Introduction

Do you go home feeling uplifted, empowered and energized, waiting for the next working day to begin, or do you feel exhausted, drained and in psychological pain?
Are you looking forward to the next working day to complete what you’ve started today or are you looking forward to the weekend and forgetting about work altogether?
Are you happy with your performance, or that of your employees, or do you feel you/they could do much better?

Many of us struggle at work, suffer from low motivation and reduced well-being. We don’t bring our best to work. Organizations and managers also suffer from this. They struggle to reach high performance, they lose profit, and they may have a workforce which is under motivated. We could simply do better than that.

In this article we will discover the primary reason behind low motivation and low performance at the workplace. We will explore how managers and employees both contribute to this problem and we will start a journey to discover alternatives. Some people will discover the alternatives themselves just by reading this article.

Warning

This article uses evidence based coaching techniques to help you come up with your own views and insights. Although the views of the author are also presented later, the article was not designed to be solely read or skimmed through. It has multiple short exercises which, together with the information in the text, can help you reach deeper insights and generate useful actions.

Skipping any of the exercises in this article may eliminate around 90% of the value that you could take away. This is true even if you read the article fully. It is highly recommended that you do each exercise as you encounter them and before continuing with the article.

Credits

Some of the questions and conclusions in this article are based on the work of Sir John Whitmore (I recommend the book “Coaching for Performance” from him) and Steven C. Hayes. Steven was the lead researcher of the unified model of human functioning called the “psychological flexibility model”. Search “Relational Frame Theory” or “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy” to learn more.

I’d also recommend reading “The Seven-Day Weekend: A Better Way to Work in the 21st Century” from Ricardo Semler. My personal experience matches the experience of Semler quite closely so I have borrowed some thoughts from him, albeit worded quite differently.

Exercise: What is your full potential?

Questions in this article are about you reflecting on how your working-life is working for you. You don’t have to share the results with anybody, this is just between you and the person in the mirror. This is a coaching exercise, there is no benchmark to compare against, no right or wrong, and we are not aiming for unquestionable accuracy.

Take a couple of minutes and think about your everyday working-life, the activities you do, the people you interact with, the tools you use, the knowledge necessary to carry out those activities and the output or outcomes you produce.
Think about how much of your knowledge and intellectual or emotional intelligence you use and how much is left untapped, dormant. Think about how many ideas you have, or could have if you had an environment which encouraged your creativity more. How many of your ideas can you put into practice? Could you produce more by working smarter? Or working harder? What if you had the time to just learn a new skill you always wanted to learn? Would that help? What about your colleagues, do your interactions with them help you, hinder you or a bit of both? Do you go home feeling uplifted, empowered and energized, waiting for the next working day to begin, or do you feel exhausted, drained and in psychological pain? Are you looking forward to the next working day to complete what you’ve started today or are you looking forward to the weekend and forgetting about work altogether?

Now answer to the following question:

What percentage of your full potential do you bring to your work?

This question has been kept deliberately vague, please feel free to interpret it in whatever way you like. The questions in the previous paragraph provided some examples of possible interpretations.

Take your time, think it through, when you’ve come up with a number, read on.

Don’t be scared if this number is very low. Most people I’ve worked with (or that coaches I know have worked with) have put down numbers way below 50%. It varies a lot by culture, job title and industry as well, e.g. for people working in finance, this number can be a single digit number; in mature, well established tech businesses it tends to be higher, on the 40-60% side. If you work for a large corporation a number between 20-30% wouldn’t be surprising or abnormal.

I’ve personally rarely had a client where I’ve felt I was allowed to or was capable of bringing more than 50% of my true potential to work. At most places I was restrained to somewhere between 10-30%.

Low is normal amongst most people. Sad but true. I enjoy working at my full potential, it gives me a sense of accomplishment and empowerment but I rarely get the chance to do so. What about you? Have you found that you have been looking for activities outside of work to experience how it feels to realize your true potential?

