Category Archives: Engagement & Motivation

Dancing with a Bear

Stepping on Toes

The giant man rose to his feet displaying his 6’8”, 400-pound frame, reached for his coat as if ready to walk out, and asked me “Do you want to know what I think of that?” We had already danced around the room quite a bit, so I bit. “Yeah,” I said. “That’s good, that’s real good. You’re good,” he replied, and then he sat back down and settled in for the rest of the class. It wasn’t exactly music to my ears, but it was close.

As a trainer I had just allowed myself to travel too far down the path, dancing with this bear of a man about his issue with his boss. On several occasions the boss told him, “You are a big guy; that can be intimidating.” But what could he do about it? “I am big,” he told me, “I can’t change that. Do I have to act like a sissy? Why should I have to change? Do you expect me to change?”

Leading the Dance

“Yes, I do expect you to change.” I exclaimed, looking right into his eyes. Then I looked around the room to the other participants. “Yes! Yes, I expect all of you to change. That is why I am here. I am a trainer. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t expect you to change. I am offering you better ways of working and relating with people in your life. You don’t have to adopt them: that is your choice. But if you want better outcomes, then I suggest you consider trying them.” And when I said that, the dance was over. My bear, and the other participants, sat back and listened more intently and ready to learn. The dance was over and our work had finally begun in earnest.

The Magic of the Moment

My words weren’t magic. I certainly didn’t intimidate the man. I didn’t say anything that he, and the others, didn’t already know at some level. So what changed? I believe that it was the simple respect of talking straight and offering choice. He expected me to dance with him, somehow avoiding any intimation that he should change. That would somehow invade his “right to be me.” He challenged me to be truthful. He wouldn’t respect cowardice, nor tolerate an absurd denial that people must change. I spoke an obvious truth, which earned his respect and his ear. If only more people would make this choice.

The Teddy Bear

After the class, the dancing bear talked with me for awhile about his dilemma. He “got real,” and we talked through different conversations he could have with his boss about the real issue. He was a great guy—a teddy bear really (which I pretty much knew all along – despite his pretense). We parted friends, and I look forward to working with this bear of a man again.

The Zombie Chronicles

In my last post I shared four things you can do to create a zombie workforce. If you have a tribe of zombies but would rather have a team of zealots, this post is for you. Never fear; it can be done – there are a few things you can do to transform the most listless employees into motivated, engaged employees. But I warn you, patience is required since the transition back to life can take a while.

Part 2: From Zombies to Zealots


Promote Emotionally Intelligent People into Leadership

Leadership is all about influencing people. To do that you must first master your own demons and have empathy for other people. With that strong foundation a person is able to motivate him/herself as well as navigate the turbulent waters of others’ emotions and the politics of moving teams. Spotting emotionally intelligent people in your organization isn’t usually difficult. Here are a few signs of such people. They:

  • express their feelings – productively,
  • recover from let-downs relatively quickly,
  • listen intently to others,
  • attract people to themselves,
  • confront conflict directly,
  • find ways to use talents, and.
  • are adaptable.

Spotting emotionally intelligent job applicants is more difficult, but it can be done with the aid of well-structured job interviews combined with personality assessments. Though this requires support from a professional, the return on your investment is well worth the up-front cost.

Drive Progress

Nothing motivates a person as much as achieving something worthwhile, and sometimes anything whatsoever can be good enough to make a person’s day!  Sports fans know this:  a big play can ignite a team with a fresh “zealotry” and turn a certain defeat into victory. The keys to progress are:

  • a clear goal,
  • a clear path for achieving the goal,
  • competence, and
  • persistence.

Emotionally intelligent leaders know that progress is sometimes a matter of perspective and that persistence can be manufactured. Saying “we are already one-quarter there” encourages whereas saying “we have a long way to go” overwhelms. Strategies for persistence can be taught, and rewarding people for small accomplishments keeps them chugging along. No one can jump over a tall building in a single bound, but most everyone can walk to the top (and back) step by step. The emotionally intelligent leader encourages people to take one step at a time and cheers when they complete each flight of stairs.

Make Work Meaningful

Live people have a relentless desire to matter – to do things that make a difference to others.

Zealots will tell you that they are doing important work – work that helps people, creates value, and contributes to society. But they don’t stop there. Zealots will also tell you how they are using their talents, how they are challenged to solve problems, and how they are learning. Cynics will tell you that you have to hire people like this and that you can’t manufacture them, but they are wrong.

