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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 October 15, 2019

Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

Procrastination is very literally the opposite of productivity. To produce something is to pull it forward, while to procrastinate is to push it forward — to tomorrow, to next week, or ultimately to never.

Procrastination fills us with shame — we curse ourselves for our laziness, our inability to focus on the task at hand, our tendency to be easily led into easier and more immediate gratifications. And with good reason: for the most part, time spent procrastinating is time spent not doing things that are, in some way or other, important to us.

There is a positive side to procrastination, but it’s important not to confuse procrastination at its best with everyday garden-variety procrastination.

Sometimes — sometimes! — procrastination gives us the time we need to sort through a thorny issue or to generate ideas. In those rare instances, we should embrace procrastination — even as we push it away the rest of the time.

Why we procrastinate after all

We procrastinate for a number of reasons, some better than others. One reason we procrastinate is that, while we know what we want to do, we need time to let the ideas “ferment” before we are ready to sit down and put them into action.

Some might call this “creative faffing”; I call it, following copywriter Ray Del Savio’s lead, “concepting”.[1]

Whatever you choose to call it, it’s the time spent dreaming up what you want to say or do, weighing ideas in your mind, following false leads and tearing off on mental wild goose chases, and generally thinking things through.

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To the outside observer, concepting looks like… well, like nothing much at all. Maybe you’re leaning back in your chair, feet up, staring at the wall or ceiling, or laying in bed apparently dozing, or looking out over the skyline or feeding pigeons in the park or fiddling with the Japanese vinyl toys that stand watch over your desk.

If ideas are the lifeblood of your work, you have to make time for concepting, and you have to overcome the sensation— often overpowering in our work-obsessed culture — that faffing, however creative, is not work.

So, is procrastination bad?

Yes it is.

Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re “concepting” when in fact you’re just not sure what you’re supposed to be doing.

Spending an hour staring at the wall while thinking up the perfect tagline for a marketing campaign is creative faffing; staring at the wall for an hour because you don’t know how to come up with a tagline, or don’t know the product you’re marketing well enough to come up with one, is just wasting time.

Lack of definition is perhaps the biggest friend of your procrastination demons. When we’re not sure what to do — whether because we haven’t planned thoroughly enough, we haven’t specified the scope of what we hope to accomplish in the immediate present, or we lack important information, skills, or resources to get the job done.

It’s easy to get distracted or to trick ourselves into spinning our wheels doing nothing. It takes our mind off the uncomfortable sensation of failing to make progress on something important.

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The answer to this is in planning and scheduling. Rather than giving yourself an unspecified length of time to perform an unspecified task (“Let’s see, I guess I’ll work on that spreadsheet for a while”) give yourself a limited amount of time to work on a clearly defined task (“Now I’ll enter the figures from last months sales report into the spreadsheet for an hour”).

Giving yourself a deadline, even an artificial one, helps build a sense of urgency and also offers the promise of time to “screw around” later, once more important things are done.

For larger projects, planning plays a huge role in whether or not you’ll spend too much time procrastinating to reach the end reasonably quickly.

A good plan not only lists the steps you have to take to reach the end, but takes into account the resources, knowledge and inputs from other people you’re going to need to perform those steps.

Instead of futzing around doing nothing because you don’t have last month’s sales report, getting the report should be a step in the project.

Otherwise, you’ll spend time cooling your heels, justifying your lack of action as necessary: you aren’t wasting time because you want to, but because you have to.

How bad procrastination can be

Our mind can often trick us into procrastinating, often to the point that we don’t realize we’re procrastinating at all.

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After all, we have lots and lots of things to do; if we’re working on something, aren’t we being productive – even if the one big thing we need to work on doesn’t get done?

One way this plays out is that we scan our to-do list, skipping over the big challenging projects in favor of the short, easy projects. At the end of the day, we feel very productive: we’ve crossed twelve things off our list!

That big project we didn’t work on gets put onto the next day’s list, and when the same thing happens, it gets moved forward again. And again.

Big tasks often present us with the problem above – we aren’t sure what to do exactly, so we look for other ways to occupy ourselves.

In many cases too, big tasks aren’t really tasks at all; they’re aggregates of many smaller tasks. If something’s sitting on your list for a long time, each day getting skipped over in favor of more immediately doable tasks, it’s probably not very well thought out.

You’re actively resisting it because you don’t really know what it is. Try to break it down into a set of small tasks, something more like the tasks you are doing in place of the one big task you aren’t doing.

More consequences of procrastination can be found in this article:

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8 Dreadful Effects of Procrastination That Can Destroy Your Life

Procrastination, a technical failure

Procrastination is, more often than not, a sign of a technical failure, not a moral failure.

It’s not because we’re bad people that we procrastinate. Most times, procrastination serves as a symptom of something more fundamentally wrong with the tasks we’ve set ourselves.

It’s important to keep an eye on our procrastinating tendencies, to ask ourselves whenever we notice ourselves pushing things forward what it is about the task we’ve set ourselves that simply isn’t working for us.

Featured photo credit: chuttersnap via unsplash.com

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