What Goes Up Must Come Down

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By Serendis

June 9, 2020

Are you finding that team engagement and motivation are currently at risk?

Over the last few months we have observed an incredible amount of agility and hard work from people working across various businesses and organisations. These behaviours are leaders’ most critical assets. Going forward, how can we maintain that amount of goodwill and consistent efforts in the midst of ongoing economic and social uncertainty and the need to reinvent our ways of working in response to it?

In March, we were all faced with an unprecedented threat that has forced us all to adapt and reinvent the way we work and deliver value. This created an incredible collective challenge and a sense of urgency that accelerated individuals’ response and accountability. Unbeknownst to most of us at the time, this triggered a rush of adrenaline in our brains and bodies. This hormonal spike enabled us to focus, adapt and deliver with speed. It is a product of our brain’s wiring to ‘fight or flight’ in response to a threat.

Ten weeks on, we are now at the tipping point of this phenomenon and with it comes a natural drop of adrenaline which is likely to create a sense of low grade depression…a decline in productivity and engagement. Added to this trend is a series of threats that are impacting team members’ morale as they consider the more lasting impacts of the COVID crisis. These include health and safety concerns about returning to the office, job insecurity, poor economic outlook. organisational performance’s uncertainty, fear of decreased remuneration etc…

These different factors place performance, engagement and motivation at risk in an environment where you are not likely to see your team members on a daily basis any time soon. This trend is likely to be silent and could go unnoticed.

To help form recommendations for leaders to address this negative trend effectively, we have studied three pillars of human motivation:

  • Purpose
  • Challenge & ownership
  • Personal recognition

Typical leadership responses through the crisis ticked every single one of these three criteria and this is probably why the corporate world has coped so positively altogether. How will you shift this energy to sustain performance and motivation for your team? Here is our 3-step model to help you:

Renew or re-iterate a strong sense of purpose for your team

Your team members probably currently have a heavy focus on delivering. This is making them feel busy and under the pump. The current context may make their role more complex and they may have had to reinvent how they deliver value. As a result, they are probably head down, getting things done. Your role as a leader is to help the team lift up and look ahead.

We recommend organising regular strategic catch ups for your team to brainstorm and reflect together on a couple of questions you would have carefully crafted to enable them to see the forest (strategic) through the trees (tactical). Formalising this as a team is critical to bring agility in the way they operate. It is about engaging the team to think outside the box and to think about perspectives they would not normally consider. Make sure you set the expectations very clearly that this is a strategic brainstorm and a different focus to your weekly catch ups.

To kick start these meetings, you will want to articulate your purpose as a team carefully…express your own personal passion, re-iterate why the team exists and define why this is important. If applicable, provide several examples as to who they deliver value to and how this is making an impact.

This gives you a good platform to ask 1 or 2 (max) of these questions:

  • What relevant shifts to our activity can we anticipate in the next 3 to 6 months?
  • What have you heard / seen as insights into the current economic outlook?
  • How will our stakeholders & clients’ needs change?
  • What material factors will be different in the ‘new normal’?
  • What does the organisation need from us?
  • How does our team need to pivot in the current environment?
  • How should we best focus our time in the next 4 weeks?
  • What should be our priorities & what can we de-prioritise?

Bringing your team together fortnightly to debate a couple of these questions each time will bring different ideas to the table, it will ensure your team remains nimble and focused on the right priorities and it will maintain a sense of challenge and purpose for better engagement.

Provide clarity and direction in an environment dominated by uncertainty

Because you can’t alleviate uncertainty, double your efforts on providing direction and clarity on what is important in the short term. Patrick Lencioni (an American leadership expert and executive coach) said that ‘leaders have not said anything until they have said it 7 times’.

We often make the mistake to think that our team has heard, understood, assimilated some of the complex information that, as a leader, we are privy to or have been exposed to for a while. Unfortunately, your team members’ perception may be very different to what you expect.

The current level of stress will induce unhelpful stories and fears that you will need to help reframe for them through regular communication. You cannot control the future, but you can influence the narrative that drives your team’s efforts and focus right now.

Our recommendation is to make sure that you communicate ‘again & again’ at three different levels:

  • Why we do what we do & why it matters
  • What we should focus on this week above all & what is less important currently
  • Who in the team is responsible for what / by when

Acknowledge the efforts rather than the outcomes

The last critical pillar of human motivation is this sense of personal recognition. Have you ever felt that ‘spring in your step’ when your boss, your clients, your stakeholders or your colleagues acknowledge your contribution? We have all experienced how this can boost our ability to maintain our efforts or even work harder. This is so critical at a time where your team members’ moods are threatened by this adrenaline drop. There is an important caveat though and this can be summarised in one word…authenticity!

In an environment where KPIs may not be achievable anymore, where the deal flow may dry up or when success is not as exciting as it was in a pre-COVID world…how do you acknowledge your people authentically?

The answer is simple: acknowledge the efforts, the attitude, the intent, the behaviour rather than the outcomes or the results. Make sure you spend time on a weekly basis to slip a quick chat note to a colleague to thank them for the energy they put in, their approach or their ability to cope with multiple priorities at a time. Make it personal, make it authentic, only comment on what you genuinely identified as a great contribution. Embrace a habit of doing this one on one and also encourage the team to do it for one another during your meetings. You can introduce a quick ‘High Five’ round where you invite each member of the team to ‘High Five’ someone else for their contribution.

Purpose, adaptability, clarity and personal accountability are the cornerstones of making agile leadership a ‘BAU’ practice. Like an orchestra conductor, we invite you to maintain that rhythm in your team in the coming weeks and beyond as the new norm settles in and we all embrace remote and agile working sustainably!