It’s the leader’s responsibility to design jobs that challenge people and to continually communicate the importance of each person’s role. It’s true: many jobs can become mundane over time. Knowing this, some wise leaders at GE introduced manufacturing employees to their customers and showed them the ultimate outcome of their labor. Without realizing the meaning of their work, people easily succumb to the daily trials it entails. They also lose focus, make poor decisions, and their energy seeps out of them. Finally, quality fails to remain important when people do not see the purpose in their work.


Feedback has the power to give people much of what they need to thrive. It’s the breakfast of champions. In fact, it has so many essential vitamins that it alone may have the power to transform a zombie into a zealot. The power comes from communicating:

  • what actually matters to you,
  • how to perform successfully,
  • that you care about the person’s success,
  • interest and approval, and
  • connection.

Silence communicates just the opposite. It’s not necessary for leaders to provide all of the feedback a healthy zealot needs. Instead, the leader’s job is to ensure the zealot gets what he needs. This is done by building feedback loops into the workflow so people get timely feedback on the outcomes of their efforts. These days, surgeons monitor patients’ vital signs as they operate, but that wasn’t always the case. As a result of the timely feedback surgeons get, more patients stick around to express their approval to surgeons for a job well done. That’s a good thing because I am sure surgeons prefer zealous recommendations to raids by vengeful zombies.


I am continually changing the TV channel to protect my children from images of horrifying zombies. If you share my aversion, perhaps we could work together to grow the population of zealots. It’s not complicated work, but it does take a measure of courage and mindfulness to promote emotionally intelligent leaders, drive progress, make work meaningful, and give people useful feedback. Will you join me in this effort?

The Zombie Chronicles

Zombies are all the rage these days. They are all over the movies, TV, and video games. This macabre fascination disturbs me, but at last I think I have uncovered the source of this unholy preoccupation.  Could it be that the battles acted out on the screen provide people some hope for overcoming the zombies growing within?  I’ve met many people who are losing this battle–and I have seen organizations unwittingly drive their employees into the zombie zone.

I have never had a client who actually instructed their employees to wander aimlessly around the office, respond listlessly, and turn out lackluster work products.  I have, however, worked with several who encouraged it, and one or two who seemed to have designed their organizations to make armies of zombie clones.

So, for the benefit of those who want to transform their zealous employees into zombies, and for those who want to revive the zealots buried inside their zombies, I’ve come up with a few of the best ways to foster the transformation.  In this post, I will share how you can turn your zealous employees into zombies.  Next time, I will let you know how to revive Zombies to their natural God given state – zealousness.

Part 1: From Zealots to Zombies


Let Tyrant Bosses Roam Freely

When I visit underperforming organizations, I frequently encounter a tyrant boss.  Tyrants often:

  • Pressure their employees to meet high, vague and poorly understood performance standards.
  • Behave as though their ideas are superior and that others “don’t quite get it.”
  • Use their power to punish people who don’t bow to them.

These managers press people to perform but are dumb-stricken when asked to define their standard or to show employees how to achieve the desired results themselves.  These things, they believe, are self-evident to competent people.

Block Progress

It’s depressing to work without seeing any progress. Imagine giving a broom to a custodian in the Sahara desert and then ordering up a sandstorm.  Now transfer that idea to your workplace. If you are having a hard time imagining how to do it, let me share a few techniques I have seen:

  • Change your priorities on a regular basis.
  • Make everything a top priority.
  • Talk about improving, but don’t invest the time and resources.
  • Set goals that can’t be met.
  • Make yourself unavailable to answer questions.

Make Work Seem Completely Meaningless

Require people to do things that have no apparent importance to them. For example, make them enter codes into a computer but don’t let them know what the code means, how it’s used, or how it will impact the bottom line.

If you can convey that their brains are unnecessary, you will do even better in your quest to turn zealous employees into zombies by saying things like:

  • You’re not paid to think.
  • That is above your pay grade.
  • It’s technical.

Give them the Silent Treatment

Never go out of your way to let someone know what you think about them. If you do, they might get the impression that you care!  If you show interest in a person’s work, they may start believing the two of you are somehow connected in accomplishing something important.  Besides, if you give feedback, they would certainly be able to accomplish something, and that violates the “no progress rule.”

