Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

Helping Employees Reconnect With Their Sense of Purpose

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.

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  1. On May 24th, 2011 at 1:48 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Steve. I do believe with the growing competitive nature of today's global market, it's no longer going to be enough for organizations to foster in their employees the feeling of being simply a "desk jockey" or "paper pusher". Indeed, a key factor for the continuing success of any organization is being able to create an environment where every one of their employees wakes up each morning knowing that they'll not only contributing to their organization's purpose, but that their work fulfills that inner sense of purpose that drives all of us to push ourselves to grow and evolve.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts on this piece.

  2. On May 25th, 2011 at 7:27 AM Jim Matorin said:

    Interesting post Tanveer. I always enjoy learning how you coach your daughters given your level of expertise. I witnessed this situation first hand last week in Chicago with my client and the social media team we formed. Somehow they all lost their focus and enthusiasm in the last sixty days. You could feel some of the negative vibes in the room, thus low levels of energy. I can only attribute it to two things: too many day to day distractions/tasks as in business as usual and lack of comfort doing something new. I am now challenged to get everyone back on track. I think one of the things we will do is celebrate the baby steps and make them aware how far ahead of the curve we are in comparison to our industry.

  3. On May 25th, 2011 at 4:24 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Jim; glad you enjoyed it.

    There are two articles I wrote here that you might find helpful in dealing with this challenge you're facing with one of your clients. The first one is called How to Transform Problems Into Wins and the second piece is called 4 Questions To Help Your Team Keep Their Focus. Both pieces offer some practical advice/tips that you might find helpful to getting your team back on aboard with your project.

    In any case, sounds like you're on the right track by ensuring that those small wins are celebrated to keep spirits high and the motivation to press ahead strong.

    Thanks again for sharing your story, Jim. Looking forward to hearing how things turn out.

  4. On May 25th, 2011 at 1:21 PM Liz Kislik said:

    Tanveer, the thing that struck me was not even your daughter's response; it was how persistent you and your wife (the leaders) needed to be with your acknowledgment and encouragement and how long it took for your daughter to have her breakthrough and "see" that she could shift her focus. Leaders have to be willing to keep putting it out there and must maintain their optimism and commitment, even when their support appears to be ignored.

  5. On May 25th, 2011 at 4:39 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Liz,

    That's a great point you bring up and I do agree with you that it's critical for leaders to keep pushing and encouraging their employees even when they're unable to see any good coming out of their efforts. After all, we have to remember that your employees' perception is based solely from where they stand in the organization and consequently, they don't have the long-term vision leaders have in regards to their team's collective efforts.

    Of course, this also requires leaders to give up some of their own assumptions/bias about their employees, like thinking this employee will never accomplish this or agree to do that. Sure, they might at first, but that's only because they don't see the situation from your vantage point. As the story I shared above about my daughter shows, it's certainly far from easy and it can be frustrating at times. But providing that kind of support and encouragement to your employees will not only ensure they succeed in the end, but it will help to reinforce the loyalty and respect they have for you as the leader of their team.

    Thanks Liz for sharing your thoughts on this piece.

  6. On May 25th, 2011 at 4:04 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Justin.

    In regards to providing encouragement and support, I think part of the problem is that we're still stuck in what some refer to as a 'deficit mindset'; that is, having a focus that's directed towards what's wrong/missing rather than on the potentials that can be nurtured and developed. One reason I can see why this approach still persists is because most organizations still view employees as liabilities rather than assets. After all, consider how often when organizations need to tighten the belt, the first step taken is employee layoffs instead of working collectively with their workforce to find a more effective and cost-saving measure.

    I do believe once organizations begin to recognize that employees are in fact their greatest asset/resource there will be a shift from focusing solely on where employees are missing the mark, to recognizing and developing those unique contributions/abilities employees can offer to compensate for other gaps in the team effort.

    Thanks again, Justin for adding your thoughts to the discussion.

  7. On May 31st, 2011 at 12:00 AM Delena Silverfox said:

    You can definitely see that high turnover rate is in direct proportion to just how much the higher management does *not* care about the aspects you list here. I can only hope that in this new market, where the customer isn't just a number and an employee isn't just a drone, we show our support for the new way to approach relationships and team management with the one thing they'll listen to: the power of our dollars.


  8. On May 31st, 2011 at 9:58 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Delena,

    As companies continue to dissect and discuss how those companies which continue to remain successful, innovative and thriving, there will be little debate left that the manner in which an organization treats their people has an overwhelming impact on their ability to succeed. The real question then becomes how long before most organizations start making changes to adapt the ideas mentioned here, both for the benefit of their organization and the people who populate it.

    Thanks again for adding your thoughts to the discussion.

  9. On May 31st, 2011 at 2:35 AM Mark said:

    My immediate thought was that this is great advice for dealing with my daughters problems at gymnastics rather than my employees!

    I'd like to think that means i've got my work/life blanace right!

  10. On May 31st, 2011 at 10:00 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Glad to hear it, Mark. I'm planning on writing a piece about the whole work-life issue and one thing I can tell you now is that it's inevitable that ideas/inspiration spill over from one to the other because in both these settings, the common denominator that remains is us.

    In any case, I do hope these points help your daughter address the problems she's facing in her gymnastics. Thanks for your comment, Mark.

  11. On June 1st, 2011 at 5:32 PM @christianfey said:

    Thank you for the post! I always have a problem trying to figure out exactly when to step in, and when to sit back and let someone resolve their problem on their own. I've found that often, if you offer assistance, you can stifle those who would benefit from learning the lesson of doing it on their own, and if you don't offer advice, the person thinks you aren't helpful and will move on to someone else.

  12. On June 2nd, 2011 at 10:28 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    You're welcome, Christian. It is a tough balancing act trying to juggle when to offer help to your employees and when you need to let them learn the ropes on their own. One approach I like to encourage my clients to use is to contextualize their choice of what to do in terms of what their employee is capable of since the goal is not to disengage them, but empower them through seeing first hand what they can do.

    Of course, that's not easy since it requires a deep understanding of your employee's abilities and inner sense of purpose. But as I showed in this piece, that's the best way to help bridge connections between your employee's contributions, their own internal drive and your organization's purpose or goals.

    Thanks again Christian for your comment.

  13. On June 7th, 2011 at 7:44 PM Robert said:

    Nice advice good thing my daughter knows how to handle this kind of situation. I can see her leadership talent in the future…

  14. On June 7th, 2011 at 9:57 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Robert; it's always inspiring to see how our children are learning those valuable lessons that will help them become not only better people, but better contributors to our community.

  15. On June 7th, 2011 at 8:00 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Jim; glad you enjoyed it.

  16. On June 11th, 2011 at 8:35 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Absolutely, Vickie. Thanks for your comment.

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