Leaders: Is Your Team Bored and Just Along for the Ride?

by Alli Polin on May 28, 2013

Leaders focus on employee engagement of their teams along the journey

Whenever we get in the car, my children have about a 20-minute limit before they start to ask the dreaded “Are we there yet?“ question.  It’s dreaded because clearly, we’re not there, or even close, and we talked about how long it would take before we even got in the car!  Still, I am responsible as a parent, just like you are as a leader, to hold back from shouting that I’m tired of the dumb questions!  I’ll tell them when we get there, they’re just along for the ride, and need to suck it up.  Whoa.  Are my kids really just along for the ride?  Is your team?  I hope not.  

There are four leadership principles that ensure that your team is more than “just along for the ride” but instead part of the drive and integral to the final destination:

  1. Vision
  2. Engagement
  3. Expectations
  4. Communication

Vision:

“It’s so nice to know where you’re going, in the early stages.  It almost rids you of the wish to go there.” ~ Samuel Beckett

You can’t know if you’ve arrived if you don’t know where you’re going. (Click to Tweet)

Ask Yourself:

  • Does your team really know where you’re headed and more importantly, why?
  • Is your team inspired, excited and enthusiastic about where you’re going together?
  • Have you opened the door to the car and asked them to join you for the ride?

Lessons from the Road:

My kids ask the question because the they don’t always fully understand WHY we’re going, they just know that they have to sit in the car instead of playing.  If I paint a vibrant picture of where we’re headed, and what makes it worth the drive, they’re much more likely to jump in the car and be willing to stay there longer.  They will want to be present when we reach the destination.

Engagement:

“That roads are for journeys, ma’am, not destinations” ~ Margaret Landon

The ride goes faster and is more fun when everyone is engaged. (Click to Tweet)

Ask Yourself:

  • Am I the only one with a clear view of the road ahead, making all the decisions, while my team is in the back falling asleep?
  • How can I call forth my team’s creativity and engagement? 
  • If I’m always in the front, super busy and focused, but spend limited time talking to my team, how do I know that they’re still in the car?

Lessons from the Road:

When my kids have nothing to do on a long drive, they get bored.  I can involve them by continuing to talk about the vision, ask them to help see important signs that mark our progress, and encourage them to engage with each other.  The kids don’t always need me to dictate what they should be doing.  I need to let go and empower them to determine how they spend their time while we’re on our shared journey. 

Expectations:

“My expectations are sky low, because I’m standing on a mountaintop.” ~ Jarod Kintz

Expectations left unspoken are expectations left unmet. (Click to Tweet)

Ask Yourself:

  • Are you transparent in your motivations when you make decisions?
  • Do you make time to give feedback and talk about what you expect?
  • What about the flip side ~ what do the people on your team expect of you, their job, and the organization?

Lessons from the Road:

Restlessness sets in when my vision is the only one that we can see.  I can tell my kids till I’m blue in the face what we’re going to do when we arrive at our destination, but it is still my vision.  They have ideas and expectations too and I can’t know what they are unless I ask.  Frequently, they have a lot to share that ultimately influences how and where we spend our time.

Communication:

“Much unhappiness has come into the world because of bewilderment and things left unsaid.”  ~ Fyodor Dostoyevsky

When people don’t have information, they make up their own stories and get distressed by their self-made truth.  (Click to Tweet)

Ask Yourself:

  • Do you create opportunities for two-way communication?
  • How can increasing your communication also increase commitment from your team to the long drive ahead?
  • Are you open to clarifying your message or do you get defensive and feel challenged by every question?

Lessons from the Road:

Instead of waiting for my kids to ask how much longer the ride will take, I not only proactively tell them how much is left, but also how far we’ve come.  Effective communication also requires patience to ensure the message is understood.  For my kids, that means when I say, “two more hours,” and am asked how many minutes, I need to put my message in a different context to make it meaningful.

In the future, my kids will still occasionally get bored on long drives and you’ll lose a few people from your team along the way too.  Still, if we want our people to stay not only for the ride, but also once we reach our destination, we need to tell them, engage them, appreciate them and love them along the way. 

How do you keep your team engaged?  What do you do to create a culture that makes people want to be a part the ride?

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Katyberry May 28, 2013 at 6:53 am

I’d like to think that free-flowing communication and embracing if ideas and taking risks plays a large part in keeping my team happily moving forward. I can see some concerns in the hear future over new staff and new projects taking some emphasis over existing staff and routine projects and work, so I will need to come up with a plan to make sure that staff don’t feel isolated or unappreciated.
One of my biggest challenges is to articulate a vision – I guess I’m not really sure if I have an end goal in mind for my team. I think that maybe thus gives my team an opportunity to input into a vision.
And lastly, as much as they can seem like a pain in the butt, I think that the conversations that arise during performance appraisals can be really motivating.

