Have you ever worked on a team project where you had concerns that the limited efforts being made by some team members was going to negatively impact the final outcome? It’s a situation my younger daughter found herself in a few weeks ago while rehearsing with her skating group for their end-of-season figure skating show. Watching how she ultimately chose to deal with this problem brought to mind an important point leaders should consider when trying to encourage their employees to aid their organization in reaching a specific goal.
Since last September, my daughters have been enrolled in a figure skating program at the end of which, the students were invited to perform in a figure skating exhibition show. For this performance, my younger daughter was placed in an intermediate group with other kids who were at the same level of skating proficiency as her.
At the beginning, most of the kids were having a hard time with the skating routine, both in trying to remember which manoeuvre came next as well as in how successful they were in performing a given move. However, after completing half of the practices before the show, it was becoming clear that while most of the kids were trying their best to get the routine down, there were some who were less than interested in paying attention and following the directions of the choreographer/coach.
While this was clearly frustrating for the choreographer, this lack of attention and focus among some of the kids was also having a negative impact on my daughter’s perception as well. Following each practice when I’d ask her how it went, instead of talking about the improvements she’d made since last time, my daughter complained about how these kids were delaying the group’s progress or made various mistakes which caused certain sections of the group to fall out of sync in their choreography.
Rather than simply telling her to just tough it out, my wife and I tried to encourage her to notice the progress she’d made, pointing out how the coach had given her one of the key positions in some of the formations in order to help the others stay on time. I also pointed out to her how no one in the audience would know if they made a mistake, especially if they kept at continuing their performance instead of reacting to the missed cue or fall.
Nonetheless, after each practice, she’d still find something to point out that was going wrong and how, with so few practices left, her part of the show was unlikely to be as entertaining as her older sister’s group performance. I’ll admit that my wife and I were starting to feel frustrated ourselves seeing as how our daughter seemed convinced that no matter how much the kids who were interested in learning the routine improved, her part of the show was not going to be as good as the others.
As the whole goal for having our kids participate in this show is to have fun and enjoy entertaining others, my wife and I put our own frustrations in check and persisted with telling our younger daughter how impressed we were with the improvements she’d made in her performance and how her efforts would help to improve the overall team performance.
For awhile there, it didn’t seem like anything we said made a difference in her perception. And then, after one of the last practices before opening night, our daughter skated off the ice and went to my wife and said ‘Mommy, you know what I’ve decided? I’ve decided that I’m only going to concentrate on how well I do, instead of worrying about whether others are getting the routine right or not. That way, I can make sure I’m doing my best to make our part of the show fun for the audience’.
From that moment on, when she stepped off the ice, she only talked about how she had finally got one of those moves that she was having problems with and asking us if we saw how well she skated during the practice. By making that simple choice of what she was going to focus on, her attitude changed from one of frustration and disappointment, to a feeling of overcoming various challenges and a satisfaction over achieving certain goals.
Although the encouragement my wife and I gave our daughter certainly helped to shift her focus in the right direction, it was only when she made the connection between her efforts and her sense of purpose – that is, the reasons why she wanted to participate in this show – that she was able to move past these perceived obstacles and do her part to make her team’s performance a success.
While my wife and I are proud of how our daughter had this moment of self-realization, this story also highlights a key point for how leaders can engage and align their employees’ efforts toward their organization’s shared goals. Specifically, how a critical part to this process is enabling your employees to view their actions not simply in terms of how it impacts the team’s goals, but also from the vantage point of how it helps to serve their own sense of purpose.
With this in mind, here are three steps that leaders can use to encourage employees to focus on how they can help their team move forward by framing their actions in terms of their employee’s sense of purpose.
1. Listen and empathize with your employee’s concerns/complaints
In my daughter’s case, my wife and I knew that we couldn’t simply tell her to ‘deal with it’ or to get used to this being a part of life because that would only encourage her to tune out and not bring her full attention and effort to those practices. After all, no one is going to feel enabled, let alone motivated, to keep working to improve something if their concerns are summarily dismissed.
Similarly, leaders should ensure that they make efforts to listen attentively to their employees’ concerns and empathize with how these imperfections in the system are causing them headaches. Such efforts will allow you to gain a better understanding of what’s drawing away their attention. With this information at hand, it will be easier to help them redirect their focus towards measures which are within their abilities or skills to manage, thereby providing them with some sense of control and accomplishment.
2. Redirect their passion/drive toward measures they can control
Going back to when you hear employees complain about a project not taking off or how a given person’s work is holding back the team from pressing forward, it’s not uncommon to hear their colleagues and those in leadership positions questioning why they care so much about issues they’re not responsible for.
The problem with this, though, is that it implies that employees shouldn’t care about what’s going on around them and that they should instead focus their attention on doing their part of the work and leave it at that.
Of course, if we look at any successful company, we can see one of the keys to their success is that their employees care about the work, about the organization’s purpose, beyond simply their own part. So asking employees why they care is not the right question. Instead, your line of questioning should be directed toward helping them in building an awareness of those measures which are within their abilities to manage and control. In so doing, they can then serve as an example for others in the team that, despite the current obstacles or delays, efforts can still be made to keep things moving forward.
3. Help them reconnect their efforts to their own sense of purpose
While it’s up to an organization’s leadership to define what their shared purpose is, it’s also important that leaders find out what their employees’ individual sense of purpose is to ensure that they can align these two drivers for the mutual benefit of all parties. A critical function of leadership is not only being able to provide employees with opportunities and an environment to develop to their fullest potential, but also being able to guide them in using this self-actualized potential toward the achievement of their organization’s shared goals.
Going back to my daughter’s decision, her change in perception arose not as a result of some external factor. Instead, it came about because she redirected her focus toward the purpose behind her participation and involvement in the group’s effort. In so doing, she was able to move past her frustrations over seeing some kids not taking the practices seriously and focused instead on how to improve her own performance, thereby ensuring that she did her part in making her team’s contribution to the show entertaining for the audience.
There’s no question that all of us want to succeed, but many times the path we need to take to achieve success is not as clear or within our abilities to attain on our own. That’s why it’s important for leaders to help their employees shape a vision or image not only of that successful outcome, but how they can play a part in making it a reality.
The measures listed above will also encourage employees to take ownership over their development by enabling them to focus on how their efforts contribute not only to their own internal sense of purpose and meaning, but also to the efforts of everyone in the organization toward reaching their shared goals.
This will not only help your employees to understand how they can contribute to their team’s objectives, but it will also have the effect of allowing them to serve as examples for others of how they can focus on bringing their full efforts and capabilities to the table.
As for the figure skating team’s performance, although there were a few mistakes made during the show, my daughter didn’t mind as she accomplished what she had set out to do – namely, entertaining those in attendance and having fun in the process. The fact that she had two proud parents cheering her on from the stands was simply icing on the cake.