How to Make a Habit of Optimizing

I’m using the same picture for this post as I did for the Engager Dynamic called Optimize. I looked for a different one but this picture from the movie “Ben Hur” showing those beautiful horses aligned on a racing team according to their specific abilities tells the story of optimizing. Plus, I love the movie!

In my posts I’ve talked about Training and Evaluating among other things. These are one-on-one dynamics in many cases. In the analogy of coaching, these skills are about helping the individual player get better at their skills. Optimizing is more like what a coach does during a game. S/he works to find the best combination of skills for that situation against that opponent.

Putting it to Work

If your work is normally done in groups or teams this is easier. By team I mean the obvious group who work in close proximity to each other and focus on a task or set of tasks for which that team is responsible. There are other ways to think of teams as well. It could be a series of people each of whom hand off work to the next person in a system, adding their piece to it until the product or service is finished. These “teams” could even be across shifts where work is passed down from one to the next.

Look at your “teams” in whatever form they take. Evaluate the skills, talents, temperament, and pace of each team member and try different combinations like a basketball game coach looking for the right combination of ball handlers, defenders, height, shooters, etc.

If your work is not normally done in groups, that’s OK. Create a team. Find a work system that needs improvement. Put together a project team with the objective of studying the system to determine which component(s) and/or process(es) need(s) to be changed or removed to improve the system’s output. You could run several project teams at once or sequentially. If you run them one after the other, mix up the teams, game coach.

Making it a Habit

The definition of “Optimize” is “to make the best or most effective use of (a situation, opportunity, or resource).” In order to do that you need to clearly understand the work (situation, opportunity) and you need to clearly understand your people (resources). The team work mentioned above is designed to help you with both. The primary focus of this post, though, is to understand and engage your people.

In the movie, “Ben Hur” the main character puts his horse team together with the slower, steadier horse on the inside “to anchor the team in the turns” and the faster horse on the outside to bring the team around smoothly. That’s knowing your resources and deploying them to your advantage. Guess what. I don’t know about horses, but people are usually happier and more engaged when they are doing what they’re best at.

Think about your own work experience. When have you been most energized by your work and given extra effort and brought insight and creativity to it? Most likely it’s been when the work most closely aligned with what you are best at and therefore love doing most. Your people are no different.

The team suggestions above are intended to help you discover what each of your people is best at. Another way to do that is to ask them. I always have one-on-one conversations with my team early in the engagement. I ask several questions of each one and it’s always the same list. Here are a couple of the Optimization questions:

  1. What’s going well? – how people answer this will tell you something about how closely their job aligns with what they’re best at. The closer their answer touches the work they specifically are doing, the more aligned their job is with their talent.
  2. What are you best at? – there’s nothing like the direct approach. The quicker someone answers this the more likely their current work is what they do best. It comes to mind quickly because they’re doing it every day.
  3. What do you wish you could do? – If their answer is about another type of job, more than likely what they’re currently doing isn’t as close to what they’re best at as they would like. If their answer is “fly” or “be invisible” or “breathe under water” (actual answers I’ve received) or anything else non work related, they may be loving their work and not fantasizing about another job.

Develop the habit of knowing your people. When you can align their work with their best talents and skills, everybody wins!

How to Make Habit of Trust

Do you have a firm belief in the reliability, truthfulness, ability, and strength of your team members? Do they have a firm belief in your’s? That’s the definition of trust. If you answered, “Yes” to those questions read no further. If you have any question about it . . .

In my post on the Engager Dynamic called Trust, I wrote about the importance of trust in the workplace and about what the atmosphere is like without it. It might be worth a minute to follow the link and read that post.

When I talk about trust I don’t mean that we don’t “inspect what we expect” for example. Often trust is built by inspection. When you are the one who sets clear expectations, you are the one who can determine whether or not they’ve been met. You do that by inspecting the work. Inspection provides an opportunity for clarifying conversations that improve communication. It also provides a great opportunity to coach and recognize people for their work. These things build trust.

Putting it to Work

There are two fall-outs from lack of trust I want to highlight.

