November 6, 2020

Firestarter: Improving Employee Performance and Satisfaction

Newton’s First Law of Motion states that an object at rest tends to stay at rest, and an object in motion tends to stay in motion, unless it is compelled to change its state by an outside force. This is true for inanimate objects, but it is true for people too. In physics, it’s called inertia. In humans it’s called a rut.

In everyday life, millions of us are stuck in a rut. Sometimes the patterns that we find ourselves in take up so much energy just to maintain, that we lack that additional energy to change our situation. Or we are generally unmotivated by our current status, and because we lack the ability to express that in a positive way, we just do nothing. It is not uncommon to hear someone say of a coworker or employee suffering from inertia: “We need to light a fire under him/her.” Without even recognizing it, they are referencing Newtonian Physics. They are implying that an outside force needs to be applied to that person to change their current state.  

As managers, lighting a fire under someone can take two forms. You can build up a fire by adding more oxygen or adding more kindling. Good leaders will be able to determine which path will work better.

Sometimes people just need room to breathe. They have been ‘running and gunning’ so hard for so long that they have expended all their energy. Typical candidates for this are the high performers who seem to hit a wall, or employees who say they are stretched too thin, or peers who say they feel like they are treading water. They are burned out. They need a break – a vacation, a change of scenery, or more free time in general. They need oxygen.

  • Work with them to prioritize their daily tasks and help them figure out how to get more free time.
  • Find out if they are doing some laborious tasks the hard way.
  • If applicable, a quick tutorial on the new software system could show them how to cut down on their hours and hours of administrative work.
  • Optimize the order in which they do their daily tasks. There has got to be a way to give them more time to do the important things better.
  • If all else fails, take something off their plate.

If none of these seem to work, well, it might be time for a different conversation. But I am a firm believer that nobody goes to work every day planning to be mediocre, so a solution to inertia can always be uncovered.

For those who are not stretched too thin but seem to be underperforming anyway, maybe they need more kindling. If an employee does not find their work challenging, it can lower their motivation to keep doing it. They might just go through the motions every day, possibly while searching for a better job.

  • Throw another long on their fire in the form of a new challenge. In my experience mentoring kids, I found it a common occurrence that some of the ‘laziest’ kids just didn’t feel challenged. Give them something harder to do and they blossom virtually overnight into a good student. The same can hold in the adult world.
  • Sometimes, people feel as if they are being underutilized and therefore create a self-fulfilling prophecy of underperforming. Give them a chance to show you what they can do, and you may find out that they exceed your expectations. Now if they don’t then, as I said earlier, that is a different conversation.

If you’re not a manager, and you feel like the descriptions above fit you as an employee, find a way to light your own fire. Are you doing too much? Would you like to do something different or more challenging? Does your team leader not utilize your full skill set? Do you think you are capable of so much more? Let everyone know that.

  • If you are doing too much, don’t suffer in silence. Have a conversation with your boss about prioritizing your work and potentially shifting things around.
  • Do a time study, discuss the ROI on your time investment with various tasks.
  • Gain agreement to do things differently or delegate something.
  • If you are not doing enough to feel satisfied, have that discussion with your manager. Ask for a project, or more work, or a bigger set of responsibilities.

Most managers are not going to turn you down if you ask to do more work. But it may be that you’ve not been given those opportunities because you haven’t demonstrated those abilities. Find a way to increase your manager’s trust in your skills.

  • Reference some work that you’ve done before in a different role. Have a 1:1 discussion about what your full skill set looks like.
  • Come up with an idea for a new project and pitch it to your manager with you as the project leader.
  • Or, if that is too big a of a jump from your current level, ask to be on an existing project to learn those leadership skills.
  • Here’s an idea: find that person on your team that is doing too much and negotiate with them and your manager to take something off their plate. Now you’ve not only shown that you are ready for more responsibility, you’ve helped a teammate.

Everyone is capable of burning bright. It’s just a matter of finding the conditions that will light that fire.

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