Habits are a time saver. They function a bit like reading a large paper map and knowing where to go with a single glance instead of having to rotate the map and trace the route to the destination with your finger.
But sometimes there’s a downside to this kind of efficiency. Sometimes the fast way doesn’t work and we go off course. Such is the case with a great many approaches to motivating employees. Just when the situation calls for deliberation and a different approach, our habits kick in and we again head down the route that is fast and easy, but a bit off course.
One of my coaching clients recently worked through such a situation. He had been leading a team for five years and for that whole time, no matter what the task, goal, or situation, he attacked it—pushing, leaning in, and constantly pressing ahead as was his habit. This fire-drill approach to goal achievement worked for him in that a lot of work got done. Unfortunately, though, it resulted in many of his teammates feeling imposed upon, overly pressured, harried. And that caused them to start leaning out—away from the work and away from him. This circular dynamic became a spiraling motivational problem—the more he leaned in, the more they leaned out, and the more he leaned in…
When he called me in, my client thought I was going to work with his team to get them to be more accountable. But the real work ultimately was in helping him see how his habit of pressing, pressing, pressing was in itself triggering the problems with his team.
Replacing my client’s habit of relentless pressure with a different method was necessary. What did my client learn to do? He learned to take a lighter motivational approach. Here’s how:
- Via interviews, we collected unvarnished feedback about the problems he was creating. We sought comments relating only to his problematic behavior, because we wanted the intervention to focus on helping him stop doing the things that had made it “difficult to breathe,” as his teammates had reported. He and I met with each person to discuss their feedback openly so that he could see, hear, and feel how he was affecting each person.
- He apologized. No elaborate explanations of his intentions or grand stories about why his habit was necessary and useful. He simply said, “I’m sorry.”
- He learned how to involve people in pacing the work so that they could collectively agree how to proceed, even in the face of intense organizational timelines.
- He asked his peers to tell him what to do instead of always pushing his own solutions.
- He asked his peers to tell him what the impact of this shift would be on them. (Everyone answered they would feel more positively motivated and happier.)
- The team began a new ritual of celebrating progress anytime a member called for it—not only at the end when the result was achieved.
My client’s new approach to generating positive motivation has everyone not only feeling better but also performing better. When the team needs to work extra hard to meet a very challenging deadline, they collaborate about how to get it done. Today in the meetings I observe, the tone is much more optimistic. A new and positive circular dynamic is occurring where the team feels they “have more space to breathe and are more productive, too,” as one member told me.
Reducing pressure for better results? It’s not just a possibility. It works.
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