A CULTURE OF BELONGING: Re-Engage, Renew, Refocus Your Team In A Post-Pandemic World

American philosopher, William James, said, “there lies within every being a place where, when connected to it, we feel deeply and intensely alive. At such moments there is a quiet voice inside that says, ‘This is the real me.’”

After completing the Authentic Leadership Academy this week, I agree as it was truly an experience of being ‘deeply and intensely alive’ for me.

Over sixty like-minded leaders from all walks of life and from all types of organizations came together virtually for three days. We shared a commitment to make a difference in the world and to amplify our impact by supporting each other to connect with our authentic selves.

A diverse group of people who would not have been able to connect like this in-person shared a unique learning experience in a virtual space. There were amazing stories, tears, laughter, and pure joy as we built an authentic community. I left incredibly inspired by the humanity, courage, and wisdom that emerged during our brief time together. We all left knowing that none of us are alone.

When we departed, we weren’t just leaving a virtual event, we were leaving a community. I left inspired with a renewed belief that the work of a leader is to turn a group of people into a community. It’s that simple and it’s that complex.

COVID-19 has accelerated the evolution of work and the re-examination of our lives. The new workplace reality is that organizations need to be more flexible in their approach to work. Many workers are emerging from the pandemic with greater independence and autonomy over their career and life choices. To attract and keep the best people, organizations need to adapt to these evolving expectations.

But the Academy last week reminded me that whether we’re connecting virtually, in-person, or in a hybrid environment, people really haven’t changed much. They have the same need to belong, to be a part of something beyond themselves, to be working toward a shared vision, and to contribute something meaningful in the world. And our workplaces still serve as an important tool to make that happen.
Here are three strategies to re-engage, renew, and refocus your team in a post-pandemic world:

1. Integrate flexibility with accountability. People will undoubtedly be across the spectrum as far as readiness and commitment to return to the office. Some are yearning for the office environment where they have routine, work/life boundaries, and meaningful and creative connections, while others love being at home with the independence and freedom it permits. While flexibility will be the new norm in a hybrid approach, there must be accountability. The work still has to get done and some in-person interface will undoubtedly be required for creativity and collaboration. While lots of work can be done remotely, some work, to maximize potential, has to be done in-person. The key is to work toward a flexible, accountable structure that works for everyone. Remember: leadership isn’t about always being pleasing or making things easy for people. You have to push and challenge as much as you grant grace and respect the need to feel safe. As the old saying goes, “If it’s not good for the hive, it’s not good for the bee.”

2. Ensure values alignment. Historically, values have been driven from the positional leaders of an organization. The boss tells the employee what the values are and what the expected behaviors need to be. The new world presents an opportunity to collaborate more meaningfully with your team members. Listen carefully to what people’s personal values are and explore a win-win relationship so that both the organization’s and employee’s values are aligned. There is potential for higher engagement and inspired employees who know you care about their work and where it fits into their lives – and that you care about their lives beyond work.

3. Create a platform for authentic contribution. People ultimately aren’t inspired by what they get; they are inspired by what they give. We are all unique and have something important to offer. Rather than simply giving people a job to do, be committed to know the gifts and passion of every person under your care and devote yourself to supporting the expression of these unique abilities in a way that contributes to the organization and those you serve. Everyone has a story, and when you can create an environment that brings that story to life, that ignites their inner flame, you’ll never have to spend another day motivating anyone. If you aren’t empowering passion and building capacity in others, you aren’t leading. Every person needs to be able to answer the question: Why do you matter here?

Lessons From a Restaurant Manager

The past few weeks I have noticed just how much caring there is in the world around us. Perhaps it is because I have written a book on caring and I believe that what you focus on is what grows. It’s the simple acts of kindness that have a powerful impact on the people around us. As Maya Angelou, the American poet, singer and activist reminds us, “People may not remember what you did, or what you said, but will always remember how you made them feel.”