  1. Wasted Energy – When trust is low, time and energy are spent writing extra policies and work rules, and making sure they’re being followed by tracking discipline. People waste energy on CYA emails and conversations, and on trying to figure out what so-and-so is up to. All that time and energy slows down every process and raises cost.
  2. Misdirected Conversations – You might argue this is a subset of the first one but it merits its own space. If you get a lot of what I call “Tattletale” conversations, there is low trust on your team or in your organization. A tattletale conversation is when someone comes to you to let you know or to ask you about what someone else did or said. It may be cleverly disguised as an FYI or a CC or BCC on an email, but if it feels like you’re being asked to step in somehow, its a tattletale conversation.

Trust, by definition, is a belief . According to the book Change the Culture, Change the Game by Roger Connors and Tom Smith, beliefs are derived from experiences. The people who waste energy and have misdirected conversations have learned from their experience that someone or some thing is not trustworthy. Find out about those experiences and you’ll be on your way to building trust. What caused them to lose trust?

Making it a Habit

It follows that once you’ve identified what experiences taught people not to trust, you need to change those experiences so they will begin to trust. Experiences come in the form of words spoken or actions observed. Here are three things you can do to make a habit of trust building:

  1. Use only constructive words – make sure that whatever you say is useful for building up the person who hears it. Words are rarely neutral. They either build up or tear down. Even corrective words can build up when they are about actions or behaviors and not about the person.
  2. Never speak behind someone’s back – it is unwise to talk negatively about someone who is not present. The person hearing it most likely can do nothing about what you’re saying and it leaves them wondering what you say about them when they’re not around.
  3. Guide directed conversation – turn tattletale conversations into constructive conversations by bringing together the parties and “refereeing” their discussion. The next time someone comes to you with a story about what someone else did or said, bring the other person into the room and facilitate their interaction. You might be surprised at how well things get resolved. This will signal people to stop talking behind other’s backs and teach them to directly interact with the person with whom they have an issue.

There is a principle called the “Law of Sowing and Reaping” which says, “You always reap what you sow. You always reap more than you sow. You always reap in a different season than you sow.” This wisdom applies to trust building. Though it may seem counter-intuitive if you’re a person not given to trusting people easily, how can you build trust if you don’t first learn to trust?

Start sharing knowledge you used to hold as power over people. Start giving out more responsibility. It may seem risky and people will let you down, but the crop you reap will be well worth the investment.

How to Make a Habit of Evaluating

Word Nerd Alert! As I like to say, “The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.” According to Webster’s Online Dictionary, “Evaluate” means    1. To determine or fix the value of
2. To determine the significance, worth, or condition of, usually by careful appraisal or study.

I want to drill in a little bit more. One of the definitions of “Value” as a verb is “to rate or scale in usefulness, importance, or general worth.”

Putting these definitions together gives a pretty clear understanding of what most organizations mean by an annual evaluation. The boss, it is understood, has done an appraisal of the significance, importance, and general worth of the employee’s work and has rated it. S/he then shares that information with the employee. There are usually goals involved and often annual raises are tied to the evaluation.

If that’s all you do with your team you’ve missed a huge opportunity to engage them. That approach to evaluating turns the annual evaluation into something you have to sit through to find out if you’re getting a raise. There’s no engagement there.

Putting it to Work

Check out the Engager Dynamic called Evaluate where I talk about some specifics on how to conduct an evaluation. For this post I want to summarize a few key points.

  1. More Frequent than Annual – Remember when you were in High School and you received a Progress Report before the final Report Card came out? That Progress Report let you know how you were doing and gave you a chance to either continue your present habits or course correct before the grades that counted came out. Do the same for your employees. Give them at least quarterly progress reports.
  2. Connect to Purpose – the value of anyone’s work is measured in how it helps the team and/or organization achieve its purpose. Be sure you always connect the employee’s work to the value it brings to the organization.
  3. Focus on Improvement – In the Leadership Matrix, Evaluate is a Challenge Dynamic. This is a chance to tap the employee’s Drive to Mastery by giving them some coaching tips on how to improve their performance.

Making it a Habit

Try thinking of yourself as a coach. Coaches give players instructions and tips on how to improve their performance. Here are a couple ideas to help make Coaching (Evaluation) a habit.