So that’s it! If you follow this advice, you will have your own personal tribe of zombies. You will know that you have arrived when you hear them groan these things like:

  • I just work here.
  • The only reason I work is for the paycheck.
  • I just do what I am told to do.
  • It doesn’t matter what we do; nothing changes.



A Formula for Courage

A Formula for Courage

I recently read Breaking the Fear Barrier by Tom Rieiger of Gallup Consulting.  In it, he makes the case that parochialism, territorialism, and bureaucracy grow from fear.  Managers fear losing the ability to control their outcomes so they build organizational barriers, e.g., unnecessary or self-serving rules and policies, to protect their interests.  Ultimately, those barriers do more than protect parochial interests: they protect the organization from succeeding.  Rieger also offers sound medicine for organizations that are wrapped up in fear and bureaucracy.

Rieger Sets a Low Bar

His advice is good, but he sets an awfully low bar for people.  He seems to accept that people will not be courageous and recommends methods for breaking barriers erected out of fear. Rather than treating the nasty symptoms – the barriers of bureaucracy – we should aspire to overcome the fear that gives rise to it.  Cowardice succumbs to fear whereas courage overcomes it.  I don’t know about you, but I would rather overcome than succumb.  Courage is a virtue; cowardice is a vice.

We fear failure, we fear looking silly, we fear seeming inferior to others, and we fear losing what we have.  Fear stops us from voicing a dissenting opinion, changing jobs, confronting poor behavior, facing problems, and so on.

It’s plain to me that people need a formula for courage more than they need a medicine for dealing with the symptoms of cowardice.

Life Calls for a High Bar

I would like to offer my addendum to Breaking the Fear Barrier.  I’ll call it “A Formula for Courage.”  Everyone should learn this formula by heart because courage is an essential element of a virtuous character.


  • Moral Compass
  • Worthy Goal
  • Humility
  • Self Sacrifice

* Note: Some formulas call for a measure of love.

I confess that I don’t know the proper portions, but I am confident that each is needed.

Moral Compass

A moral compass is the first ingredient because you must want to be virtuous and know what virtue looks like in order to pursue it.  Your moral compass also gives you a clear vision to see where the trials of today are headed and to know what to do about them.  Today’s small transgressions often lead to grave consequences tomorrow.  A strong moral compass provides you with that foresight and the wisdom to face trials now.

Worthy Goal

Why would anyone stare down a giant, risk failure, or endure personal harm?  Because the cause is worth it!  Of course, if you haven’t set out to accomplish anything or set your mind on being a certain kind of person, then you have no reason to take a risk.  When I am coaching people, I’ve learned that they need to be reminded of their values and goals when they are facing tough situations.  Often, all it takes for people to move to action is a simple reminder of who they are striving to be.


Have you seen the t-shirts proclaiming “It’s all about me,” “Queen Bee,” or “I’m with stupid”?  Don’t wear them.  Courage requires a clear understanding that “it” is not all about you.  Instead, it’s about putting a transcendent goal above your personal interests, and courageous leadership means placing that goal and other people before you.  The Apostle Paul counsels Christians in Philippi as follows:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others more important than yourselves.  Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3-4)

I’ve noticed that humble people are generally trusted and admired.  I’ve also noticed that the same people who esteem others for their humility often bristle at the notion that they should submit to others or truly serve people.  It feels demeaning, and perhaps it is, but true humility and submission are hard to separate.


The ultimate act of valor is to give one’s life for another person or cause.  Boys, even grown men, fantasize about being the hero who rescues another person from imminent bodily harm.  In real life self-sacrifice comes in smaller increments – kind of like Chinese water torture.  The little opportunities for self-sacrifice can seem like occasions to erode dignity one annoying drop at a time. Instead of the drama of life or death, the stakes we face are things like approval from others, a chance at a promotion, bonuses, inconvenience, and our fragile egos.  This type of self-sacrifice is a bit less glamorous and a lot harder to choose.

That’s it – that is my formula for courage.  I don’t expect Mr. Rieger to include it in his second edition, but one never knows!

What do you think of my formula? Will you try it?  Would you change it a little and make it your own?


Feedback, The Breakfast of Champions

The other night I watched two teenage sisters shine. They shined so brightly that their audience beamed with pride at their character and accomplishment. The girls volunteered to make a presentation and be coached in front of roughly fifty adults at a meeting of the Institute for Cultural Communicators (ICC). After diligent preparation and no small amount of creative labor, the girls stood in front of their audience ready to deliver their performance. What happened next reminded me of a paper my wife wrote entitled “Feedback: The Breakfast of Champions.” The girls confidently delivered their presentation. Then they consumed enough “breakfast” for a team of champions. Again and again, they performed and consumed, performed, and consumed. It was beautiful– and so were they.