My daughter, Chandra, is a supervisor at Moxie’s restaurant in Market Mall in Calgary. She works long hours to pay for her education at the University of Calgary. While she is getting an excellent education at the U of C, her schooling these days goes beyond what she’s learning in the classroom.
Recently, when three women came into the restaurant, Aaron, her general manager, checked on the table, only to discover that these three ladies came from the Foothills hospital, where one of them had just lost her husband. Aaron took the time to listen through their tears. He bought them a bottle of champagne. At the end of the evening he brought them their bill – with a zero balance. And with the paid meal came a $100 gift card for a future dinner at the restaurant.
Chandra has had some remarkable mentoring from this general manager. When we talked about the experience she explained how she learned that the motive behind caring isn’t because it’s good for business. You care because it’s good for life. And if you do what’s good for life, it will be good for business.
Here are three lessons about caring from Aaron the restaurant manager:
  1. S-l-o-w d-o-w-n. Caring isn’t a program. It’s not a technique or a strategy or a ploy. Caring is who we are. Caring, like beauty, is all around us. But we have to pause long enough to see it, to let it come through us, to bring it out to the world around us. On my bookshelf is a book I inherited from my mother at the time of her death. It is book written in 1930 by Nellie L. McClung, and signed personally to her family when mom was nine years old. Nellie became an inspiration to Joyce all her life. Within the pages, Ms. McClung makes a most profound statement: “We are clever people, efficient and high-powered, but in our zeal to get things done we are forgetting the simple art of living.” The simple art of living requires us to slow down enough to observe what is around us.
  2. Everyone has value. Years ago, in a university class taught by the late Dr. Stephen R. Covey, we were given a mid-term exam with a question, “What’s the name of the person who keeps this building clean?” While we all failed the test that day, I didn’t fail to get the lesson. People are what matter. Caring transforms the “bank teller,” the “restaurant server,” the “janitor,” or the “customer,” from an object into someone with a name and a story, with needs and wants, goals and aspirations, and a desire to belong and to feel good about their contribution. At Moxie’s that night, it wasn’t about the free meal or the champagne or the gift card. It was about someone taking the time to acknowledge another’s pain, even in the midst of a busy shift. It was about taking a few brief moments to listen and thus nourish the human spirit. It was about the value of human goodness. It was about taking the time to care.
  3. It’s about passion and purpose. Last week I had the good fortune to speak to a group of school teachers in an elementary school in my community. Before my presentation, Greg Woitas, the principal, took me around his school and shared the love that his teachers put into their work and their students. I was struck, as I am by so many leaders in education, by his passion and sense of purpose. He beamed when he introduced me to his staff and spoke so highly of their efforts and their deep love for children. It was an old building, but on the inside it shone brightly with the power of caring.
A sequoia can live two thousand years. A domestic cat does very well if it makes it to twenty. A mayfly: born at sunrise, gone by nightfall. Each life is complete in itself. The quality of an individual life has nothing to do with how long it lasts, and everything to do with how it is lived. Sometimes people come into our lives for a moment, a day, or a lifetime. It matters not the time we spend with them, but how our lives are impacted during that time.

Achieving Engagement From Productivity

I’m concerned about the focus these days on employee engagement as if it were some kind of “special thing” to be pursued outside the usual day-to-day operations of a workplace. Engagement isn’t a goal to be sought. Rather, it’s an outcome of good leadership. The goal should be a well-run organization. The best run organizations have engaged employees, not because they are necessarily pursuing “an engaged workforce,” but because they are committed to a well-run organization. If you keep your eyes on the right priorities – on the right prize – engagement will naturally follow.

An adaptation of Gallup’s Q12 Index (https://q12.gallup.com/) provides a suggested checklist for leaders. If you sincerely pursue these endeavors toward a well-run organization, employee engagement will follow. In other words, these behaviors can assist the leader to do a much better job.

Don’t try to accomplish this massive list all at once. Start with getting a read on how your employees might perceive your leadership and begin to take action in any of these areas. Action on any one item on the checklist below will result in a better, well-run, engaged organization.