  1. Daily – Put it in your calendar to walk around and observe people at work for the express purpose of catching them doing something right. When you do, let them know it. Stop them and privately tell them specifically what they did, how it helps the team/organization purpose and then thank them. After you’ve established the daily habit you can start to use this time to help people improve as well. If you notice something that doesn’t align with the purpose, privately remind them of the purpose and give them a tip on how to do that task in a way that is better aligned with it.
  2. Weekly – Let your team know that you will be observing them from time to time. Once a week put it on your calendar to observe a team member perform an entire process of their work. Afterward, ask them what went well. Then ask them what they would do differently next time. Affirm what you observed and add your own pointers. Remember, always tie coaching to purpose.
  3. Monthly – Once per month, invite a team member in for a brief coaching chat. Remind them of the purpose and expectations of the organization. Use this time to reinforce your best people in their behavior or to help realign those who are struggling.

Tip – If you take notes on all these conversations you will have created a great tool for doing your quarterly progress reports and the annual evaluation. Not only that, but you will have engaged your team by keeping them focused on the purpose and on continuously getting better at what they do.

How to Make a Habit of Recognition

“You showed up to work, you did your job, here’s your paycheck. That’s how we recognize people.” Maybe you’ve heard that. I have. Maybe you’ve said that. Many leaders take that approach to recognition. “What’s the big deal?” they wonder, “People get paid to do a job. Why do we need all this other stuff?” I get that. They believe that recognizing people sets the expectation that you have to pay people and then “bribe” them to do what you need them to do.

The challenge is that this approach can lead to getting only the job description done. Employees may adopt the attitude, “I’ll do what you pay me to do. Anything else is not my job.” What if, instead of that attitude, people put in their extra, discretionary energy and creativity to improving the organization? That’s what engaged employees do. They spontaneously help their co-workers and other departments in addition to doing their job. They think about how to improve things and offer suggestions. They bring added value to the organization. It’s the leader’s job to engage them.

Putting it to Work

Look back at the Leadership Matrix. The “Challenge” side of the matrix is where leaders push their employees to achieve more than they thought they could. The “Connection” side is where they give them the energy to do it. Recognition is one of those energizers. When people go the extra mile, letting them know you appreciate it encourages them and others to keep doing it.Recognition can backfire. It is not something you can do half-heartedly or add on as a flavor-of-the-month program. If you do, it will do more to de-motivate your team than motivate them. When done well, however, it can breathe life into your organization. Doing it well means recognition should be:

  1. Immediate – in-the-moment recognition is the most powerful because the link between the action and award is so strong. Employee of the Month should be based on an accumulation of in-the-moment recognitions
  2. Clear – Everyone should know what it takes to be recognized. Make the criteria as objective and measurable as possible. This keeps you away from the claim of favoritism.
  3. Guided – Recognize things that improve your team’s or organization’s performance measures and provide a return on investment. Recognition costs money. It should be money spent to make more money by improving revenue or reducing cost.
  4. Personal – People receive recognition in different ways. Make your recognition program as personal as possible. Many organizations award something (coupons, tickets, “Company Money”) that can be exchanged for a prize of the recipient’s choice.

You can kick it up a notch by adding a contest element. Create scoreboards to let individuals and teams know where they stand and where the organization stands on it’s goals.

Making it a Habit

Here are a couple tips for making Recognition a habit:

  1. Master the use of “Please” and “Thank You” – When you say “please” you are recognizing that someone has other things to do and acknowledging their discretionary effort. It’s that discretionary effort you want to tap to engage them. When you say “thank you” you are recognizing the effort that person made to do what you requested. Sometimes that’s all the recognition a person wants.
  2. Daily say, “I really appreciate it when you …” – make it part of your day to stop and tell someone what you appreciate about what they do. Be sure you let them know how it adds value to the team and organization. Connect it to the Mission or team goal.
  3. Discover your people’s interests – know what your people care about and how they like to be recognized. You can do this formally by using some of the available personality inventory tests or interest surveys. You can also do it informally by asking how someone’s weekend went. What they choose to tell you says a lot about their interests. Knowing these things will help you make recognition more personal (see #4 above).

These are informal things you can do to become a person who recognizes people. That’s where all of the Engager Dynamics start. They start with becoming the kind of person who does the things that engage people. It’s your habit. That’s what makes you a great leader.

