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How to Create Connection in the Workplace: A Review of “Fired up or Burned Out” by Michael Lee Stallard

How to Create Connection in the Workplace: A Review of “Fired up or Burned Out” by Michael Lee Stallard
Fired Up or Burned Out cover

How do business leaders create a sense of connection and shared passion in their organizations? How can you make your employees (and by extension you r company) more productive and more innovative — instead of struggling to maintain the status quo?

These are the questions that Michael Lee Stallard sets out to answer in his book Fired Up or Burned Out: How to Reignite Your Team’s Passion, Creativity, and Productivity (Thomas Nelson, Inc. 2007; with Carolyn Dewing-Hommes and Jason Pankau). Stallard and his partners are the founders of E Pluribus Partners, a think tank and consulting firm focused on helping companies build connection among their employees and with their customers and clients. In Fired Up, they explain why such a sense of connection is important, and how to create it, offering good advice that would be as useful for small businesses and non-profit organizations as much as for corporations.

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The Case for Connection

We live in strangely disconnected times. While the Internet gives rise to new forms of connectedness, in our day to day lives, Americans (among other industrialized peoples) feel a great disconnectedness. This affects us i our homes, our communities, and especially in our workplaces.

In a 2002 Gallup study, only 25% of American workers reported feeling engaged at work. A global study carried out by the Corporates Executive Board in 2004 found that 76% of workers had an only moderate commitment to their employers, and 13% had little or no feeling of commitment.

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Organizations with disconnected and disengaged employees pay the price in lost productivity, lost innovation, and ultimately lost money — to the tune of $250-300 million dollars in the American economy as a whole, according to Gallup. On the other hand, corporations that have learned to foster a connection culture enjoy greater success by almost every measure. And employees who feel connected at work find themselves feeling more connected in other parts of their lives.

The Keys to Connection

Stallard identifies three factors that forster greater connection within an organization — Vision, Value, and Voice — and offers suggestions to increase them within an organization.

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  • Vision: Having a strong vision that employees identify with and that gives their work meaning encourages engagement across the board. Employees in organizations with strong visions are inspired and feel that their roles are important — from upper management to front-line and maintenance staff.
  • Value: By “value”, Stallard isn’t referring to values in the ethical sense, but to the value of people. Too many organizations fail to recognize or acknowledge the value of their employees, leading to disengagement. Organizations show they value their employees by making sure they’re in the right role for their particular strengths and talents, empowering them to make decisions within their area of expertise, and actively listening to them. Stallard cites the example of David Neeleman, the CEO of jetBlue, who sets aside a day every week to work alongside the crew on the company’s planes.
  • Voice: Vision and value come together in organizations that give employees a voice by fostering knowledge flow from bottom to top and back. Making sure the knoweldge flows both ways engages employees, allowing them to make better decisions, participate more fully in shaping and realizing the organization’s identity, and innovate more freely. Encouraging the flow of knowledge involves more than just putting a suggestion box outside the CEO’s door, but requires a total reshaping of the corporate or organizational culture.

Evaluation

I should say that I’m as far from the corporate world that Stallard and his co-writers describe as I could be. As a writer, I work more often than not on my own; as an adjunct instructor, I am only marginally attached to the two colleges I teach at. Still, I found much of the book exhilarating. I’ve worked too many hours and months of my life for corporations, non-profits, and other organizations that captured knowledge in rigidly stratified hierarchies, all too often leaveing the lower and middle reaches of the org-chart without adequate kunderstanding to perform our jobs, let alone to be more innovative.

Stallard and co. illustrate their work throughout with examples drawn from today’s corproate world, as well as from sports, military history, and elsewhere. The last part of the book, especially, shows Stallard’s ideas in action, with a close examination of the lives and careers of 20 notable leaders, ranging from Gen. George Marshall and Queen Elizabeth I to Frances Hesselbein (CEO of Girl Scouts of America from 1976 – 1990) and neurosurgeon Dr. Fred Epstein. These examples assure that the ideas expressed in Fired Up or Burned Out stay concrete and approachable, never zooming off into abstractions. And the ideas are good — the importance of fostering connection between employees and their organizations cannot be over-estimated.

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I did have a few qualms. The first has to do with the repeated use of “leadership” when they mean “management”. I understand that the corporate world lives and dies by the illusion that the terms are interchangeable, but Stallard’s work itself shows that is not the case. What kind of leaders allow their teams to become totally detached from their mission? What kind of leaders need to be told to share their vision, to value their people, and to give their team a voice?

Equating leadership with management creates an important gap in the book — because vision, value, and voice are assumed to come from management, there is little room left for, and thus little attention paid to, the kind of “grassroots” leadership that often rises from below to create vision, value, and voice in the absence of strong management. I’d have liked to see Stallard pay more attention to this — how can employees in leadership-deficient organizations create leadership from below?

My last issue isn’t the fault of the book, really, which is clearly aimed at a business audience. That said, given the ever-thinner line between our worklives and the rest of our lives, I’d like to have seen more attention paid to building connection outside of the workplace. Maybe in the next book… Or, more likely, the next author.

In the end, though, Fired Up of Burned Out is a powerful, interesting read, packed with great examples and practical advice. The information is most valuable to mid-level and higher management and team leaders, but there are lessons here for workers at every level, as well as for entrepreneurs and even the self-employed.

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Last Updated on August 20, 2019

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

Curiosity

Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

Patience

Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

A Feeling for Connectedness

This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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1. Research

Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

Learning the Basics

Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

Hitting the Books

Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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Long-Term Reference

While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

2. Practice

Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

3. Network

One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

4. Schedule

For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

Final Thoughts

In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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