Simple tweaks in communication can nudge employees into top form and create a more productive environment for everyone.
Everyone knows that it’s not easy to suddenly make your employees and colleagues more creative, adaptable, or collaborative, however well-intentioned you may be.
One Member of the Business Exposure Group is the MD of a successful technology consultancy and wanted to forge a culture that would enable people to be innovative and focused, collaborative and emotionally balanced. He did all the usual things—hired carefully, developed an inspiring vision for the company, and designed an inviting workspace. Improving work life, one day at a time.
Multitasking is such a problem! Each switch from one task to another—from email to reading to speaking on a conference call—wastes a little of our mental energy. And those switches cost us dearly. People are less creative, more stressed, and make 2-4 times as many mistakes when they deal with interruptions and distractions. The decision-making quality drops the longer people go without a break, and we are more prone to sloppy thinking in general.
But, if leaders can encourage people to go offline when doing their most important work, as well as taking more frequent breaks, they’ll see an increase in productivity, innovation, and morale.
Our Member thought about this and knew that a stumbling block to taking breaks and avoiding multitasking was that people often feel they need to show their responsiveness to senior colleagues by being constantly available, whether on email, instant messaging, or in person.
He knew his own behaviour would be crucial to changing what normally happened in his company, so he decided to place a timer on his desk to signal that he was taking 25 or 45 minutes to go offline – to re-focus. This role modelling worked and it became the norm within the company. Everyone now agrees that breaks are a legitimate use of time because they get so much more done afterwards.
He also created a “Monday meeting” for all staff to discuss how they were working together as a company. After some time, it emerged that pressures were mounting, threatening to derail their commitment to focusing and recharging. “It was an emerging cultural behaviour, and we wanted it to stop”. So, he set some rules, like ‘encouraging people to have lunch with each other’ and ‘scheduling breaks between meetings.’
Most important, he felt, “leaders had to take responsibility for our behaviour and give out the right signals, use the right language, celebrate the right behaviours in others. So we cheered people for leaving the office to go for a run. Later, we adopted the phrase ‘leaving by example,’ encouraging people to use it instead of a mumbled, guilty excuse for taking a break.”
Also in the Monday meeting, the leaders took one further step to reduce overload, by asking everyone to name their two priorities for the week. Our Member says “the ‘two priorities’ rule encouraged people to be realistic and focused in their work. Decide what really matters this week!
The meeting is also used as to look at the company’s workload. When it looks like someone has too much on, people are encouraged to offload rather than suffer in silence.
The result: great creativity and camaraderie.
Another Member of the Group owns a healthcare company. Budgets are tight and the outcomes of his team’s work are often subject to scrutiny. He has to help his staff stay energized and motivated, even when the going gets tough.
Our Member has put this insight at the heart of his leadership style. He creates a positive frame for difficult tasks or discussions. He always begins meetings by talking about what the team has done well. This calms everyone down and helps people think more clearly. It’s not about trying to spin or gloss over the problems. But, beginning with what’s working well puts everyone in a more open frame of mind, meaning we can look at what’s not working without people getting defensive.
By focusing on something positive before getting into the tough stuff, bosses can help people stay in high-performance mode. It doesn’t take much.
Usually, when a colleague has an issue, leaders help by offering advice or direction which can backfire. A well-intentioned “have you tried this/that . . .” can be subconsciously interpreted as a judgment, as in: “why haven’t you tried this/that?” This mild threat can be enough to constrain the deliberate system and make people less creative in their own thinking. The alternative: create space for people to do their own best quality thinking. Our Member uses the “extreme listening” technique. He asks someone what they want to think through, and lets them talk without interrupting or making suggestions. Usually within five minutes, the problem has literally solved itself.
Our Member is clear on the lesson for owners: helping colleagues feel capable of handling matters on their own “is one of the greatest gifts you can give someone,” providing a great boost to their resilience and confidence.
Another Member of the Business Exposure Group is Chairman of a Marketing Company. Marketing is evolving fast. Traditional marketing requires creativity. Modern marketing still requires that, but we now get to benefit from new analytical tools that allow us to track return on investment of our marketing campaigns.
This requires quite a different type of skillset—much more quantitative which means our Member had to hire new types of people in the marketing department of his Company, alongside existing staff.
The challenge was “Whenever you have a very new group of people joining an existing team, you’ve got to pay real attention to motivation,”
Of all threats, social slights are especially high on the list of needs if we want our staff to flourish:
- Inclusion:“Do I belong?” Existing staff were worried they were going to be excluded from exciting new work. The newbies, meanwhile, were wondering whether they truly fit in.
- Respect:“Do people recognize the value I bring?” Everyone on the team wants to feel that their efforts are useful and appreciated.
- Fairness:“Am I being treated just like everyone else—or do I at least understand the reason that things are the way they are?”
If the answer to any of those questions is “no,” people quickly go into defensive mode—which is a sure recipe for dysfunctional behaviour. Our Member said “people were clearly feeling anxious and nervous and as a result, they started complaining about things they’ve never complained about before—making snide comments or questioning things that they saw as scope creep. People here are generally polite and friendly, and passionate about their work. So they weren’t hostile. Just unsettled.”
To boost feelings of inclusion, our Member created opportunities for all staff to get to know each other and to later work together on new product innovation.
Our Member also takes the time to make everyone feel respected for their individual contribution. “You have to make sure to give people ‘spotlight moments.’ He looks for opportunities to get them in front of the management team. If people have done the work, they present it, not the boss.”
He personally takes time to balance his time between the creatives and the technical folks, and if someone’s giving up some responsibilities to one of the new hires, he says, “I make sure to explain why that’s happening and emphasize the opportunities they will have to do new stuff in other areas—often areas that they’re better at and enjoy more.”
All staff are learning and growing by being exposed to each other. The company never stops changing. The people who are currently ‘new’ will become the ‘old guard’ and then there will be a new generation of skills needed.
Staff will behave more like their best selves, more of the time, if owners take a few modest steps to foster an environment where people’s brain’s aren’t overloaded—more focused on rewards than threats—and have their fundamental social needs met. With a little behavioural science in your toolkit, business owners can build a more productive team—and a happier one.