leadership incorporated blog

December 17, 2012

Leaders: Are You Using The Activation Phenomenon To Succeed Bigger?

A 2001 study at Johns Hopkins showed that when nurses met the medical team by name and asked about their concerns early on, they were more likely to note problems and offer solutions than nurses who were not treated as valued team members. Getting people personally involved activated their participation, their sense of responsibility and their willingness to speak up.

The researchers called this the “Activation Phenomenon.”

Think about your own experience in workplaces where you were (are) activated and challenged to be at your best. Weren’t you more interested in your work? Did you look forward to getting to work and not want to stop? Did you have moments in which time stood still while you worked your magic? Didn’t you find yourself caring deeply about the work, the results, your clients, co-workers, and vendors?

On the other hand, most of us have experienced not being encouraged to use our smarts and skills and can-do spirit. We’ve felt frustrated, bored, undervalued. We’ve questioned our own worth. We’ve done our time without caring about the results, because, really, what was the point of caring?

Companies that produce the best results over time more often make people feel the first way. Organizations that create the second set of feelings, generally have to spend a lot of their time and capital on people problems, efficiency problems, quality problems, turnover problems…yes, all kinds of problems. And that gets in the way of creating sustainable success.

Do some of the engagement issues come from the people themselves? Of course, yet no problem is one-sided. And your business is either doing things to activate engagement on the part of its people, its clients, and its vendors or it is doing things to deactivate them.

So, it’s a good idea to periodically take an unflinching look at some of the conditions business leaders create that either activate or de-activate even themselves:

  • Create A Strong Sense Of Purpose: When we feel connected to the “why” behind our jobs, we work longer, harder, smarter and with greater passion. When disconnected from the end results of our work, our roles become abstract and we become disengaged.
  • Offer A Good Meaty Challenge: Stretching people just slightly out of their comfort zones is highly engaging. On the other hand, asking too little keeps us feeling bored and insignificant. However, asking the impossible breeds resentment and lack of respect.
  • Build A Connected Team Feeling:  Personal connections, being part of something bigger than ourselves, knowing others depend on us and that our delivery has an impact on their ability to perform is a powerful and energizing motivator. When work is impersonal and disconnected from others, it’s much harder to care.
  • Treat People With Respect: Virtually everyone does their best work when approached consistently as valuable human beings and team members. Conversely, being talked down to, blamed, ignored, yelled at, dismissed, and so on, almost always results in mutual disrespect.
  • Provide Constructive Feedback: Study after study shows that people work harder when we know how we are doing, whether the feedback indicates we are exceeding, meeting, or failing to meet expectations. One critical warning: make sure feedback is actionable and focused on the work, not the person. Blame, judgment, and feedback that does not suggest a course of action will demotivate.
  • Give The Authority To Make Decisions That Impact Outcomes: When people are able to create and carry out actions that produce results, we feel empowered and take ownership of the process. When we’re held responsible for conditions over which we have no control, we become passive and resentful, feeling that we’ve been set up to lose and that it doesn’t matter what we do.
  • Allow Permission To Make mistakes: In environments that encourage mistakes (and learning) we feel freer to think out of the box, to come up with new and better ways and speak up when we see the potential for problems ahead. When mistakes happen, we don’t hesitate to surface them and get to immediate resolution. On the other hand, when we fear “getting in trouble,” we risk less and cover-up more. Which do you think is of greater benefit to any organization?

See anything here that your organization might do better on? What conversations can you have in the next few weeks to activate yourself and the people your business depends on to hit the ground running in 2013?

Wishing you a happy holiday season and some highly activated growth in the new year.

February 20, 2011

How to destroy engagement, commitment and good work in 30 seconds or less.

This week I experienced first hand 5 huge mistakes leaders make in giving feedback — and the negative impact of those mistakes on forward movement toward their goals.

Last Tuesday I was the speaker at a local professional organization. As a growth engineer and consultant, I often speak to companies and other organizations about creating growth.

Rather than do all the talking, I like to create interactive experiences for my audiences that I intend will give them tools they can use immediately in their work and lives. This mini-workshop focused on helping professionals to flesh out their business growth goals for 2011.  I do this a lot and I usually get feedback that I open people’s eyes to fresh viewpoints.

This talk initially appeared  like any other. Of the 40 people in the room, most were actively engaged. As I introduced new perspectives on vision and the nature of growth, I saw widened eyes, expressions of contemplation and nodding heads. Only one person in the room was more focused on their BlackBerry than on what we were doing. Pretty darn good for 2011.

When we concluded, the group’s leader said “It’s our practice here to critique the speaker. OK with you?”  My inner voice hissed at me that “critique” was not the best way to set up a feedback situation. I didn’t listen to my inner voice. I should know better. She always knows what’s going on.

What happened next was about 10 minutes of people in “critique” mode telling me how others have done this before. What they thought I should have talked about instead. How I should have structured it.The leader went last and (thankfully) offered some positive feedback, speaking to the value he had received from the experience.

I  received some valid and useful comments. I also received some unrealistic perspectives: ideas that would have taken far more time than I had to work with. Ideas that were irrelevant to my topic. Ideas that were interesting for follow-up sessions, but which they framed as criticisms that I hadn’t covered those here and now.

Usually after I speak, there is a lineup of people who want to ask a question or connect later. This time, everyone averted their eyes from me and I found myself standing alone at the front of the room. I remember noting this same phenomenon when I was in the audience for another speaker in a similar situation (ironically in the very same room) about a year ago.
My coaching training helped me to keep all this in perspective. But many of the people to whom you may want to offer feedback won’t have had this training.

Here’s how employees react when leaders mishandle feedback:

  • Humiliation, disappointment, judgment of self and others
  • Certainty that the work in its entirety was a failure
  • Experience of themselves as a failure
  • Internalized or externalized anger at group and self
  • Disengagement from the group
  • Generalized insecurity, hesitation and loss of confidence for similar future work

All devastating stuff if you want to create growth in your organization!

What this leader did well:

  • Asked permission
  • Focused on what worked

Where this leader failed:

  1. Not providing a framework for the feedback
  2. Calling the feedback “critique”
  3. Leading with the negative
  4. Focusing exclusively on what didn’t work
  5. Giving suggestions instead of reactions


Begin with some detailed appreciation. It’s amazing how much better we can hear constructive criticism when positive acknowledgment comes first

Start by asking us to give ourselves feedback.

What did we think was working?

What did we think could work better?

We usually know. If we find it ourselves, we integrate it better and believe it more.

Only then, ask permission to add to our understanding. It may seem unnecessary but this formality makes a real difference in the person’s ability to hear and integrate the information.

If a group will be giving feedback, provide parameters for the feedback. For example: “Let’s stick to the content presented here. Please share with Sharon what worked for you and what might have worked better.”

Share only observations and reactions. For example: “The point about vision changing over time really resonated with me.” Or “At the beginning, I wasn’t clear where you were going.”
Don’t tell us how fix it. Let us find her own solutions.

Ask if we have any questions or wants anything clarified. Often when people are receiving feedback they shut down. This re-engages them in the process.

As leader should you give feedback last or first? It’s important to remember that people look to you for guidance to their own behavior. If you go first, you can set the tone for everything that follows. Of course, you may also inhibit differing viewpoints. One solution: lead with an example to get everyone started, and reserve most of your comments for the end.

Think this takes too much time? It only takes a few minutes more and the results save more than time. They save the engagement, commitment, confidence and future of not only the person but the project…and potentially your organization’s ability to reach its goals. This is what leadership looks like.

Wishing you an inspired week.

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