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When It Comes To Work Motivation, Row Your Own Race Or Finish Last

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It’s 4:45 AM. I run three miles to meet the rest of my college rowing team for practice. We push off into the dark and barely unfrozen river, eight rowers guided by one coxswain to steer and coordinate the power and rhythm of our strokes.

As we start to row, water splashes off of our oars and freezes in mid-air. Hundreds of tiny, unforgiving icicles hit the team as we align and become one unit of purpose-driven movement.

Years have passed and I now row a different boat as an entrepreneur, but I’m still just one person working in concert with an entire team towards a common operational goal. Our tools have transformed from oars and muscles to computers and minds, but the team’s success still depends on three main factors: the full engagement of each person, alignment of purpose, and leadership’s visibility into every aspect of the team and the competitive landscape.

Different Strokes of Employee Engagement

We don’t all give 100% all the time. Much has been written about this recently, since sporadic engagement or active disengagement runs rampant in US companies — a problem that costs millions in operating dollars and could eventually cost you your company.

An interesting phenomenon occurs when rowing as a team. Eight people are all pulling simultaneously, but you have no idea whether each person is giving it their all. You rely on and trust in the fact that every other team member is pulling their weight and pulling with each stroke as hard as they can. The level of physical exertion is astronomical, and intense discipline is required to manage your own limits. Every fiber of your being is screaming at you to stop.

Just like in business, we are inclined to trust that everyone is fully engaged. However, a disengaged colleague may be putting in the hours and appear like they are pulling hard, but in reality it’s just a pantomime. Whether in a boat or at your desk, you could take a few light strokes and nobody would know. But if just one person lets up, if work motivation falters, it can cost you the race.

Appearances can be deceiving and many leaders are doing little more than guessing about employee engagement. Without asking direct, regular feedback questions you have no idea what is going on. Engagement in work as in rowing, is based on trust and relationship. So, even if an employee is transparent about feeling disengaged, trust-building and a strengthening of the relationship are necessary to get to them back on board and enhance their work motivation.

All Your Ducks in One Row

No matter how engaged everyone is, without alignment you will fail. Gold medal winning Olympic rowers and championship college teams have sync in every bit of momentum; forward, back, even the precise timing of each oar hitting water. The goal is to row as one being, individuals in perfect harmony with everyone else in the boat.

Alignment does not just happen overnight. It’s as true for business as it is on the water. In my company, we start by hiring the right people who are philosophically aligned with 15Five’s purpose and an authentic desire and drive to contribute to that end. We then use our own product internally to calibrate each team member to specific team goals for work and larger company-wide initiatives.

For example, on a cultural level, every week we ask “What’s a way you have lived one of our core values this week?” This keeps the team consistently focused on our shared values, the driving purpose behind our work motivation why we do what we do. It keeps our raison d’etre top of mind and our actions on track with where the greater compass points.

Sometimes “Keep it simple” is the ultimate reminder as we dig into the product roadmap and other times “commit to customer success and delight” is something that transcends well beyond the support team. It’s a way of sustaining a fresh integration of our higher purpose with our everyday work.

We also ask specific feedback questions like “How are you feeling? What’s the climate of the group?” and “What are the challenges you are facing? Where are you stuck?” Distractions, challenges, and the ensuing frustrations compound and push the team out of alignment. The longer they remain uncommunicated, the greater the misalignment.

Seeing is more than believing

The leadership role of providing visibility is absolutely necessary, because the team cannot do it themselves. If rowers start focusing outside the boat, they become disengaged and fall out of alignment. My coach always said “Don’t look over and don’t look up. Keep your head down and row your own race”. There is a strong temptation to look at competitors to see how far you have to catch up. The moment you take your attention out of your boat and stop rowing your own race, you’ve lost.

Visibility relies on trust. The coxswain (that guy yelling “stroke, stroke” in movies but never in real life) has his eyes on the entire river. The rest of the team has absolute trust in him to communicate what is coming up ahead.

A little behind or a little ahead of another boat? The coxswain calls a  “power 10” or “power 20” to shorten or widen the gap. Everyone uses a bit more of their reserves. Blow past a competitor at the right moment and you can blow them away psychologically, but waste your precious energy at the wrong time and say goodbye to the trophy.

As a leader, I have to row my own race as well.  “Competitors” frequently surface, but we don’t spend too much time looking at what they are doing. Instead, we keep focused on what we believe will best serve our customers and remain dedicated on building a team that can achieve work goals and deliver on that vision.

Photo Credit: Bill Youtie

Ever experience a moment at work when every stroke was in sync or a project where the boat capsized? We value your feedback, leave us a comment below.

Image CreditSee-ming Lee