Q: My employees aren’t performing well. Many seem to get easily frustrated, complain, waste time in trivial pursuits and become skeptical of other employees. What can I do to get employees more engaged in the work that needs to be done?
A: You are describing a dysfunctional work environment that could be headed toward employee burnout. Burnout is a familiar term these days: it's the physical or emotional exhaustion that results from long-term stress or frustration. Chronic fatigue is a major symptom of burnout: one feels physically, emotionally and spiritually exhausted. Behaviorally, the burnout worker becomes cynical, indifferent and increasingly ineffective in the job.
According to Herbert J. Freudenberger, the New York psychologist who coined the term in 1972, burnout describes a specific condition. It is an emotional state characterized by an overwhelming and enduring feeling of exhaustion or aggravation. Burnout is a condition that develops gradually as the person's creativity and effectiveness erode into fatigue, skepticism and an inability to function productively.
Traditionally, the worker is the one who gets the blame but research shows that the cause of burnout lies mainly in current economic trends, the use of technology and management philosophy within organizations. As managers become de-energized and lose confidence
in themselves, these emotions are transferred to employees. Employee engagement and long-term improvements in corporate performance can't be accomplished with a burned out, low energy and low confidence leadership team.
Leaders can turnaround a failing work environment by helping employees move from the language of "blame" to the language of "personal responsibility.” The first step is to instill confidence in the employee’s ability to meet and overcome workplace challenges. Experience tells us that confidence precedes competence. A person must first believe they can succeed by developing a winning attitude reinforced by skill-building training.
As each person’s unique signature talents are built into demonstrable strengths and then merged with other team members, a positive energy emerges. This energy force builds and reinforces each individual’s confidence to create a critical mass within the team. This critical mass is often referred to as “momentum” or “being in the zone.”
Here is an illustration of how this process works on the basketball floor and is easily transferred to the shop floor:
Basketball is an intricate, high-speed game filled with split-second, spontaneous decisions. But that spontaneity is possible only when everyone first engages in hours of highly repetitive and structured practice and agrees to play a carefully defined role on the court.
Great basketball coaches, military commanders and business leaders know that practice of the rules of engagement coupled with split-second decisions in execution by their team can make the difference between winning and losing.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his bestseller, "blink" (Little Brown), tells us that leaders know that if you can create the right framework (by everyone knowing the rules and practicing them), when it comes time to perform, your players will engage in fluid, effortless, spur-of-the-moment dialogue and action. The leader provides the overall guidance and intent to the team, coaches them in mastering tools and general techniques through practice and then allows them to use their own initiative and be innovative as they move forward.
Placing a lot of trust in your subordinates has an overwhelming advantage:
Allowing people to operate without having to explain themselves within the rules of engagement, focuses their energy and opens the possibility for extraordinary leaps of insight and instinct in decision-making. When the team is "in the flow," split-second decisions are unconscious flashes of insight that drive extraordinary performance on the basketball court, battlefield or shop floor.
It is the leader's job to keep the momentum going; so as not to lose the flow. Insight is not a light bulb that goes off inside our heads. It is a flickering candle that can easily be snuffed out by external means. Know that these kinds of fluid, intuitive, nonverbal experiences are vulnerable...and...your players/employees can drop out of the "zone" or "flow" when you, as the leader, start to become reflective about this rapid cognition process.
Confidence and energy are leading indicators of workplace performance. It is the leader’s job to build confidence and participate in interactive conversations that pull people toward becoming comfortable with the language of personal responsibility and commitment.
Malcolm Gladwell: blink The power of thinking without thinking.
John Agno: Can't Get Enough Leadership: Self-Coaching Secrets