How to Make a Habit of Qualitizing

Every organization is made up of a series of systems. Like the human body with its various systems, each distinct, each contributing to the health and function of the body/organization. Systems, in turn, are made up of components and processes. The components are the parts that make up the system like the heart, arteries. veins, and capillaries, or the raw materials, people, tools, and forms. Processes are what the system does with those components to achieve an outcome.

Qualitize is what we do to improve either the components or the processes (or both) of any system in our organization. To qualitize is to make something high quality. Quality goods or services are the result of quality components and quality processes. Good quality lifts people. Poor quality drifts people. When your team or organization produces excellent quality work the people know leaders pay attention and care about what they do. When the work is poor quality it signals the opposite and people’s attitudes and performance drift. Your best employees may eventually drift away from your organization.

Putting it to Work

There are really only two things you can do to improve the quality of your product or service. Improve the components or improve the process. Identify an output you want to improve. What one thing, if better than it is now, would bring the greatest return to your organization? This would be a great time to employ the habit called Solicit (see my last post).

Now map out the process in a flow chart. It’s best to do this with a team of stakeholders. List every step in sequence along with the owner of that step and any other components (people are components, too) such as parts, forms, equipment, etc.

Now that you have a visual map of the process with a list of components, decide where there are constraints or bottlenecks in the process or inferior components that are causing a poor quality outcome. Work on the most obvious one(s) first and measure the improvement. then, as they say on the shampoo bottles, “Rinse and Repeat.”

Making it a Habit

In my post on the Engager Dynamic called Qualitize, I mentioned the saying, “The standard you walk by is the standard you set.” In other words people will usually raise or lower their performance to meet your expectations. If you “walk by” poor quality work and say or do nothing about it, they assume you don’t care and that becomes the new standard.

Your job as the Engager is to set the tone of continuous improvement. A great place to start is with you. Set a consistent time in your day when you will work on you. Read a good business book, take a class, join a peer group. Do something that will help you grow as a leader. Casually let people know what you’re up to and that you’re doing it to continuously improve yourself.

I was talking with an Operations Manager recently who took self-improvement to the next level. He knew he was having challenges with some members of his team. He had attended a class on Organizational Communication and decided to put some of those ideas to work. He sat with his team and asked for honest feedback on how he comes across when he communicates. There was some hesitation at first but then the floodgates opened. It was not a comfortable session, kind of like self-performing exploratory surgery. But he came out of it grateful for the feedback and ready to improve. That sets a tone for his team that will benefit him, his team, and his organization.

You can also work on you by habitually asking yourself, “Is this my best work?” Don’t send an email or submit a report or send a text without double checking to see how you could improve it. Never have a conversation at work that you haven’t planned for. Think through how you could best engage in the interaction. You can do this even if you’re not planning for a specific conversation. You can scenario plan for types of conversations or conversations with certain people. If a conversation is spontaneous and you can’t plan for it, replay it in your mind and think about how to improve the next one. That’s especially true of phone calls.

Another step in setting the tone of continuous improvement is to make it one of your team’s cultural beliefs. Once you’ve begun to lead by example, start talking about continuous improvement as “the way we do things around here.” Start asking the question, “Is this your best work?” Reference continuous improvement as the reason you’re asking.

Many leaders believe people are generally lazy and don’t care about doing quality work. While there may be a certain lethargic comfort to mediocrity, if you make Qualitize your habit you’ll find the dullness will begin to fade, People’s eyes will brighten and there will be a buzz of excitement born out of the pride your people will take in the great quality of their work.

Equipping Extra

I recently posted about making sure people have the right tools and equipment to do their job. It’s important not only to have the right tools and equipment but also to be sure they are in top working order.

We recently had an experience at our house that tells this story well. We’ve had a particular high-end vacuum cleaner for 10 – 12 years. Over time it seemed to be losing suction. I went online and found a video about how to refurbish it for a fraction of the cost of a new unit. So I ordered the parts and did the work. Performance improved but it still didn’t seem like its old self.

My wife had been trolling the internet looking for deals on a new one. She found one but wasn’t convinced to make the purchase. Last weekend we were at one of the home improvement stores looking for something unrelated to vacuums. We came around a corner and (hear the sound of angels singing) there, in the middle of the aisle, far away from vacuums or appliances, stood a brand new vacuum like she’d been searching for, marked down 50% because the box had been opened.

