How to motivate employees

Even before the advent of the internet, “communication” was the number-one problem identified in surveys of organizational challenges.

It’s usually at the top of most lists of personal challenges as well. Let’s begin with a simple exercise that illuminates the problem.

Word-Association Exercise

Please get a piece of blank paper and a pen or use your computer or digital device to make a list numbered 1 to 10. In a moment you’ll get a word to write at the top of the list.

As soon as you’ve written that word, please write the first 10 words you think of related to the word at the top. Put down your first 10 associations with that top word as quickly as you can, without judging or editing. In a word-association exercise there are no wrong answers.

Ready? The word is: art.

After you complete your 10 word associations, consider the associations that might have been written for the same word by one of your peers, your spouse, your best friend, or your boss. How many words would you have in common with that person?

Most people are surprised to discover the differences that appear when they compare their results with others’. It’s rare for a group to have much in common at all.

In one group, for example, Jane’s first word was Warhol, the name of her favorite visual artist. Jim’s first association was Garfunkel, a singer whose first name is Art. Dinah wrote martial, as she had just begun studying martial arts, while Roger, an aspiring poet, wrote heart and nine other rhyming words. The group was surprised to discover just how different their associations were.

When a group of accountants did this exercise with similar results, they became very upset. They prided themselves on their uniformity and felt that the diversity of their responses to the word mocked their standardized procedures.

In their words, “We’re not artists; we’re accountants.” They insisted that they be given a word that had something to do with their work and that they would then produce greater commonality. When they were given the word money, however, they had even less in common.

Occasionally, people do get one or two words in common, but when you explore the results further and ask them to associate 10 words with the shared word, you find that they usually meant something different by the common word after all.

The Paradox Every Leader Needs to Understand

Our associations are unique. Even if we belong to a group classified in some way — accountants, artists, teachers, carpenters, secretaries, doctors, lawyers, or Cajun chefs — each of us is an individual. Each of us, as a result of heredity combined with individual experience, construes the world in our own unique way. We each are gifted with a special ability to experience and express the wonder of being alive. There is no one else like you, no one who can think and create exactly as you do.

This diversity is an important expression of the evolutionary process that helps ensure the survival of the species. Given any type of adverse circumstance that may befall humanity, there is probably someone with the special ability to overcome the challenge.

According to the Population Reference Bureau, approximately 108 billion humans have populated the planet since the advent of the species. Each person who has come and gone was unique, and each of the 7.5 billion people alive today is unique. There’s no one like you in all of human history. The combination of your genetic endowment and the way that genetic material is influenced by your life experience results in a one-of-a-kind phenomenon.

And yet, in so many ways, we are all the same. Our basic human needs — for air, food, shelter, security, esteem, love, and so on — are universal. Everyone, everywhere, in every culture wants respect. Leadership is the art of skillfully meeting universal human needs, including the need to be appreciated for being unique and the need for a sense of belongingness and connection.

How to Motivate Employees

Jeanine Prime and Elizabeth Salib, of the Catalyst Research Center for Advancing Leader Effectiveness, highlight an important paradox:

“Our research was also able to isolate the combination of two separate, underlying sentiments that make employees feel included: uniqueness and belongingness. Employees feel unique when they are recognized for the distinct talents and skills they bring to their teams; they feel they belong when they share important commonalities with coworkers.”

Prime and Salib add, “It’s tricky for leaders to get this balance right, and emphasizing uniqueness too much can diminish employees’ sense of belonging. However, we found that altruism is one of the key attributes of leaders who can coax this balance out of their employees, almost across the board.”

Our associations are unique, and they are potentially unlimited. Our minds are capable of linking any thought with any other thought. If you doubt this, try to find a word that cannot be linked to the word art. No matter how hard you search for an unrelatable word, you’ll discover that your mind can connect anything to anything else.

The exercise of finding unrelatable words is particularly fun when framed as a competition. For example, when a group of biochemists were challenged to think of a word that “could not, in any way, be related to art,” one clever PhD suggested that antidisestablishmentarianism couldn’t be linked to art.

But another erudite member of the group pointed out that the word means “opposition to the disestablishment of orthodox churches,” which opposed, among other things, the practice of many popular arts.

Someone else mentioned that the word antidisestablishmentarianism actually contains the letters of the word for art.

Another person explained that you can automatically connect this or any other strange word with art as a member of that class of words you don’t normally associate
with art.

Your mind can connect anything with anything else and can make a potentially infinite number of connections with any word you hear or read, but your way of associating, of making connections, is unique. This is good news if you are interested in creative thinking. If every individual has the capacity to generate unlimited associations, and each person has a unique way of doing it, then every group possesses vast potential for ideation.

When it comes to the art of connection, however, the implications are daunting, as the potential for misunderstanding in any communication is also unlimited. My mind is capable of making an unlimited number of associations with every single word that you say, and if your way of saying things and my way of hearing things is unique to each of us, it begins to seem amazing that we can communicate at all.

When we depend on words primarily, misunderstanding is to be expected. One reason that relationships seem to be degrading is that many people rely increasingly on text and email as their means of relating with others. But emoticons do not serve as effective substitutes for the body language, voice tonality, and eye contact that help us understand the context and meaning of words.

Even with the benefit of context, misunderstanding is pandemic. How many times have you had the experience of carefully explaining something to someone, watching him nod in apparent understanding, and seeing him do something entirely different from what you thought you’d agreed upon?

