Maintaining and increasing positive employee spirit is not easy when workers are worried about their names surfacing on a short list of cuts. But even in such times, when people are fearing for their jobs, I have seen creative managerial approaches to helping people feel better about their lives at work. For example, having executive dunking booths, on-site massages, and my favorite, American Idol tryouts at work. These kinds of activities can serve as a nice break in the middle of a highly stressful day. But I want to challenge you to deal in a new currency for a more positive long-term effect. Begin using the currency of inspiration to raise employee spirit in a tough economy.
In the Most Inspiring Companies survey—conducted by my firm, Inspiration Blvd., in April 2010—1,700 people indicated that whether their inspirational encounter was with a company, a charity, or an individual, the outcome was always the same: Each one wanted to be a better person at home and work. Imagine what could happen if there was a corporate initiative to begin creating a culture of inspiration. No dangled carrots. No negative manipulation. Instead, an entire corporate culture in which people are inspired. You can make it happen via four basic inspirational principles.
1. Be an authentic leader. Get out of the image-management business for yourself and your company. Let the people in your organization know where you are weak. Tell them just how much you need them. Let them know you are aware of your own limitations, and then invite them to band with you to get through these difficult times. Set aside time in your next team meeting to share how you used 2009 as a reset button for business and life. Enlist others in advance of the meeting to prepare to do the same. Avoid the temptation to cover up difficult circumstances with such euphemisms as "business reengineering" and "restructuring."
2. Connect with others' dreams. Use the current economic crisis as a time to uncover the latent dreams and ambitions of your key talent. Tell them you are more committed than ever to helping them get to where they want to go. Be creative in aligning their tasks for today with their dreams for tomorrow. Make a point to know and understand the personal ambitions of your team members; then help them craft a plan that gets them taking the next step toward those dreams. Write it into their personal evaluation plans, and let them know you are committed not only to doing what you can to help but also to holding them accountable for the next steps.
3. See in others the abilities they don't see in themselves. Take time to be observant. Quit the craziness long enough to notice the emerging talent and strengths in those around you. This works well even in situations where you're trying to manage up. This principle involves three steps: noticing, naming, and nurturing. After you have noticed a talent or strength in a person, let that individual know it. Be specific about what you observe, and name it. Don't just say, "I notice you are a hard worker." Rather, say, "I can see you care very deeply about making sure all the details are in order" or "I notice you are very articulate on that subject." Look for ways to develop the individual by providing opportunities and training to support and nurture his or her particular talent.
Most people do not know the name Hattie Mae Lee. But everyone has heard of Oprah, Lee's granddaughter. Oprah Winfrey is who she is today because a devoted grandmother cast a vision for her life. Take a moment and reflect on who inspired you to be who you are and what they said that inspired you. Now play that same role with your team members. Speak into their lives what you see in their futures. As Hattie Mae Lee did, cast a vision for your team and encourage them never, ever to compromise on their dreams and aspirations.
4. Capitalize on teachable moments. Follow the example of John Wooden, UCLA's iconic coach, who used basketball as an object lesson for life. Coach Wooden's 10 national championships proved that the effective yield of any teachable moment is top performance. He made the most of every bad situation and used it as a springboard to impart wisdom.
Every time a customer becomes very unhappy, it's a teachable moment. The next time you lose a pitch for new business, turn it into a teachable moment. When personnel conflict begins to manifest itself, do not miss the opportunity to turn the circumstance into a valuable lesson. This has become commonplace among my team whenever anything challenging surfaces. It will work for you, too. Be spontaneous in pulling your team together to focus even for just 10 minutes on what may be a teachable moment. Encourage everyone to participate. As they do, you will see the fear of failure shrink and the spirit of innovation thrive.
Using inspiration as a new form of currency may not pay the rent, buy groceries, or cover the cost of child care for your team members. I get that. But it does pay incredible dividends, such as loyalty, passion, and engagement, that will most assuredly affect the bottom line. Even in a tough economy, you can have employees whose spirits soar.
Teach, and some may learn. Lead, and some may follow. Inspire, and they will never be the same.