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Alli Polin May 28, 2013 at 8:54 am

Katrina,

You raise so many great points here! Communication is so critical… feedback, vision it does all come down to the way we put it out there and the way it ultimately lands with the team. Since you mention that you’re not sure about the end goal it’s a great opportunity to engage with your team and co-create the vision that gets all of your blood pumping and creates a meaningful goal for the team.

Love how you wrote that performance appraisals can be a pain in the butt too. As leaders, it’s our job to tap into what will uniquely motivate each individual on our team. It’s never one size fits all and the performance review can be such an intimate and important conversation ~ especially when handled well!

Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments and the depth that you add to this post by sharing your real-time leadership experience.

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Chris Jordan May 28, 2013 at 7:02 am

Wow Alli! Another amazing post using your family as an example! It helps put things in perspective when you approach topics in such a way. I loved the ability to tweet within the post and one in particular really stood out for me…”Expectations left unspoken are expectations left unmet.” How true; and it comes down to feeling safe in communicating that information and being able to listen to the feedback, adjusting if necessary. Have an awesome week and talk soon!

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Alli Polin May 28, 2013 at 8:59 am

You are very generous with your kindness! Thank you! I’ve learned a lot about leadership from my 20 year career inside of the corporation but since I’ve stepped out of the day-to-day I see how many life lessons mirror the leadership lessons. As a former exec I know that I’ve been too close to the problem to see the solution more times than I can count. So glad that sharing some of my personal experience is a fresh spin that adds some new perspective.

Thanks for raising such a key point around expectations ~ feeling safe matters. If we’re too worried about being judged or brushed aside, expectations will never be made explicit. The real trick is absolutely in the listening, I agree. If someone tells us and we dismiss their expectations, we’re lost even before pulling out of the driveway.

Thanks so much for your comment and insights!

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Stephen Lahey May 28, 2013 at 9:56 am

Without a sense of the overall context and the outcomes we’re seeking, we tend to become passive and restless versus proactive and engaged. Good one, Alli!

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Alli Polin May 29, 2013 at 12:47 am

Steve ~ Context makes a HUGE difference! You definitely cannot be proactive if you don’t know what you’re moving on or why. Always appreciate your feedback and perspectives!! Thanks!

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Terri Klass May 28, 2013 at 5:38 pm

What a terrific way of relating your family journey to the world of teams and work, Alli! I loved your point about empowering others to to make the decision on how they will spend their time and efforts. Sometimes, leaders get so caught up in their vision, that they forget to let the team members share their different viewpoints and ideas. This of course can result in a less than effective outcome, where people feel excluded. Thanks for sharing!

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Alli Polin May 29, 2013 at 12:49 am

Terri ~ What a great point. Leaders that cling to their vision and make no room for other voices in the mix ultimately lose talent along the way in addition to creating a culture that revolves around one persion instead of trust and empowerment. Together, we are stronger! Thank you for adding your insights to this post!

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Alice Chan May 29, 2013 at 12:48 am

Alli, I agree with Chris that the way you framed this piece using your family as the metaphor is very relatable. It also puts a fresh treatment on some really tried-and-true leadership principles, including visioning, engagement, expectation setting and communication that you pointed out. Lately, I’ve been answering a lot of questions about how I’d lead. And, it pretty much boils down to these things you pointed out. When team members feel they’re part of the process and how their work contributes to the department’s and the org’s mission and vision, everyone wins. Thank you for this very interesting and engaging read!

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Alli Polin May 29, 2013 at 12:52 am

Thanks, Alice! Far too often leaders come into new organizations wanting to make a splash and instead they create ripples that push people away. Leaders that want to show how smart they are and that they have all of the answers miss out on the wisdom, engagement and support of the team. It’s a two way street! Your organization will no doubt benefit from your leadership strength. Truly appreciate your insights and experience!

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Lalita Raman May 29, 2013 at 4:47 am

Fantastic post Alli. Many people run organizations as if only they existed and everybody will just buy into their vision. I like your point about empowerment and engagement.

People love to instruct, advise. They look but don’t see, they tell but never ask abc engage and make their team wanted. It is like asking a child to run before they learn to walk. As so called leaders, many forget the basics of engagement and getting people involved.

Lovely post with some very good points.