With each cycle, their presentation improved. The girls listened carefully and graciously, though it was no doubt trying to be jostled around by such direct feedback– don’t do that, try this, now this… In the end, the performance was greatly improved and so was, I believe, the audience. We, the audience, witnessed two young ladies gracefully accept and respond to a public critique of something they personally created and performed. The contrast with the adult workplace was glaring, at least to me.

As I reflect on the contrast and draw on my years of experience, here is what I see.

ICC Workplace
Interdependence Autonomy
Feedback is expected and wanted by both parties Feedback is threatening to both parties
Feedback is essential to the process Feedback is an exception to the process
Critics are viewed as partners Critics are viewed as rivals
Accepting feedback is a sign of character Accepting feedback is a sign of weakness

I doubt that these girls have always taken feedback so well.  Most people don’t.  But I am pretty sure I know how they got to this point:  Their goal is to improve, and their learning process is collaborative. Twice a month they gather with other students and adults to work on their communication skills.  In those sessions, they routinely give and get feedback just like breathing– in and out, give and get—and the results are exceptional.

…I wonder what would happen if adults in the workplace did the same thing

Let’s Make Pretend

My young daughter sometimes reminds me, “This is just for pretend, Daddy.”  Although play is very serious business, she is clear that we are operating by make-believe rules. We suspend the realities that govern our actual existence so she can be a mommy, a kitty, or render me powerless with the magic word “abracadabra.”  My favorite part is when she kisses me to make me strong again. That is because, in reality, I crave affection from my little girl. I sometimes find that people in the workplace lack this same clarity about what is make-believe, what is real, what people crave, and what people loathe.

Make-believe rules govern our lives everywhere we go.  Sheldon, the super-science nerd in the show “The Big Bang Theory,” refuses to give his best friend a birthday gift until Penny explains that gift giving is a “non-optional social convention.”  Our made-up social “rules” are essential for holding society and companies together. We need these rules, but they are not always a positive force in our world.  When we make-up rules that are contrary to our design, we create a mess.

One of my least favorite make-believe games at work is called: “It’s not personal; it’s work.” This game is played by a set pattern of complex, often contradictory rules.  Here are a few of them:

  • Do not take how I treat you personally.
  • Do not bring emotions into your work (because they make me anxious).
  • Be very likeable and reliable so people will like you and want to work with you.
  • Be passionate about your work and put in extra hours.
  • Give us your best, creative ideas. But do not be upset if we do not use them.
  • Take pride in your work; make quality products.

The problem, of course, is that these rules contradict each other and reality.  Unlike computers, people cannot partition their “hard drive” to operate their “rationale work being” separately from their “emotional personal being.”  Work is an intensely personal activity. We are made to work, and we need to work. Like our creator, we express our very nature in our work. That nature is rational and emotional, artistic and scientific, playful and serious…  People cannot be deconstructed in the workplace and maintain the integrity of their full personhood.  As I have worked with companies whose employee surveys revealed deep dissatisfaction, I noticed that employees are not just unsatisfied with the situation. No, they are angry and feel that their very personhood is under assault. Consequently, they protest this treatment in ways that disrupt the effective operation of the business.

People crave the opportunity to bring their whole selves to work.  In the pretend world, I am rejuvenated and reenergized when my daughter kisses me. In the real world, employees are motivated and engaged when their employer embraces their whole person.

If you want motivated, engaged people in your business, embrace them as whole people. Here are a few ways you can do that:

  • Notice what people enjoy doing and find out what people do best. Then make sure they get to do it every day!
  • Invite people to do more than what their job description includes.  As they take on more, adjust their compensation.
  • Demonstrate that you personally care about them.
  • Encourage supervisors to use their judgment when they apply policies, e.g., scheduling rules; time-off; and allow consideration of the employee’s performance, commitment, and life circumstances.
  • Make sure job requirements do not contain needless formal education standards that bar otherwise qualified people from advancing.
  • Provide supervisors with “human relations” training including topics such as interpersonal communications and conflict resolution.
  • Reward high performers and genuinely treat them differently than lower performers.
  • Deal with the hard personal stuff.  Stop avoiding conversations because it might hurt people’s feelings.