We bought it. It was like Christmas morning when we got that thing home. We tore open the box (some assembly required) and got it going. What happened next was both exciting and disgusting. We vacuumed a rug in the living room. The vacuum literally pulled the rug up off the floor, the suction was so strong. In just a few short moments, the canister was getting full from what was coming out of that rug. My wife said, “I have spent 30 minutes before trying to get this rug vacuumed and look at this!”

We vacuumed our teenage son’s bedroom. When our daughter walked by it a few minutes later, after just coming home, she said, “Wow! Did you get new carpet?” The difference was that distinct. We vacuum regularly. But what came out of our carpets that day made it look like it had been months.

The moral of the story is that top performing tools and equipment are far more cost effective because they produce better quality outcomes with less effort. Repair or replace your tools and equipment and have fun being disgusted at what you find.

How to Make a Habit of Soliciting

Think of something. Anything. Chances are, whatever you thought of started with an idea. Someone, somewhere said, “I have an idea.” “Everything begins with an idea.” — Earl Nightingale

Your organization started as someone’s idea. The way you do a certain thing is a manifestation of an idea about how it should be done. In my post on the Engager Dynamic called “Solicit,” I talked about where the best ideas about improving work come from. They usually come from your front-line employees. The ones who have their hands on the work everyday most often have great ideas about how to make it better, easier, more efficient, higher quality, safer.

Putting it to Work

There are many ways to collect employee ideas. You could use the old standard “Suggestion Box” located in a prominent place. You could send out questionnaires or surveys on paper or using one of the online survey tools. SurveyMonkey is one I’ve used many times with success. There are also web based programs designed to make suggestion collection easy. Collecting suggestions is only part of the path. Once you have several ideas you need to take action. Failure to acknowledge and act on ideas will shut down the innovative participation of your team. Here are a few suggestions about action steps you can take:

  1. Form a team – if you don’t already have something like this in place, form a small team of 8 – 12 people. Front line employees should be represented on the team, preferably from a cross-section of your group. You should also include at least one supervisor and a manager. Call it something cool. I’ve heard of PIT Crew (Process Improvement Team) and UBT (Unit Based Team) for example. This team will perform the next steps.
  2. Pick 1 or 2 ideas – have your small team select the best 1 or, at the most, 2 ideas as projects. Define the criteria you’ll use to select the projects like “easiest to implement,” “most return on investment,” or “biggest impact on department morale.”
  3. Define your Measurements – you need to know how you measure what you’re trying to improve. These measurements are usually expressed as some ratio, injuries x 200,000 / Actual hours worked, for example, is the formula for a safety incident rate. It could be complaints per department or calls per hour depending on your work. Establish the baseline. “Right now we’re producing x parts per hour” or whatever it may be.
  4. Establish Goals – what does improvement look like? Set two goals. One is the minimum improvement required to decide the idea is worth implementing. The second is a stretch goal, a “What if we could get to this level?” kind of goal.
  5. Conduct a Small Test – use the PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Adopt or Adapt or Abandon) model. Plan a test of your project idea in a small area and/or for a short time. Make sure you are able to collect enough measurable data during your test. Do the test. Check the results along the way as they come in and at the end of the test. What do the results tell you?
  6. Act – the test results will determine what the “A” stands for, which action you will take. You will decide the ideas was great and you should adopt it across the organization or the results will suggest another course of action. You may find you want to adapt it and run another test to see if a small adjustment will improve the results. Or, you may decide the idea won’t work and you abandon it and move on to another project.
  7. Communicate – this should run all the way through the steps. Communicate with your whole organization about forming the team, about the project you’re working on, the goals, the test and then the results. Explain the “Why” for each of the steps especially your action. Finally, be sure to celebrate the team and the originator of the idea. If you adopted the idea give credit to the person or group who came up with it for improving work for everyone. If you abandoned it, celebrate the innovative thinking. All this will encourage your people to continue sharing great ideas.

Making it a Habit

All the above is a formal way to make a habit out of Soliciting ideas from your employees as an organization. As a leader it’s important for you to be involved either directly on the team or showing your continuing support of the team as its sponsor. If you’re not on the team, check on their progress frequently.

