How leaders can find the fun during the slog

How Leaders Can Find the Fun During the Slog

Find the fun with authenticity, surprise, and variety.

Robert unmuted his microphone, leaned into the camera, and asked in a near-whisper: “How can we find the fun again?”

We were facilitating at the Inc 5000 Vision Conference, helping leaders navigate the challenges of a remote, socially-distanced workforce. Heads nodded. And a sea of sympathetic half-smiles and hopeful eyes filled the Zoom screen.

He continued, “My company culture was built on frequent social gatherings and my people draw energy and encouragement from one another. The fun isn’t window-dressing, it’s an essential part of their productivity–and without it, I worry about our future.”

As the pandemic’s socially distanced slog continues into the winter months in the northern hemisphere, you know how important Roberts’s question is for your team’s morale and productivity.

4 Ways to Find the Fun Despite the Slog

As we’ve talked with leaders around the world who can find the fun, four characteristics emerged.

1. Authenticity and Vulnerability

Vulnerability isn’t ‘fun’ per se, but it’s essential. Starting with “fun” without acknowledging reality feels disconnected or manipulative.

Transparency from leaders and team members about their feelings, acknowledging the reality you and your team face–these build trust and credibility. They also lighten the load just a bit.

And to get real for a moment: the pandemic slog is real. We’re living it. Close family and friends are sick. Friends, family, and clients have lost friends and family. Along with you, we long for the days when we can once again gather safely with loved ones or conduct training and strategic facilitation in person.

Those days will come again, but right now we face the slog. Frankly, it stinks and everyone’s tired of it. And …we can do it.

Over and over again we’ve seen leaders care for their teams, inspire morale, motivation, and breakthrough performance. This is hard; and you’re up for the challenge.

2. Varied and Individualized

In our conversations with leaders who are able to find the fun, a recurring theme is variety. The virtual happy hour was fun the first time, but the tenth one feels obligatory and routine.

How can you mix up your routine remote activities?

Perhaps you could start every team meeting with a different activity? For more social or fun activities, keep it fresh. Many teams have incorporated online games, themed events, and professional development into their mix of recognition and connection.

Another important aspect of variety is individualization. Recognize the differences in your team so you see and connect with people as they are. One CEO shared an effective way to do this in her company: periodically they take half-days for self-directed professional development, followed by brief sharing about what they chose and what they learned.

With everyone choosing their focus and learning, then sharing it with their colleagues, the activity is both individualized, varied every time, and connects team members more closely with one another in areas of passion.

3. Anticipation

An endless horizon stretching ahead forever is discouraging and, on top of pandemic-related anxiety, can lead to significant mental health challenges.

Give people something to look forward to will break up the monotony and energize performance. But don’t schedule everything – leave room for …

4. Surprise and Delight

One of the most powerful ways to find the fun is with the element of surprise and delight. Create moments of the unexpected where people feel genuinely seen and valued.

Recently, a client had a coffee meeting with Karin. He had pastries delivered to our home office ahead of the meeting. It was so unexpected–we rarely have pastries, and it brought so much joy.

Another client ordered a pizza to arrive at her team member’s home just as our meeting was wrapping up. That pizza brought so much joy that he sent us a picture just to celebrate the moment.

Surprise and delight don’t have to be about food. When people show up for a routine meeting, what can you do that would delight them? Make them smile and say “Wow, that was cool!”

You don’t need to rely on surprise and delight every week. If you do, it becomes routine–and the endless horizon returns. But every few weeks, how can you make people smile, feel seen, and do it in a way they aren’t expecting?

Your Turn

The slog is real. But so is your team’s resilience and ability to persevere. You can find the fun and energize your people with a combination of authenticity, variety, anticipation, surprise, and delight.

We’d love to hear from you: As you lead through these challenging circumstances, how are you renewing your team’s energy and morale?

Employee Engagement - Avoid Tremendous Leadership Mistake

Employee Engagement – Avoid This Tremendous Leadership Mistake

Employee Engagement – Play the Game, Don’t Game the Score

When you see low employee engagement scores, what is your first reaction?

I spoke with a company executive who was upset with his engagement scores. “The numbers are horrible,” he said. “Can you help us with some team-building?”

I replied, “Probably not.”

He looked at me with a combination of shock and amusement.  He wasn’t used to consultants telling him they didn’t want his money.

“Okay, tell me why not?”

It’s not that I wasn’t willing to help – of course, I would. But when morale stinks, employee engagement scores are down the drain, and your people are upset, team building isn’t the solution.

In fact, it’s a tremendous mistake that will almost always make things worse.

Start With Why

Low employee engagement scores are the symptom of a problem, not the problem itself. Leaders who are Winning Well focus on playing the game, not gaming the score. That means they don’t try to manipulate the score with team-building, pizza, or incentives – they stay focused on the critical behaviors that drive performance and results.Employee engagement - play the game don't game the score

Employee engagement is no exception. Focus on the score and you’re lost. Instead, play the game: focus on the behaviors that create the score.

When I asked the executive why his people were upset, he wasn’t sure.

As we dug deeper, we discovered that there were significant breakdowns of clarity and commitment. There were problems communicating major organizational changes, one mid-level manager who had become territorial and was needlessly frustrating other departments, and front-line leaders who were driving talent away by scaring people into performance.

Fix The Real Problem

Don’t try to motivate your way out of a mess. Fix the mess. (Tweet This)

For this executive, that meant apologizing for the communication problems, getting the right information out to everyone, listening to and addressing the concerns his people had about the new process, and taking aside the territorial manager for some one-on-one coaching and accountability. Then he invested in leadership development for his front-line leaders and we worked with the middle-level managers to reinforce the front-line leaders’ new focus on results and relationships.

