done. This must be done if we’re ever going to turn the tide of waning employee engagement.

The good news is that it’s possible, but only if we commit to giving our teams a greater vision. For too long we’ve had our head down and plowed, only looking up to check the bottom line. It’s time to lift our heads to see the big picture, to inspire our teams with the whole vision.

We’re growing as a nation of workers. We’re seeking new motivations for doing what we spend most of our waking hours doing. We want to use all of our skills and talents. We’re looking deeper into the purpose of our work and trying to find meaning.

This is a challenge for leadership and management because it demands that they dig deeper, too. Seeking intrinsic motivators means we have to find ways to inspire our teams to do great work. It may mean some reorganization within the team. It may mean some fine-tuning of our structure. It probably requires deeper understanding and communication on both ends. It certainly means casting a larger more inspiring vision.

How Much Is Enough?

As a sort of disclaimer I want to state that I am a believer, a huge believer. I have been an Apple fan from day one. As a matter of fact, I have never owned a Windows-operated machine. And I regularly preach the gospel of Apple to any that need digital counsel, bringing many into the fold.

But with Apple sitting on cash reserves of over $170 billion, I’ve got to ask, how much is enough?

It’s not that I don’t think they should be allowed to reap the rewards of their excellent design and production. It’s not that I think they shouldn’t be allowed to save for a rainy day (should the Apple Watch go belly up). It’s a much larger issue, a fundamental issue, I think. The issue is one of purpose—ultimate purpose.

We all know that the purpose of any corporation is to create a profit for its shareholders. Sure; this is part of the grand capitalist design. But along the way there are other, smaller, more life-affirming and significant purposes that can and should be pursued.

We’re living in a time were worker satisfaction is at an all-time low (Gallup reports about 13% of the global workforce is actively engaged in their work). I’ve never worked for Apple and so have only the anecdotal reports of people who have. But if I were someone being asked to pour my heart, soul, and labor into the next product, I would be asking myself Why? So that we can push this cash reserve over $200 billion?

There has to be a larger purpose to our professional efforts than just a financial return. Workers are crying out for this in the 21st century. A sense of growth in the human experience—not just financial but emotional and spiritual as well, a sense of balance to the professional and personal dimensions, a sense of helping others to achieve what we’ve achieved.

A quiet revolution is sweeping across our corporate world, one that’s slowly humanizing our work. Part of that revolution involves the analysis of why we do what we do, corporately. And the revolution is coming to some new conclusions, conclusions that go beyond the pursuit of profit, conclusions that lead to a healthier work environment, conclusions that consider the whole worker.

Learning From Charlottesville

The events over the weekend in Charlottesville, VA, and our president’s response—besides the obvious and important racial issues it raises—shows how deep we are in the trough of declining emotional intelligence (EQ) today.

There’s no doubt that EQ is waning across America. The violence, lack of civility, and disregard for others is evidence of this. The question is, when will we realize that we are a people in need of help?

At the heart of EQ training is the concept of empathy. Empathy is the ability to feel what others are feeling. That only happens when we begin to listen and step into another’s shoes and see things from their point of view. We seem to have lost this capacity.

In the business world we seem to be more concerned with profits than any other business parameter. Layoffs, downsizing, and reduced benefits are de rigueur. Walking in the shoes of the employee has gotten lost.

Back in the eighties John Naisbitt wrote in his bestselling book, Megatrends, that as technology encroached on every facet of our lives we would need to offset this trend with a more deliberate human touch. He coined the term high tech—high touch. For every advancement in technology we need to make an equally deliberate advancement in our human connections.

Not surprisingly, many companies are realizing that an emotionally healthy employee is a productive employee. Companies like Aetna, Akamai, and Concur are leading the way in bringing the whole worker into the office. Providing for the various needs of workers (physical, emotional, and even spiritual) outside of their specific job function is bringing with it a commensurate increase in worker satisfaction, engagement, and, not surprisingly, profitability.