Our well-being is impacted by purposelessness but so is our economy, it is not running anywhere near where it could.

If you could double your/our output would you use it to make two times more money or would you use it to work less and spend more time with your family or your hobby?

In this article we will discover some of the main reasons for this and we will see what we can do about it, starting today.

Exercise: What are the barriers to realizing your true potential?

Again take a couple of minutes to think about your everyday working-life. Look for situations where you felt you had more potential but you couldn’t tap into it. Try to look for as many examples as you can, at least 3 or 4 would be a good start. Also try to look for situations that represent a range of experiences for you.
For example: ‘I couldn’t present a brilliant idea because I wasn’t given enough time’ (process & time constraints); ‘I progressed very slowly with a piece of work because my laptop was so slow’ (inappropriate tools); ‘I felt fear so I didn’t bring up a conflict or negative emotion I had with a co-worker which negatively impacted our collaboration later as we couldn’t talk it through and eventually the results we produced were sub-optimal’ (emotions); ‘I’m a specialist in two areas but my current client only utilizes my knowledge in one of these areas’ (discrepancy in supply and demand).

Now see if you can categorize your examples into two categories:

  • When the barrier to realizing your full potential was external (e.g. tools, processes) and
  • When the barrier to realizing your full potential was internal (e.g. fear, shame, doubt, limiting beliefs, thoughts, etc.)

I know it’s hard, you may also find that some examples belong to both categories or that an example that belongs to the second category (emotional barriers) actually started its life as an external constraint a few weeks, months or years ago and that constraint had an emotional impact on you eventually. That’s all fine, there is nothing wrong with you. Make sure that you find a few examples for both categories.

Work Situations with Internal Barriers

Now that you have plenty of examples, select one from the internal barrier category and take a couple of minutes to get in touch with this memory. Imagine you are there again, in that situation. It might be hard to do this if the situation was heated or painful. You may find that observing a stable bodily sensation while you are bringing this past experience to mind eases the process. E.g. the pressure in your feet as you are standing on it or the feeling in your back as the chair holds you.

Try to see, hear and feel through your own eyes, as you did when you were there, don’t imagine seeing the situation from the outside/3rd person view. Get in touch with the thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations and behavioural urges that you had at the time. Make a note of them, anything will do: paper, Word, notepad, or record into your phone. Also observe how it felt to be impeded or restricted, not being able to work at your full potential, take a note of this as well.

Although your example might be completely different (and that’s perfectly fine), here is a hypothetical example to aid the understanding of what this recollection might look like:
’I was trying to present an idea about how to improve our sales pipeline to a group of stakeholders (my boss was part of the audience) and I noticed a feeling of excitement about sharing my ideas with my colleagues. I also noticed a feeling of fear: a fear of rejection that they will find my idea stupid, uninteresting or wrong. I also felt a strong urge to impress my boss and align with whatever views or feedback he might come up with. I just agreed to everything he said and after the session I noticed a feeling of betrayal as I thought I didn’t stand firmly enough for what I believed in. The next day I noticed that my motivation was slightly reduced and I wasn’t as satisfied as before.’

Also answer the following questions:

  • How much ownership did you feel of the task/activity or the goal/output/outcome in hand in that situation?
  • Would you do that task if you were paid less for it?
  • What if you were not paid at all but you didn’t have to worry about money because you had plenty?
  • What if you could choose freely?
  • How would your approach to or feelings about the given task or goal change if you were the owner or CEO of the company? If it’s a public company just imagine for a second that you own it alone, just for the sake of this exercise. Try to actually put yourself into the shoes of this person. Does your feeling of ownership of the task change? Does the task make sense to you, does it lead to the outcomes you desire?
  • What if you were your boss?
  • What about your motivation? How motivated were you to do the task/activity in the situation you’re recalling here?

Take your time to think these through. Reading the questions again might help.