  • Are you doing everything you can to clarify the kind of employee you need on your team? Are you clearly assessing the kind of skills and attitude required of an employee before you hire them, so that in the hiring process you get the right kind of people on the bus? While you may refine behaviors, don’t count on changing people’s fundamental values.
  • Are you explaining to your people exactly what you expect from them, both in terms of operational results and the kind of behaviors you need to see demonstrated to support your values?
  • Are you doing everything you can to give them the skills, tools, resources, and capabilities to succeed at their job?
  • Have you linked your expectations with the purpose of your organization so they feel their contribution is valued?
  • Have you assessed their strengths so they are doing what they do best every day?
  • Are you getting out of your office at least every week and catching them doing their job well? Are you recognizing and celebrating success?
  • Do you genuinely care about them as people? Have you listened to what matters to them, what they value, and how you can best support them to use their job to achieve their personal goals?
  • Are you encouraging your employees to grow, learn, and develop themselves? When was the last time you recommended a good book for them to read?
  • Do you allow genuine input and collaboration from your team so their opinions actually matter? While you can’t possibly make every decision by consensus, do you explain – and demonstrate – that their input on as many decisions as possible will be taken seriously?
  • Do you set high standards and hold people to account to those standards? “Everyone knows who is and who is not performing, and they are looking to you, as the boss, to see what you are going to do about it.” (Collin Powell)
  • Are you encouraging the development of good friendships at work?
  • Are you openly talking with people about their progress toward the achievement of both personal and organizational goals – so there are no surprises if/when you do an annual review?
  • Are you bringing humility to your leadership by being honest, vulnerable, and teachable?
  • Are you making it safe for people to risk making mistakes, while ensuring that they learn from these mistakes?
  • Are you creating a culture of ownership, so that employees are encouraged, and held accountable to create conditions for success on their own rather than depending solely on you, the boss, to deliver this?

Moving into a position of leadership does not give you more power. What it gives you is more accountability. Leading a well-run organization takes time, patience, and a clear intention. Set a goal for a productive workplace and employee engagement will follow.

Employee Engagement: Is it Really The Boss’s Responsibility?

I grew up in a day and age well before “employee engagement”. I had five different jobs before I finished my university education: I worked on farms and ranches, survey crews, a cement company, a geriatrics unit in a psychiatric hospital, and as a janitor. I learned a lot in those jobs. I learned the value of education, to value people who were skilled at a trade, and the value of hard work.

I remember when, after pouring concrete for ten straight hours, the foreman over heard me complaining about how much I hated the work. He took me aside and said, “Son, we don’t have complainers on this crew. They call this thing work because you get paid to work. You don’t get paid to sit around. If you want to sit around, stay at home and don’t get paid. We pay you well to work, but we don’t pay you to complain. Do that on your own time.”

If I would have talked my bosses in those days about “employee engagement,” I believe they would have thought I had beans for brains. I can picture the foreman on the concrete crew saying, “My work is to get the job done; not to motivate you.”

I know we have supposedly come a long way and are now purportedly smarter in how we manage people, and allegedly are more skilled in the practice of leadership. While everyone agrees than an engaged workforce is beneficial, all of the insights and leadership efforts haven’t moved the dial much on getting them there. In all our efforts to create an engaging environment in our workplaces, I’ve never seen more entitlement.

Like children, the more people do for us, the more we expect. When I was a family counselor, I noticed an intriguing phenomenon: the children in a family that are the angriest at their parents are often the children who have been given the most.

Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s wonderful to learn to communicate with our staff and create an engaging, inspiring work environment. There is lot of research that says happier, more engaged employees are more productive.