There are ways to get the job done that can benefit all in the employer-employee relationship. Thinking profit over all else is a 20th-century modality that, I believe, will look like an ancient artifact before long. Let’s wake up, learn, and seek the help we need to grow emotionally healthy people, companies, and societies.

Stuck In The Middle With You

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Last year I had an opportunity I don’t often get, to train over 900 middle-managers across the country in management communication skills within a short period (eight months). I delivered a two-day seminar to managers and leaders in various industries. It was a little like the movie, Trains, Planes, and Automobiles. I’m a well-seasoned travel warrior but this was a schedule unlike I’d ever experienced. It also took me into the “heartland” of America, speaking to people who were outside of my usual pharmaceutical client-base.

The one question that seemed to be on everyone’s mind—and one that was asked in virtually every workshop I led—was, “Paul, how do I get my people to do their work?”

Being onsite for only two days, that’s a tough one to answer. It demands more diagnostics and analysis to come up with a sufficient solution. But not wanting to cop out, we discussed some general solutions that might apply to each manager’s situation.

First we needed to acknowledge that we are at a unique place in business history, having just come through a significant recession. And with the continued acceleration of technological change, most in the room agreed that the average worker is fairly burnt out. As such, it’s no surprise that worker production is low and team communication is frazzled. Some basic elements of management and leadership need to be rekindled and stoked. After facilitating that discussion more than fifty times, I noticed there were three things that were lacking, contributing to this less than optimum output in the average worker.

Lack of Inspiration

Through the recession and for the first few years following, the mode du jour in management was to keep it lean and productive. This translated into people losing their jobs, with the remaining workers picking up their duties. We’ve had people wearing two and three hats, burning the candle at both ends. Management’s modus operandi was much like my receding hairline: trying to do more with less. Most employees have had their heads down and plowing for so long they’ve forgotten why they’re plowing.

Vision is needed to re-inspire the team. Seeing the big picture and how one’s work fits into that picture is what inspires the worker to accomplish great things. Instilling vision in our team is a primary trait of a good leader. Without vision we’re stuck in our cubicles wondering if we’ll ever see the light at the end of the project. Vision gives our workers purpose.

 Lack of Motivation

Now I know what you’re thinking. “Paul, I’m paying these people to do a job. Isn’t that enough?” Well, if we were dealing with cows or machines, yes. But we’re dealing with human beings and they demand a bit more from us than just a paycheck. Without getting into a long explanation of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators, I think we all realize that there is more to our work than just the transactional element of payment given for hours logged. Much of the employee engagement issue revolves around the proper administration of encouragement and feedback, two communications forms that are largely lacking in many work environments. Many employees haven’t heard an encouraging word from their manager in weeks and all too often they hear only what they did wrong. That’s hardly an atmosphere where people will be motivated to do their best. Back in the early days of the computer revolution, programmers had a phrase, “garbage in, garbage out.” Here’s one machine principle that applies to human workers, too! The definition of the word “encourage” means to pour courage into another. That’s a task that takes some thought and effort on the part of leadership.

Lack of Concentration

This one is different from the first two in that it is not necessarily a communication problem but an environmental one. You don’t need me to tell you that the average worker (ourselves included) is severely distracted from doing their job. Technology is largely the culprit here. But not just the technology; it’s also its cumulative effect on us over the past few decades. Our interaction with computers, smartphones, and the like has reorganized our neural networks and shortened our attention spans. It’s my prognosis that we’re at a tipping point with distraction. More of my clients are asking for a mindfulness-training component built into the leadership communications workshops I conduct. Rearranging our workspaces and schedules has helped in this area, too. Giving our workers relief from the constant flow of meetings has also helped focus worker energy on primary tasks. Allowing our workers to concentrate on what we’ve hired them to do is a job managers and leaders need to focus on themselves.

These three deficiencies seem to be universal to all our industries in this current environment. The first two are communication competencies that need to be bolstered and the third is an environmental issue that needs specific analysis and redress. We’re not working in the 20th century anymore. We’re leading in the 21st century.