Ownership and Motivation in Chosen Activities

Now think of another activity, something completely different, something you do in your free time, something you truly enjoy. Could be a sport, a hobby, volunteering for a charity, a second job you do because you enjoy it, a side project, etc. It has to be an activity with tasks and a goal; things like watching the TV or just hanging out with friends don’t qualify for this exercise but playing basketball with friends does. It’s important to pick something that You have chosen, e.g. if you are taking piano lessons to make your parents happy, that doesn’t qualify.

  • How much ownership do you feel of this activity?
  • Do you need anyone to tell you how to organize, conduct or improve this activity in order for you to do this activity?
  • How much do others restrict or tell you how to do this activity?
  • How motivated are you to do this activity?
  • Is there a relationship between the level of choice involved in designing/doing/executing this activity and the level of motivation or ownership you feel toward it?

Rate Your Level of Ownership and Motivation

Now rate your level ownership for both your work task and your chosen activity on a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 is no ownership at all (you don’t care) and 10 is the highest level of ownership you have ever experienced.

Also rate your motivation for both of them on a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 is no motivation at all (you are only doing it because you MUST do it or ELSE …) and 10 is you would choose to do it even if there were no constraints forcing you as it is so exciting, interesting, engaging, helps you learn, etc.

Continue doing this for each and every one of the situations which you came up with above.
How do these numbers compare?

Work Situations with External Barriers

Do the same exercise with the examples you put in the category of ‘external barrier restricting me from realizing my full potential’.

However, this time also answer the following question:

  • Who put that external barrier in place? (e.g. the CTO of the company)
  • What might have been his interest? (e.g. to reduce costs he purchased cheaper but slower laptops)
  • Is he aware how this barrier restricted your potential or the potential of others?
    Are there official, formal feedback channels in place to feed this information back and improve the situation or does feedback happen infrequently through informal conversations to which stakeholders may or may not listen? (e.g. there is a retrospective forum every month where employees meet the CTO and openly discuss consequences, like ‘it’s impossible to work on my laptop because it’s so slow’)
  • In your opinion, how much is the stakeholder who put this barrier in place aware of all the consequences of how the barrier has positively or negatively impacted everybody involved.
    Rate this on a scale of 1 to 100, where 1 is totally oblivious, 100 is aware of each and every nuance.
  • In your opinion, how many of the details of your work was this stakeholder aware of when he put the barrier in place?
    E.g. your organization might force you to use a certain technology to do a specific task, that technology might be fit for purpose elsewhere but it’s not a good fit for what you need to accomplish with it.
    Rate his level of understanding on a scale from 1 to 100, where 1 is completely clueless, 100 is so close to the details and has such deep understanding of the subject matter that he could actually do all the impacted tasks himself (i.e. he has a full appreciation of how your task might be impacted by his decisions).

Did you find that the stakeholders enacting barriers to your work are either unknown or are people in a position of formal power and authority but with little to no understanding of how their decisions impact your well-being and performance?

Let’s summarize the exercises, what does all of this tell you?

If you have done this exercise you should have the following things:

  • A list of internal barriers in the form of feelings, thoughts, bodily sensations and urges.
  • A list of ratings for the level ownership and motivation you’ve felt toward both workplace and freely chosen activities.
  • For external barriers:
  • A list of stakeholders who put the barriers in place
  • Ratings of their level awareness of the details of the tasks which have been impacted by the barrier
  • Ratings of their understanding of the consequences of their actions after putting the barrier in place.

Take a look at all of this information. What does this tell you?

What overall rating would you give to your level of ownership of your tasks, activities, goals, output and outcomes at your current workplace? (On a scale of 1-10)
What overall rating would you give to your motivation at your current workplace?
What about rating your motivation and ownership for your previously chosen leisure activity?

How do these compare to each other?

Would you like the two numbers to match?

Would you like to unlock your full potential or that of your employees, team members, peers?

What if I told you it is possible to build a work environment like that? What if I told you it is possible to transform existing environments into that within a relatively short period of time? It requires some investment of time (5-10%), significant effort, will and a coach (like me).