Here are five responsibilities of a boss that will help engage employees:

  • Help create a clear vision. People largely change for one two reasons: inspiration or desperation. Great leaders create a powerful why, a clear and compelling shared purpose or cause that inspires.
  • Hire the right people. (I know, many of you had no choice over the employees that work on your teams; you are already behind the eight ball).
  • Be clear about what is expected. Ambiguity breeds mediocrity. You need to provide clarity as to the operational accountabilities as well as the kind of attitude that is needed to do the job, and build a link between each employee’s contribution to the why.
  • Support your team with a servant mind-set. Service leadership doesn’t mean pleasing leadership. Service leadership means understanding what supports are required for your employees to get their job done, and that you have their back to do whatever you can to give them the resources and capabilities to do what is expected. What your job isn’t, is to make them happy.
  • Hold them accountable by following through on the consequences. “Everyone on your team knows who is and who isn’t performing, and they are looking to you as the boss to do something about it.” said Colin Powell, the Former United States National Security Advisor. There are consequences to actions, both negative and positive. You don’t build a great place to work when you have low standards or when you let people off the hook. People need to see courage in their leaders, not coddling.

There is, no doubt, a need for caring in the workplace. We absolutely have to support and encourage people and create a place where they can feel safe to be honest and who they are. But let’s be careful because too much support and not enough demands can breed a culture of complaint and entitlement.

What I’m saying is that I’m not convinced that it’s the boss’s responsibility to get an employee engaged. If you can, that’s great. And if you can’t, don’t lose any sleep over it. It’s not your responsibility. Either people want to get their heart into the game or they don’t. You can still be a great leader even if you don’t get everyone on board. Relax and enjoy leading. Who knows? Maybe we’d be better off if bosses got back to what their ultimate job is: to make sure the job gets done and gets done well.

Stop Evaluating People and Start Holding Them Accountable

In recent months, smart companies are finally seeing the futility of the old, outdated rule-based, bureaucratic “evaluation systems” of performance management. Many organizations I work with are abolishing their “rank and yank” systems that assign employees a performance score relative to their peers, while punishing or firing those with low grades. Other organizations are wisely rethinking their practices. Whether you agree or disagree with UCLA researcher Samuel Culbert’s assessment that performance reviews are “a curse on corporate America,” it’s nonetheless clear that performance reviews and evaluations are finally losing their appeal.

Why Performance Management Fails

First, the world has changed. Today’s employees want open communication and collaboration with their peers and with their bosses. They want partnerships, not parents. Today’s employees are also far more apt to want to know more immediately how they are doing and if they are meeting expectations and heading in the right direction. The world isn’t on an annual cycle any more for anything.

Second, being evaluated is demeaning. It’s based on an outdated parental, parent/child model of supervision that is founded on the belief that because a person is given a title they have authority over people. What right does anyone have to evaluate another person? No wonder performance reviews breed all kinds of unnecessary fear, resentment, and resistance. Leadership today is about service, not submission, supervision, and self-centeredness.

Third, if organizations want to develop highly engaged, contributing performers, managers must be equipped to coach and empower them. Today’s workers don’t see their managers as experts in specific subject areas the way their predecessors did. After all, the information they think they need is readily available to them online. Instead, they look to their managers for coaching and mentorship and find purpose through learning, contributing, and growing on the job.

The truth is that employees don’t need annual performance reviews to know how they stack up against their peers. Companies need to stop merely managing performance and start actually developing it.

The Alternative: Accountability Agreements

Instead of evaluating people, start holding them accountable. Here’s how:

Step 1. Build trust. Accountability without trust is compliance. Make the connection. Be trustworthy. Keep your promises. Be accountable. Genuinely invest in people lives. Be interested in what matters to them, what motivates them, and how you can support them to grow. People need to feel safe so they can be honest without fear of punishment. The key is not just walking around; it is opening up, paying attention, and being in touch. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

Step 2. Engage. Accountability without passion is drudgery. Do all you can to help and coach your employees to find their unique abilities, passion, and goals and how work fits into the context of their life. Be sure you have done everything you can to help them find a fit. Fit people; don’t fix people. Stay away from evaluating people and focus on how to support each other to grow and achieve clearly defined success.

