Stories of Motivation in the Age of Great Distraction

By: Jeff Cowart, MAH | jcowart@barlowmccarthy.com

“Life happens in the narratives we tell one another. A story can go where quantitative analysis is denied admission: our hearts.” –Harrison Monarth

Your bosses judge you based on the performance of those you lead. That can be a discomforting thought when you consider the lack of focus, the lack of engagement or the under-performance of some individuals on your team. But, unfortunately, it is a universal truth.

So, what are you supposed to do with those annoying, distracted, slackers on the team who everybody whispers and complains about? You know, every leader has at last one, and God bless those of you who have more than one. Here is the hard fact: As the leader of the team, your bosses actually expect you to lead them. So, what exactly does that mean?

The truth is everyone can be motivated to do better. The journey begins with the leader learning to step outside of his or her own comfort zone and really listen to the desires, dreams and ideas of others. Even the annoying ones. This is not a one-minute manager checklist kind of listening, or forcing yourself to pay attention with eye contact during a performance review.  This is putting on your humanity hat and interacting with “an employee” as if they have life beyond the office walls. They do.

People bring their “real” lives with them into the workplace and it colors the way they approach their jobs and their relationships with others. We’ve all wrongly interpreted advice from HR that we should avoid too much probing into an employee’s personal life. But, there is a profound distinction between listening to the stories that shape their work lives and overstepping as leader to try and fix, counsel or otherwise manage their problems. Empathy strengthens the workplace.

So, how does the well-schooled leader or manager move from the personal distance we think is required in the corporate organization to the more engaging, interested leader? Here are a few ideas:

Encourage Storytelling – All humans have stories to tell and they long to share them. Stories are the metaphors for life both within and outside of the work structure. We all tell stories to discover and make sense of things. Individual and team meetings should include time for people to engage with each other about non-agenda items of interest. The leader can set the tone by asking simple questions: “Anybody go see any good bands this weekend?” or “How did the camping trip go?” or “Did your daughter ever find the hamster?” This presupposes that the leader has some background in having actually listened to members of the team talk about something going on in their other-than-work lives.

Listen With Interest – True listening comes through real engagement with the non-employee side of the people on our team. The leader makes the fundamental decision to broaden his or her scope of interaction beyond the expected leadership/management detachment and process. Some leaders do this naturally. Some have cultivated avoidance of “getting too close” to those we lead under the influence of sterile leadership or management training. Without doubt, there is a balance to be kept in participating in an employee’s work/life continuum. But, one of the most frequently addressed topics in today’s leadership and management world is how to achieve work/life balance. Smart leaders need to understand the need and help shape the work environment to advance the balance.

Support Without Fixing – One of the most important elements in creating a workplace environment in which balance is a value is the self-realization by the leader that “fixing” the problem is not always required. Sometimes people just need or want to share with others what’s going on. The leader helps create the environment in which there is comfort and acceptance to do so. The leader makes judgments about when a particular topic or discussion might be beyond the limits of a professional office or encounter. But, in a balanced workplace the leader knows when to let go of the expectation to strategize, advise or prescribe action. Balance in the workplace, which creates a higher level of productivity, is realized when employees can feel the separation between belonging and fellowship from corporate responsibility and duty.

So, if it is inevitable that we will be personally and professionally judged based on those we lead, don’t we want to create a workplace where we know a little more about who our people are and what really frames their values? Don’t we truly want to hear a little more of their story? As leaders, what we will find if we embrace an environment of work/life balance is that motivation of employees begins to take  care of itself.