Before we can discuss how to do that we need to develop a deeper understanding of the reasons behind the correlations you have just discovered.

Why do we lack ownership and motivation at work?

We were made to believe that the opposite of work is fun and leisure. In reality the opposite of work is idleness.

The activities we label as ‘fun’ or ‘leisure’ many times contain tasks that are just as difficult, challenging, occasionally frustrating or painful as the tasks we carry out at work.
E.g. If I push myself hard enough I can experience much more intense physical pain while I’m exercising at the gym than the mental pain I experience at my workplace. I regularly engage in various self-development activities to increase the awareness of myself and most of these are more challenging to do than the majority of the tasks I have at work. If I play a computer game or watch a drama movie which has a good story and deep, well-developed characters, I might experience deeper levels of sadness than I do when I fail at a task at work.

Despite all of these challenges, difficulties or painful emotions, I have high motivation and ownership of these activities

Ownership and motivation are not dependent on the difficulty or painfulness of a task, they’re dependent on how much freedom one has in choosing and doing that activity.

The strongest motivation comes from choice

The primary difference between work and free time is that we retain choice in our free time.

And not just high-level choices (e.g. should I lift weights or should I run instead) but micro choices as well (e.g. how much should I run, at what speed, which park, what is my target pulse rate, what will I eat afterwards, do I want to stop to catch my breath, what gear should I wear, etc., etc.). Usually no one tells us how to execute our chosen activities in our free time. Despite this, we are doing fine. We are actually doing better. We are not doing better in spite of but precisely because no one is telling us how to do the tasks in these activities, no one is restricting our full potential.

We also recognize if we are not good at something. If we are interested, we voluntarily read books, go to training courses or university, ask for personalized advice, take professional coaching if applicable or simply learn by trial and error.

We find more enjoyment and motivation when we retain choice.

If I choose to do something I do it for myself, if I’m told to do something I do it for you. Inevitably my motivation is higher when I do something for myself.

Exercise: Who is responsible if you were told to do something?

Think of an example of when you’ve been told to do something that you believed was absolutely stupid, you did it and it led to failure. Spend a minute looking for an actual example.

At the moment of failure or whilst things were heading toward failure, how much did you feel responsible for the outcome and how much did you feel the person who gave you this task was responsible? I’m talking about your personal feelings not about how much the organization for which you work wanted to hold you accountable.
Rate your feeling of responsibility on a scale from 1 to 10 for yourself, then also rate how much you felt the person who instructed you to do the stupid thing was responsible.
How motivated were you in executing this ‘stupid’ idea? Again rate this on a scale from 1 to 10.

Telling people what to do decreases their ownership and decreases their feeling of responsibility and motivation.

The typical response of managers when they realize the importance of ownership

What managers frequently do when they realize the importance of taking responsibility and having ownership of a task is that they start to tell people that they must take ownership or that they must take responsibility. This is the same mindset and behaviour that created the original problem of low performance and decreased well-being: they tell people that they have to do something, except this time they tell people that they have to choose something. But if I’m told to choose something I had no choice, someone made the choice for me.

The feeling of responsibility is the consequence of free choice. If you are pressured, manipulated or bullied into a choice, that’s not a free choice. That’s not a choice at all.

Beware, there is another trap here: guilt and fear!

The fear of failure or guilt for not doing something you didn’t choose to do but have to do anyway can look very similar, on the surface, to responsibility. It can even feel similar on the inside.

Sometimes some of these feelings, guilt specifically, can even be useful. Contextual behavioural scientists can show that guilt predicts good outcomes (not to be confused with shame which doesn’t because shame relates to the self-image of the person not his actions). But none of these feelings provide the well-being or high performance associated with choosing responsibility. They have their function in our lives for better or worse but they are not a substitution for choosing responsibility. They cannot be.

Is this shocking to you, or is this a natural discovery?

