It’s the championship game and you’re all set for an edge-of-the-seat experience for the next four heart-pounding hours. This is football at its finest. What gets your adrenaline pumping when the closest to the field you’ll be is the five feet between you and the TV? It’s the spectacular plays like a shoestring tackle on the 1-yard line, a goal line stand, a running back launching five feet into the air over a defender, an impossible one-handed end zone catch. It’s all the fantastic plays that professional athletes make when they’re fired up and playing at their peak.
So what gets athletes energized and passionate enough to generate an entire post-game show of play highlights like these? It might be easier to answer the question by considering what would happen if we took away a few basic elements of the game that we all take for granted. Let’s say we didn’t tell the players who they were playing. They now have no idea what their opponents do well or where they’re weak. Let’s also take away the lines on the field so players can’t tell if they’re getting first downs or touchdowns. In fact, let’s take down the scoreboard, or stop keeping score altogether, so players don’t even know who’s winning. Since the players aren’t sure what they’re supposed to accomplish, the coach tells them to forget about crossing first down lines or scoring and just do what he tells them to do. If the coach says to run a play, players do it until they get tackled or run out of field. When the game is over, the coach let’s them know that it’s time to go home.
How would an experience like that change the game? Players can be trained to make tackles, block opponents, run the ball, or catch a pass. The coach can try to motivate the players and get them enthused about making great plays. The team can still play hard. But would players play with the same intensity? Would we have game highlights to watch when the game was over? Not likely. Think of how player energy and passion would evaporate. No amount of training or encouragement would compensate for what is needed to create the context that defines the game. Removing context pretty well destroys the purpose for playing. With no goals, no feedback, no understanding of what success looks like and what it takes to succeed, the personal drive to excel disappears.
As ridiculous as a football game would be without team statistics, a scoreboard, and lines on the field, we send our workforce players out on the playing field of the business every day under those conditions. We don’t tell them who we are competing against. In fact, we sometimes don’t even let them know what game they’re playing. We keep them ignorant about the products produced, services provided, the industry they’re competing in, and what it will take to win in the marketplace against the competition. There’s no scoreboard, no ongoing and visible measure of success, and little useful feedback for changing strategy to win the game. Instead, like players without context, we simply tell employees not to worry about figurative first downs and scoring and just do what the coach-supervisor tells them to do.
Doesn’t that sound crazy? We think it’s silly to expect football players to make spectacular plays without context, but can’t understand why our employees won’t. And because they won’t, we think it’s because they’re lazy or, strangely enough, not motivated.
To turn this around, all we have to do is step back and see what the football team has that our workforce doesn’t. We can start with the game and the competition. Teaching employees about the industry, who’s competing, and how each company stacks up against the other is like providing division standings and team statistics to identify opportunities and challenges. Adding monthly or quarterly objectives lets the team know what it has to do to win each game. A scoreboard that’s updated regularly with essential results tells employees how well they’re competing as a unit. Critical team objectives well documented and published like first down lines gives everyone the targets they need to move the team forward each day. Employees who get feedback on their performance during and after each game will know their statistics, or where they need to improve, to be a top contributor.
When players understand what they have to do, and why, they can do more than just blindly follow what may seem to them to be meaningless directions from their supervisors. With all the elements of context, they are better equipped to step up and make spectacular plays to win the game of work.
Ascent Management Consulting is found at www.ascentmgt.com and specializes in getting workgroups and business units back on track through performance turnarounds that create breakthrough leadership, workplace cultures and organization systems.