There is something you can do to make “solicit” a habit on a more personal level, You know that greeting we often use, “How’s it going?” We usually just say that or something like it as a substitute for “Hello” and move on not expecting a meaningful answer. Why not make a slight adjustment to that? What if you made it a point to walk by your team members from time to time and say, “Hello.” Then ask, “What’s going well right now?” Take the time to listen. It wouldn’t hurt to write down a note, too. Then ask, “What one thing could we do to improve our work?” Definitely take notes on the answer to that question.

If you’ve done what I suggested in the previous section, you have a place to take the great idea(s) you’ve just received.People often have great ideas about how to improve work and the organization overall. Sharing those ideas and seeing them implemented is the very definition of Engagement. What will you do today to move yourself and your organization toward making “Solicit” a habit?

Word Nerd Alert – Enthusiasm

In my recent post on Inspiration, I mentioned the word “Enthusiasm.” This one gets my word nerd juices flowing, too. “Enthusiasm” can be traced all the way back to ancient Greek. It’s made up of the two words en-, meaning “in” and theos, meaning “God.” Put together, they form a Greek word enthous, meaning God within. As a verb, the word is enthousiazein, meaning “to be possessed by or filled with a god.” It was often associated with ecstatic or intense emotion.

It is that sense of excited emotion that lingers in the meaning today. Here are a few great quotes about enthusiasm:

  • “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • “Enthusiasm is the electric current that keeps the engine of life going at top speed” –W. Clement Stone
  • “Knowledge is Power, Enthusiasm pulls the switch” –Ivern Ball
  • “If you’re not fired with enthusiasm, you’ll be fired with enthusiasm!” –Vince Lombardi.

There is an energy around enthusiasm. What happens when you are around enthusiastic people? It affects you. At least it raises your energy level if not making you enthusiastic as well.

I love it! As Susan Rabin says, “Enthusiasm is contagious. Be a carrier!”

How to Make a Habit of Inspiring

Let me go full on “Word Nerd” for a minute. The word “Inspire” comes from two Latin words: In-, meaning “into” and spirare, meaning “to breathe.” the literal meaning is “to breathe into” (hence the picture of the balloon). It was originally used of a divine or supernatural being in the sense, “to impart a truth or idea to someone.” It’s pretty easy to see how it has come to mean so many things related to art, music, purpose, etc.

As an Engager Dynamic, Inspire means to generate enthusiasm (ooh, a word nerd alert for another time!) by connecting people’s work to a higher purpose. Hopefully, the mission or vision of your organization captures that sense of higher purpose.

Putting it to Work

Let’s start with your organization’s mission/vision. What is it? Here are some examples of inspiring vision statements:

  • Life is Good: To spread the power of optimism.
  • IKEA: To create a better everyday life for the many people.
  • Nordstrom: To give customers the most compelling shopping experience possible.
  • Cradles to Crayons: to provide children from birth through age 12, living in homeless or low-income situations, with the essential items they need to thrive – at home, at school and at play.
  • JetBlue: To inspire humanity – both in the air and on the ground.
  • Prezi: To reinvent how people share knowledge, tell stories, and inspire their audiences to act.
  • Southwest Air: To become the world’s most loved, most flown, and most profitable airline.

Hopefully, yours is as inspiring. That just makes it easier. If it’s not as inspiring, that’s OK. You think of an inspirational way to describe what you do. I saw a statement on the side of a truck that said, “We help the world keep its commitments.” I thought that was pretty good! What you do is not what you really do. That trucking company transports goods from one place to another. That may sound boring. But, they know their customers often tell their customers, “It will be there by Monday.” This trucking company is saying, “We’ll make sure it is.”

Your company’s product or service does something for your customers they can’t or choose not to do for themselves. What are you freeing them or allowing them or helping them to do? Make that into a short statement that people can connect to as inspirational.

Making It a Habit

Now, how does your team contribute to that inspiring vision? Are you the Accounts Payable department? Maybe it’s, “We keep the lights on so we can …” The point is to make sure your team members know how important their work is to the overall mission/vision of the organization.

Back to the word inspire, think of blowing up a balloon. You breathe into it, take a breath, breathe into it again and repeat until it is full and vibrant. This is what you do with your team, too. You talk to them regularly about the team mission/vision, about how they’re making it happen for the organization and the customers you serve. When you recognize them for great work, tie that recognition to how it contributes to the team’s mission. When you give re-aligning feedback, do the same thing. Post your team mission on a banner or posters around the work area.