Don’t use team-building in response to problems or low morale. Fix the communication problems. Improve the process issue that prevents people from doing their job.

Icing On The Employee Engagement Cake

Team-building is often loathed and panned by employees and managers alike because it can be such a waste of time – a well-intentioned, but a completely ineffectual response to a problem that takes real work to solve.

Done properly, real team-building is the icing on a good cake.  It takes a solid foundation and makes it something truly special.

Imagine trying to spread frosting on a cake that is only half-cooked. You’d a have a nasty, goopy mess that ends up in the trash. You can’t frost a half-baked cake and you can’t use motivation or team-building in place of fundamentals.

Your Turn

Leave us a comment and share: How do you make sure you’re not trying to “motivate your way out of a mess”? Or if you’ve got a particularly awful example of this mistake at work, you can share that too.

What's Really Killing Morale and Employee Engagement

Janice shared:

I’d had enough: the gossip; the veterans scaring the new hires; more and more people doing just enough to get by… And I was frustrated because we’d done so much to foster employee engagement.

I changed out some toxic leaders. We revamped our coaching program to focus on the positive. I’m here every Saturday right along with them. I bring bagels. The day I forgot the bagels, I bought lunch. We have fun incentive programs and have really positive approach to coaching.

I was intrigued. The call center I’d been called in to do consulting work for was doing so much right. And yet they had brought me in, “because there’s always room for improvement.” Yes, another sign that they are Winning Well. They had terrific margins, unheard of low turnover, and everyone was smiling.  

Apparently, it wasn’t always that way.

I asked about the tipping point.

One Saturday, I just couldn’t take it any more. So I transferred the phones to another center, and had everyone pull their chairs to the center of the office. I expressed my frustration– and then said, “Please, please help me. What is the source of our morale problem?”

I was shocked by the answer. 

They didn’t want more fun, incentives or even time off the phones.

It all came down to one thing.

They wanted us to take a hard stand on the slackers. Those coming in late. Putting customers on hold for an extra breather. Absence. 

Side note– Apparently there was almost unanimous agreement that this was the issue, while three people remained silent– you guessed it– the slackers.

So I pulled reports and dug into the patterns of every rep. 

Note: She then pulled out binder-clipped half-inch stack of paper– which was a computer print out of one rep’s tardy logins (all one or two minutes), but there must have been hundreds of occurrences.

Which of course begs the question– why should I sign in on time, if no one does anything to those who don’t?

Then I met with every rep and showed them the impact they were having on our morale problem. If they were consistently on time and doing the right things, I thanked them and apologized for not paying closer attention. If they were part of the problem, I asked for their commitment on specific behaviors to improve.

Morale soared.

Letting slackers slide may seem like a short-cut to being likable. But such “Pleaser” behaviors crush the spirit of those making the biggest impact on your team.  

Where do you need to hold people more accountable?

Winning Well Bootcamp

Christmas In July: How To Make Everyday Magic

It was a sweltering July day, the heat wave had been going on for weeks. We only had a window air conditioner in one room in the house. It was starting to feel crowded. My mom had used up her usual tricks to stay cool the library, the movies, peppermint stick ice cream with chocolate sprinkles. And then on the 25th of July, we woke up to Christmas carols blaring throughout the house, and the smell of French Toast and bacon. “No swimming lessons today girls, it’s Christmas in July.”

We ran downstairs and sure enough our kitchen table was covered in paper snowflakes and a small pile of fun little gifts. We forgot about the heat. What a morning what a mom.

Finding Christmas in July

Leaders create extraordinary. Magic moments require effort, not money. All told, I bet that “Christmas” cost less than $30, and yet it stands out more than the real deal.

Create leadership magic through:

  • Creativity
  • Absurdity
  • Surprise
  • Effort
  • Silly
  • Caring
  • Just-in-time support

The Secret to Employee Engagement

“How do I get my team to care?” Employee engagement is the number one requested topic from my readers. If you’re struggling with employee engagement, you’re not alone. Gallup says:

“Seventy-one percent of American workers are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” in their work, meaning they are emotionally disconnected from their workplaces and are less likely to be productive.”

The disengagement increases with education. Americans with a college degree are “significantly less likely to be engaged in their jobs than are those with a high school diploma or less.” We hire for knowledge and then discourage contribution.

The Secret to Employee Engagement

I recently met with 2 new hire training classes. One was alive, actively interested, asked great questions, and shared their optimism for their careers. The other class looked at me skeptically. Didn’t say much. Yawns were involved.

My colleage looked at me after my meetings, “Wow, what a difference in engagement between those two groups.” What was the difference? The hiring demographics? The trainer? Frontline leadership? Nope.

Look Within First

It was me. I approached the first class as I normally do. I walked around the room and asked each person to introduce themselves– to tell me something about them personally. I heard of new babies, graduations, hobbies. I also asked them to share “why they will be a rock star in this position.” As they shared, I linked their ideas to key messages I wanted to reinforce. Then, I shared a bit about me both at work and at home. After all that, we started the Q &A.

It was time consuming and we were short on time. As I entered the next classroom, I was warned “you took too long with the last class, we’re behind on the agenda, and we have a plane to catch.” I skipped the one-on-one intro stuff, and moved right to Q and A. Sure I was energetic and perky, but there was no trust. It wasn’t personal. I felt scary, and the yawns began. In hindsight, I should have skipped that class.

If you can’t engage well, don’t show up.

As leaders we set the tone for employee engagement.

  • Make it personal
  • Ask questions
  • Share yourself
  • Create connection
  • Inspire confidence
  • Assure them they matter
  • Insire a compelling vision
  • Link unique skills to the vision
  • Be fully engaged yourself
  • ?