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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 16, 2018

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system”.

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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The power of habit

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being six hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The wonderful thing about triggers (reminders)

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to make a reminder works for you

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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