If You Want an Incompetent Team of Robots, Don't Read This.
I thought I was pretty cool.
When I managed veterinary hospitals, at the end of every day I’d personally thank every employee for their work that day.
I’d find every person, look them in the eyes, and say, “Thank you for your work today.”
Then I’d walk out the door thinking I was Super Boss.
Here’s some insight – I wasn’t.
While appreciation is a valuable and necessary tool for any leader, empty or disingenuous appreciation is, at best, useless. At worst, it can actually be as damaging as admonishment or disdain. In either case, it can contribute to apathy and diminished motivation in a team.
There’s at least two reasons for this.
First, the human brain is a meaning-making machine that pays special attention to novelty. And this happens automatically.
The first time I did this it likely felt pretty good to my team. It was new, and felt genuine to them.
As I repeated it, every day, in exactly the same way, the novelty wore off. And the meaningfulness of the action and words faded.
For most of them, I imagine, it was empty. For some of them, I bet their inner dialogue was angry – “He doesn’t even know what I did today!”
As I’ve written before, feedback (like appreciation) is most effective when it’s specific, focuses on contribution, and occurs in real-time.
Second, there are some basic psychological needs that must be met for all human beings. One of them is competence. That’s the belief we are capable, effective, and contributing in some positive way.
The more I offered banal platitudes such as “Thank you for the work today”, the more they focused on the actual acts and behaviors of competence I didn’t notice and acknowledge.
So, Lesson #1 in today’s sermon on Positive Leadership – make appreciation meaningful.
For Lesson #2, we’ll add a special ingredient to the mix.
In psychology we talk about this phenomenon called subjective vitality. It’s essentially an individual’s perception of how much mental energy they have to offer an activity.
Of interest to those of us in leadership positions, if we think of the human body as a machine capable of doing work, subjective vitality is the fuel that energizes it.
When we feel vitalized, we feel energized. Combined with motivation we can accomplish magical things. Who wouldn’t want a vitalized, motivated team?
What’s really interesting is that the same activity can either vitalize or deplete us, depending on how our psychological needs are being met by it.
For example, competitive gymnasts who are coached in a way that boosts their sense of autonomy report feeling more and more vitalized throughout their training sessions. By comparison, those who are fully directed (e.g., no autonomy) by their coach report feeling exhausted or depleted by the end of the training.
It’s like the gymnasts are Popeye – strong and capable as is. But the gymnasts coached to maximize their sense of autonomy are like Popeye after eating a bunch of spinach. They could go and go and go.
Similar research has found that appreciation (which, when done well, feeds our psychological need of competence) in the absence of autonomy support may not have this Popeye-spinach effect. Put another way, to give folks a vitality boost at work they need both genuine appreciation and the perception of autonomy.
If I direct you to do something, you complete it, and I show genuine appreciation for what you’ve done the best I can hope for is to maintain the level of energy you had to begin with.
In many cases, though, we take the direction a bit too far and leave no space for the employee to feel as though they have any meaningful influence of what they do and how they do it.
When autonomy is missing, we have to self-regulate to accomplish the task(s) before us. That’s vitality-depleting.
In the best cases, genuine appreciation after may halt the depleting effects. In some cases, the appreciation may actually make things worse as the employee thinks, “Of course you’re thanking me. I just did your dirty work so you didn’t have to!”
So what’s a positive leader to do?
If you want to maximize the enthusiastic motivation of your team, you’ve got to find ways to combine autonomy support and competence support.
Here’s one example - You’ve got an inventory manager and you’d like her to place an order once a week.
Autonomy Support – Let her know you’d like this done weekly. Make sure you share the “why” behind this decision and give her the opportunity to ask any questions so she can fully understand. Then ask her, “what do you feel is the best way to make this happen?” Zip your lips and let her offer input.
Competence Support – Show genuine interest in her ideas for how to make it happen. For the ideas you disagree with, don’t shut them down right away. Explore them with her. If something really can’t work, give a deep explanation and ask, “what might be another way?” Thank her for openly sharing ideas and working through it with you. When she gets going on the project, find things that are working and point them out in detail, in real-time, and showing the impact or bigger contribution it’s making.
It seems so simple, doesn’t it?
That’s because it is.
Which makes me wonder why I wasted so many years on my empty, daily thank-yous.
Positive Leaders excel at finding ways to support their team’s sense of autonomy and competence.
But here’s the kicker. This isn’t a random super power you’re born with. It’s a skill you develop.
You got this.