Fear-driven Conformity

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One of the downsides of our culture of constant change is the fear that you might miss something vital to your future. Fear is a tremendously powerful motivator and many of us succumb to its grip, at times knowingly and at other times unconsciously. The marketplace knows this, too, and uses it to keep us in line with its objectives.

• Fear can narrow our outlook so that we only see cubicles, benefits, paychecks.

• Fear can keep us in a career that is neither ours, fulfilling, or worthwhile.

• Fear can keep us conforming so that we never find our calling, voice, work.

But more important than the question of what’s driving that fear, is how to deal with it. Is it true that we will miss something? Be left out? Hardly. If you’re in constant learning mode (as any professional is) you’re not going to miss anything completely. You may come a little late to the party, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying the party! We put too much emphasis on being first in our culture.

Most of us, I’m sure, are familiar with the proverb (often incorrectly attributed to Buddha), “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” The proverb shows us that when we’re ready, the tools we’ll need to move forward will be there. We won’t miss anything. The truth is that we’re all on different schedules, pursuing our calling at our pace.

Knowing what your work is and how you can continue to do it with excellence will require: getting quiet (mindfulness), talking to yourself honestly (communication), and formulating your unique plan (vision-casting). Employing these three tools will allay the fear that we might miss something in this culture of “get there first.”

The Lifecycle Of Vision

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Did you know that visions have a life cycle? You’ve probably always had a vision of what you thought your life would look like. Along the way that vision got blurred and distorted by the bumps and trials of life. That’s a part of the normal life cycle of a vision. Vision goes through a cycle that is predictable and navigable when we know what to watch for.

The cycle starts with the initial vision. That vision is mixed with ideals and illusion. As we attempt to manifest that vision into reality those elements that were illusion don’t come about and so we become disappointed because the vision didn’t work out like we planned. From disappointment we often become disillusioned. Maybe the vision wasn’t for us. Maybe the vision was unrealistic, something no one could accomplish. What’s really happening here is a normal part in the life cycle of vision. The act of disillusionment is actually healthy. What’s happening is that those parts of the vision that were illusion are being chipped away. This brings clarity and reality to our vision.

There’s always a great rush of vision with any new job we take. We see ourselves getting the work done and doing it with gusto, enjoying every aspect of it. But after we spend a few weeks or months on the job, we realize it wasn’t all that we thought it would be. There are aspects to it that don’t appeal to us. And the people we have to work with! When I founded my leadership communications training company, The Serra Group, I had a vision that put me in the training setting most of the time, teaching and presenting ideas in seminars I designed. That’s pretty much how it’s worked out, but a few pieces of the vision needed to be added. I didn’t have a piece that had me doing accounting, or scheduling, or resolving conflicts between trainers, and I certainly didn’t see me sitting around airports all over the world! My vision didn’t include those aspects. I had, within a few years, become disillusioned. That’s normal.

The important thing to realize at this point is that you have a decision to make; what you do with that disillusionment is critical to where you end up. If we don’t deal with the disillusionment properly we end up in bitterness and cynicism. We say things to ourselves like “This wasn’t the business for me.” “This vision was overambitious, no one can accomplish this.” These are unhealthy thoughts and ones that don’t get us where we want to go. The proper and healthy step to take at this point is to reevaluate the vision. Take a look at it and try to decipher what some of the illusions were, that were mixed in there. After that evaluation, adjust the vision to reflect what you now know about the project. Once you’re done readjusting, you end up with a renewed vision.

Don’t fool yourself, that renewed vision still has a mixture of ideals and illusion in it, too, you just can’t see it from where you’re standing. It’s that illusory quality that makes vision so alluring.

The alluring quality of vision is a manifestation of a natural desire in us to reach for something beyond our grasp. What we end up with after a process of evaluation and readjustment is renewed vision, and that’s what will take us farther down the road to accomplish what we had originally intended.

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