The Telephone Game

Much of our communication is reminiscent of the children’s game Telephone, which was a popular party activity when I was a child. I didn’t imagine then that I would employ it with groups of corporate executives many years later and that it would be a hilarious and memorable team-building activity that also illuminates a fundamental difficulty in communication.

The game works best with a group of eight or more people. It begins when the facilitator whispers a phrase into the ear of the first player, who then turns and whispers it into the ear of the next person, and so on. (The whisper should be soft enough so that only the intended recipient can hear the message.) After the message goes around, the last person to receive it states the message aloud. Invariably, the original phrase goes through so much distortion in the process of sharing that the final product is not only different from the original, but often hilariously so.

For example, in a recent session, a group of 12 bankers managed to turn “Robots randomly write regulatory rulebooks” into “Blue bots rewrite regular glory books on domes.” The game is amusing and highlights the extent to which our communication is subject to radical misunderstanding.

The Illusion of Transparency

If you tapped out a familiar song like “Happy Birthday” or the national anthem on a table or even directly on a friend’s arm, how likely do you think it is that your friend can guess the tune you are tapping? In a dissertation entitled “Overconfidence in the Communication of Intent: Heard and Unheard Melodies,” Elizabeth Newton found that subjects believed that the song they tapped would be guessed correctly by their partners about half the time, but the study showed that the tune was guessed accurately in only 3 percent of trials.

Psychologists call this phenomenon the illusion of transparency. Since we think we know what we mean when we say something, we tend to imagine that it’s clear to others as well. But just as most people can’t decode the tune you tap for them, our potential for clear communication remains untapped when we assume that others understand what we intend to communicate.

The Grand Illusion

I know that you believe that you understood what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant. — Robert McCloskey, former U.S. State Department spokesman

What’s the single greatest problem in communication? The illusion that it has taken place successfully! The illusion is pandemic. Misunderstanding, predicated on inaccurate assumptions, is the default setting in human relationships.

Instead of assuming that you have effectively understood someone else or been understood yourself, you can minimize misunderstanding and build relationships more effectively by embracing humility.

Humility Is the Soul of Leadership

I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you, the people. — Nelson Mandela (1918–2013), former president of South Africa, on February 11, 1990, the day of his release after twenty-seven years of imprisonment

If you are humble, then you will be more curious and open to learning the art of connection. You will be poised to enrich your life by building better relationships.

Humility is the catalyst of curiosity. Curiosity is the driver of continuous learning. Continuous learning is the key to developing the relationship-building skills every leader needs now. Give up assuming that you know what others are thinking and feeling. Assume that you don’t know and become curious to learn.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Jeanine Prime and Elizabeth Salib explain why today’s best leaders have to be humble: “In a global marketplace where problems are increasingly complex, no one person will ever have all the answers.” Reporting on a study of more than fifteen hundred global associates of multinational companies, they conclude that humility is a critical leadership factor and that it is especially important “for creating an environment where employees from different demographic backgrounds feel included.”

What are the specific behaviors associated with being perceived as a humble leader? The key elements include:

  • encouraging dialogue instead of debate
  • modeling curiosity by asking questions
  • welcoming feedback

Prime and Salib conclude: “When leaders showcase their own personal growth, they legitimize the growth and learning of others; by admitting to their own imperfections, they make it okay for others to be fallible, too.”

Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic, a professor at Harvard Business School, and the author of Discover Your True North, agrees. He writes, “The finest leaders are keenly aware of their limitations and the importance of teams around them in creating their success.” George confesses that early in his career he wasn’t humble and admits that his insecurities drove him to act as though he was invulnerable and that he could solve any problem independently.

As he matured, he realized that humility allowed him to connect more effectively with others and thereby to bring out the best in the people he led. He explains:

As my inner confidence grew, I no longer needed to have all the answers or try to impress others with what I had done. I freely admitted my mistakes and learned that doing so enabled others to acknowledge their errors. I recognized vulnerability is power … As I did so, people gained greater confidence in my leadership and expressed increased desire to join me in common pursuits.

Humility is a Competitive Advantage

In a report entitled “Expressed Humility in Organizations: Implications for Performance, Teams, and Leadership,” Bradley Owens, an Associate Professor of Business Ethics in the Marriott School of Management at Brigham Young University. and his colleagues emphasize that humility is more than just a virtue; it’s a critical key to high performance and effective leadership. Their studies reveal that humble leaders are more effective at facilitating employee engagement and encouraging a collaborative approach to learning.

The research team defined humility as “an interpersonal characteristic that emerges in social contexts that connotes (a) a manifested willingness to view oneself accurately, (b) a displayed appreciation of others’ strengths and contributions, and (c) teachability.” They developed a method to measure this characteristic and then utilized it to predict academic and job performance.

Previous research showed that diligence and intelligence were the best indicators of performance. But the surprising result of this study was that humility was an even better predictor.

If humility comes naturally to you, then you have an advantage. If it doesn’t, however, there’s no need to despair, as the researchers also report that it’s a quality you can cultivate. As the Foster School blog concludes, cultivating humility “might just make us more effective at school, at play, and in the workplace.”

About the Author:

Michael J. Gelb is the author of The Art of Connection and has pioneered the fields of creative thinking, accelerated learning and innovative leadership. He leads seminars for organizations such as DuPont, Merck, Microsoft, Nike, Raytheon and the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He is the coauthor of Brain Power and author of How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci and several other bestsellers.

Excerpted with permission from the book The Art of Connection: 7 Relationship-Building Skills Every Leader Needs Now. Copyright ©2017 by Michael J. Gelb. Printed with permission from New World Library —