You athletes will probably laugh at this but humor me – there is a point – and it’s a true story!
When I was in basic training I was not much of a runner. We were doing our final test - a seven-mile run, and I was struggling at about the 5-mile mark when my instructor came up beside me and said something to me that I have never forgotten. He said; “I can see that you are getting tired and you have quite a ways to go” Then he said, “Don’t think about the end; instead just keep putting one foot in front of the other one.”
My instructor was not a behavioral scientist but what he told me to do is well supported in the behavioral science literature. Short-term goals with Encouraging, Timely, Important, and Predictable consequences are much more motivating than long-term goals with certain short-term discouraging consequences and a low expectation of any positive reward at the end! I was not certain I could pass the test so that was not motivating me, and I was finding it very difficult, which was causing me to want to quit. However, by focusing on a different behavior – putting one foot in front of the other one - I was able to see the possibility of success (one step a time) and I was rewarded for completing each step by feeling good about myself (and not collapsing on the ground!), so I kept going and finished the test.
This lesson easily translates to complex projects or organizational changes. In these situations, team members often experience many negative consequences such as heavy workloads, long hours, family separation, ambiguity and uncertainty, limited communication of important information, sleep deprivation, lack of physical exercise, and others. All these sources of stress can be discouraging and may result in reduced well-being and performance. If team members are too focused on the reward at the end, they may become quite stressed and unmotivated; however, if they can focus on shorter-term goals, they will be much more motivated.
Here are a few things to consider to keep your teams motivated and engaged:
- Focus your team on daily routines and goals – short-term goals with high probability of success in a day’s time
- Try to assign work that is meaningful and intrinsically rewarding to each team member
- Check in frequently to provide guidance, support, and lots of positive feedback for small wins and successes
- Encourage and support your team to stay closely connected with family and friends at home, whether working from home or at the work site
- Encourage and reinforce healthy stress management practices - exercise, food and rest
- Focus on the positive – encourage your team to see what is happening as a challenge rather than a threat – challenges with expected success are highly motivating!
- Encourage having some fun! Get a volunteer to organize social events or friendly competitions – you may have to be creative in the current physical distancing environment
Keeping your teams motivated when they are tired can be challenging especially when team members are working remotely. Leaders need to have a heightened sense of awareness to the mental and physical condition of their remote teams. It’s our job as leaders to support them so they can be healthy and productive.
This blog was authored by John Johnston, Ph.D. John brings deep experience from his 30-year military career culminating in his position as Lieutenant-Colonel. He has more than 2 decades of experience advising senior staff on selection and assessment, employee well-being, leadership, and performance improvement. As a seasoned executive-level advisor and consultant with expertise in organizational behavior, John has consulted to industries including heavy construction, mining, service, tourism, Army, Navy, and Air Force.