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Alli Polin May 29, 2013 at 5:57 am

Yes! There are leaders that run around thinking it’s my way or the highway and of course people will LOVE my vision and buy-into it just like I do. Sure, even if people agree with the vision and understand it until they feel a part of it, they’ll never truly engage with the work or organization. Based on your comment it’s clear that you know first hand what it’s like to work with leaders like that!

Great metaphor – like asking a child to run before they can walk. The basics matter!

Sincerely appreciate your feedback and the addition of your insights and experience to this post! Many thanks!

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Amber-Lee Dibble May 29, 2013 at 1:17 pm

Wonderful, Alli!
“if we want our people to stay not only for the ride, but also once we reach our destination, we need to tell them, engage them, appreciate them and love them along the way. ” ~ GOD, I hope I do this for our own Trainees. This was so awesome, Alli.

As a Momma of two very intense humans, I could completely relate. I had NOT, though, linked the two together. Thank you for that. Shining the light on the obvious, but so easily overlooked.

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Alli Polin May 30, 2013 at 8:08 am

Amber-Lee, If there’s one thing that I would be willing to bet money on in Vegas is that you ABSOLUTELY loving, engaging and appreciating your trainees…. and teaching them, stretching them and believing in them even when they don’t believe in themselves.

Personally, I’m trying to do better with my own children! We have a loonnnnggg plane ride back to the USA next month and I’d love to make it a special time to connect instead of a time to keep them occupied and out of my way.

Hope you know how much I appreciate you!!

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Mike Brown May 29, 2013 at 6:25 pm

Another strategy for the road that will create a more peaceful ride – is to engage more often with our kids… Play a game with them, share a story, ask what their friends are up to… Engagement in the car will go a long was – as will engagement in the office… When we reach out to our people and truly learn about their interests – the ride will be more enjoyable for all…

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Alli Polin May 30, 2013 at 8:02 am

I agree! Instead of shoving them into the back seat with an ipad, engaging is absolutely the way to go. At the office the equivalent of the ipad is tasks that keep people busy and heads down but not really critical to moving things forward (but far less fun). Thanks for adding your insights to this post, Mike!

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Karen Jolly May 31, 2013 at 10:19 am

Wonderful post Alli – it’s amazing what we learn about life from being in a car with our kids. Best education on teamwork ever! 🙂

I really loved your point about being transparent with your decisions – otherwise your team will feel manipulated into following your vision. Everyone on board for the ride should understand why they are there, how they can contribute and be able to clearly see where the journey is headed. These principles you’ve laid out can be applied anywhere in our lives. It’s truly about authentic communication.

Thank you!!

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Alli Polin May 31, 2013 at 10:15 pm

You said it, Karen! Best education on teamwork (and why leaders can’t yell at the team and expect them to do what they want them to do)

I’m totally with you and love the way that you said it. The vision can either be something I’m a part of or not. The work that’s required is something that I can choose to do or feel like it’s forced on me. The difference between the two experiences is immense and oftentimes measured in the gap between success and failure.

Always appreciate your insights and perspectives!

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Maggie Frye June 8, 2013 at 9:59 am

I’m on a 13 car ride home from vacation with two little ones as I type this comment, so I can completely relate! Love the analogy. Sharing the vision, communicating openly and frequently, and engaging all team members throughout the journey are all so vitally important.

Celebrate milestones along the way too – cheer when you cross over the Georgia state line, stop for an ice cream sundae after lunch, tell your kids (aka team) they’re doing a good job. This will help motivate and engage along your journey.

Another great way to engage the team is to ask them “how they want to live” during the ride. Have them collaboratively set some norms and ground rules about behaviors…how will they communicate, track progress, celebrate victories? They will feel more ownership of the project if they are involved in setting expectations up front.

Thanks for another great post Ali!

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Alli Polin June 11, 2013 at 6:18 am

Maggie – WOW! Thirteen hours in the car? I’ve been there! LOVE how you write about milestones to keep everyone motivated. So key – it’s not only about getting to the end but making the most of the journey. When I was a kid and we had a long drive from Philadelphia to Cape Cod every summer my parents would give every child a small gift as we crossed the border into the next state… If we were good. We looked forward to it with great anticipation and we all enjoyed dreaming up what could be waiting for us over the next state line (a pack of gum, a coloring book, a doll or whatever).

Your comment on “how they want to live” during the ride is really interesting too. It’s not only about the doing (driving towards goals etc) but co-creating a positive and engaging space. Culture is owned and created by all keeps people engaged far beyond rewards alone.

Appreciate your insights!!

Many thanks,

Alli

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