Step 3. Clarify Expectations. Ambiguity breeds mediocrity. People need to be clear about what is expected and how success is defined. Clarify operational (competency) expectations, as well as describing in behavioral terms the kind attitude that is required and what results are promised. Before you make an agreement, be sure the willingness, the resources, and the capabilities are in place.

Step 4. Clarify Agreements. A request is not an agreement. If you want to hold someone accountable, you must get their full 100% agreement. If you don’t get an agreement to a required request, then go to Step 6.

Step 5. Clarify Support Requirements. To be committed and engaged, people need to feel that they can talk openly about the support they require to achieve their accountabilities. They need to feel that you are committed to do all you can to help them find the resources and capabilities to do their job and grow in the process. What support is needed? Your employee’s negotiated support requirements will be your accountability to them. The support requirements of your employees will be their accountabilities to you.

Step 6. Clarify Consequences. With no consequences there will be no accountabilities. Always start with positive consequences (motivators). Motivators are the internal or external results of delivering on your accountabilities. Motivators are meant to inspire you to achieve your accountabilities. If these don’t get the job done, then go to negative consequences.

Step 7. Follow up. Follow up means a clear understanding of a plan for follow-through, including how often you need to meet and with whom to ensure that you hold yourself and each other accountable for honoring the promises you have made to each other.

Building A High Trust, High Engaged, Accountable Culture: The Power Of Attunement

I grew up listening to transistor radios with dials that changed stations. Rather than pushing buttons, you turned a knob to tune in to a designated station. Before the age of hundreds of satellite/internet radio options, it took a few moments to fiddle with the dial to “tune it” to the exact station you were looking for. You had to keep adjusting the knob until you got connected to the right station. The stations were few, but when you connected, you appreciated what you got.

Just as the output of a radio requires tuning to the right station, the output of trust, engagement, and accountability – three vital leadership pillars – requires tuning in to the right “employee station.” Do you ever get “static” from your staff, in the form of resistance, disengagement, entitlement, or defiance? Start by looking at how attuned you are to the employee experience.

Here are three ways to get attuned to your staff:

  • Care enough to pause and pay attention. When people become quiet in a meeting, don’t assume consent. You have to stop and check out what the silence means. You have to ask. You have to listen. You have pay attention to what is beneath the surface. To get engagement from people you have to make it a habit to “hall walk,” as my friend Vincent Deberry calls it. You have to get out of your office and walk the halls, and every so often stop. You have to make it a point to stop and ask how people how are doing – both at work and away from work. You have to be in touch. Get to know people. Make contact. Listen for concerns. Bring a “servant mindset” to your work as a leader. We say, “people are our greatest asset.” Are these just words, or do you live this in your workplace?
  • See the goodness in people. I believe that people are fundamentally good. Most people are here to do good and to make the world better. I believe in the goodness of people. I believe that humans are, at the core, good, and that there is a positive intention behind every action, regardless of appearances. If you don’t see any goodness in any person on your team or your organization, you haven’t looked hard enough. You haven’t spent the time to know what motivates them or what matters to them. Jack Kornfield has a great story about the story of human goodness in the video http://bit.ly/2tFMN5u
  • Bring a servant mind-set to your work. Servant leadershipis a philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations and ultimately creates a more just and caring world. Traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid.” By comparison, the servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. Servant leadership turns the power pyramid upside down; instead of the people working to serve the leader, the leader exists to serve the people. When leaders shift their mindset and serve first, they unlock purpose and ingenuity in those around them, resulting in higher performance and engaged, fulfilled employees. A servant leader’s purpose should be to inspire and equip the people they influence.[1]

Servant leadership isn’t about pleasing people and making them happy. Servant leadership is, instead, the bone-deep commitment to support, encourage, and challenge people to be all they can be.

People, it has been said, don’t leave organizations. People leave bosses. Do people feel that you care enough to stop and pay attention to them? Do they feel that you see their goodness? Do your people feel that they are served, that you have their back, that you are committed to do all you can to support them in their job and even in their life?

You can’t expect a high trust, high engaged, accountable organization without attunement.