If this isn’t something your used to, you may want to check out my posts on developing habits and Strengthening the Do and Don’t Muscle. If you make inspiring your people as natural as breathing you will have an engaged, productive, enthusiastic team.

How to Make a Habit of Cultivating

People generally don’t like change. On the other hand, one of life’s intrinsic motivators is “Mastery” or the desire to get better at things. That’s why people will spend countless hours practicing and playing an instrument with no intent they will ever make a dime at it professionally. Or, how many people play video games professionally? or golf? You get the idea.

Think about that, though. If I improve at something, isn’t that growth? And, isn’t growth, by definition, equal to change? Well, if I find it motivating to get better at things (or grow = change), but I don’t like change, isn’t that a contradiction? It sure seems like it. Maybe the question is, “what does it mean when people say they don’t like change?”

Several years ago my wife and I were having lunch with another couple who were friends of ours. We were talking about personal growth and development. At one point in the conversation my friend’s wife made a telling comment. She said, “If growth means I have to experience any pain, then I’m fine just the way I am.” Bingo! It’s likely what people don’t like is not the change, but the anticipated “pain” we often associate with growth.

What Pain?

We love the flower or the food we get from plants, the result of the growth. So we cultivate. Cultivating means to prepare the soil for planting and to promote the growth of the plants. We prepare soil by breaking it up and introducing fertilizer. What’s the best fertilizer? To put it nicely, dung. To promote growth we make sure to plant the seed where it will be exposed to rain and sunlight. We also pull up any weeds that may start to grow in the vicinity and we often need to prune the plant as it grows. Pruning is cutting away growth that is not healthy for the plant. Wow! “Breaking up, dung, rain, pulling, cutting away,” Ouch! Growth can involve pain . . . “No pain, no gain” so the saying goes.

The pain for us may come in the form of feedback from co-workers that identifies an area where we need to grow. It may come from a boss in the form of an evaluation or discipline. It could come from a mistake we make that identifies a deficiency. It’s often said that failure is a great teacher. None of these is particularly pleasant. But, they are often the beginning of growth.

Putting it to Work

The Engager Dynamic called Cultivate is all about creating an environment at work that promotes growth. The first step is to make the pain bearable. Really, you’re just changing people’s perception of it. If you make continuous improvement part of your culture, if “we get better” is just “how we do things around here,” then feedback, evaluation, and even failure become normal. When they become normal, they seem less painful and can even become as welcome as eating healthily or a morning workout. To achieve this you must allow freedom for mistakes and failure without retribution as necessary steps of improvement. Failing forward is part of a continuous improvement culture.

Making it a Habit

Once you’ve removed the fear of punishment for mistakes, the environment will be much more conducive to growth. The following three elements will promote learning and development for your team.

  1. Exposure – give your people the opportunity to be exposed to new things. Take someone to a meeting they don’t usually attend. Give them a chance to spend time in another job or department for a day. Introduce them to someone who is an expert in an area of their interest. I put this element first because often this exposure excites a motivation for the next.
  2. Education – having been exposed to something of interest, people are often filled with questions to which they sincerely want answers. Now they’re ready to go to “class.” This may be in the form of online learning, or in-person classes your company offers. Don’t be afraid to spend a little money to send someone to a seminar or class or school if your company offers tuition reimbursement. On the other hand, it may be a simple as letting them spend time with a mentor. NOTE: too often, leaders make the mistake of thinking Education is the totality of Learning and Development. They believe if they send someone to a class and they get a certificate, then they should know everything they need to know. In fact, education is only about 20% of the learning package.
  3. Experiences – here is where you really get the benefit. Focus up to 70% of your development plan on providing opportunities for your people to put into practice what they’re learning. We retain only about 50% of what we see and hear. We retain over 80% of what we experience for ourselves. Give people guided experience at leading meetings. putting together presentations, whatever their learning path is about. As I suggested in my post on Training, if you really want them to know their stuff, let them teach you or someone else what they’re learning. We retain 95% of what we teach.

Weave these elements into the every day routine of your organization or team and you will have a thriving garden of engaged, productive people.