“But I make my living by telling people what and/or how to do”

If you make your living by telling people what to do and how to do it, this can be overwhelming. Bear with me, there is an alternative and we will discover that in due course.

No amount of telling can change human nature, no amount of telling can transform anybody’s inclination from “I perform better because I have ownership of my task” to “I perform better because I’m told to do so”.

In other words you don’t get to choose what works but you get to discover and adopt what works if you choose to do so.

The paradox of responsibility and the consequences if you (or your employees) avoid it

There is also a paradox in responsibility: because it’s based on free choice, employees can actually choose not to take responsibility for a task. If they are not controlled, their choice means the task will not be done. And they can make the same choice over and over again. And again. And then again.

Both sides feed the beast of control, low performance and frustration. Managers may control because employees don’t take responsibility and employees may avoid responsibility as a response to previous control, as a way of rebelling.

Control and avoidance are like yin and yang, one attracts the other and they cannot exist without each other.

Rebellion isn’t equal to freedom

If you consistently take ownership of the action opposite to what’s expected of you, your choices are still directed and determined by what’s expected of you.

If you deliberately avoid perceiving, considering and evaluating suggestions made by somebody because he is in the position of authority your awareness of certain facts and opinion will be reduced and you will have less choice later.
If someone picks up on your behaviour pattern he might be able to exploit it by commanding you to do the opposite of what he actually wants you to do (given that this strategy is not obvious in the given situation).

Your own defensiveness reduces your own freedom.

And of course the same goes for managers if they avoid perceiving, considering and evaluating suggestions made by someone whom is ‘underneath them’, ‘less senior’, ‘less experienced’, ‘inferior’ or ‘less valuable’ (just to quote a few of the reasons I have heard), then they reject the idea based on information that relates to the messenger not the idea itself. It doesn’t even matter if those evaluations are right or wrong about the messenger, i.e. the employee.

Choosing to reduce your awareness for any reason will leave you with fewer choices, not more.

Avoiding thoughts, ideas, memories, past experiences, feelings, bodily sensations and behavioural urges make the world just a little bit smaller, with a little bit less freedom every time you do that, until the world becomes a very-very small place and the business agility of your department is reduced to nearly zero.

The harmful cycle between employees and managers

So employees’ avoidance of taking responsibility invites management control into their life and management control leads to employees’ avoidance of responsibility. The vicious cycle continues with a little bit more control and a little bit more avoidance at each turn. This then gives birth to the large, bureaucratic, oppressive and extremely ineffective and inefficient structures of large corporations. And then a crisis happens and everybody wonders ‘how did we get here?’, ‘whose fault is this?’

Someone has to take responsibility, we need to get things done!

At the end of the day someone has to take responsibility for our next deliverable, so if telling people or being told how to do one’s job and providing detailed policies, processes and bureaucracy limits one’s performance but not telling might lead to chaos, then what is the alternative? What can we do to unlock our full potential and that of our teams and employees?
How do we increase ownership, responsibility and motivation at the workplace?

There are alternatives to hierarchy and control and the ineffective artefacts resulting from them, like power structures, micromanagement, bureaucracy, politics, rigid, prescriptive policies, etc. These alternatives lead to higher performance, higher employee engagement, increased motivation, increased employee retention, improved individual well-being, increased creativity, improved business agility and profitability.
One of these alternatives is professional coaching.

How controlling are you?

What score would you give yourself regarding control and responsibility?

If you are a manager how frequently do you feel the desire to control people?
You may think that your desire to control is justified. There is nothing wrong with your desire or your thoughts. Just try to quantify them.
Give it a score between 0 and 100, 0 being never, 100 being a 100% of the time.

If you are an employee how frequently do you feel a lack of ownership of your tasks? Again, rate this on a scale from 1 to 100.

Where would you like these numbers to be? What action could you take?

Where does the change start?

How much can you change the thoughts, emotions and behaviour of others and how much can you change yours? Give a score to each of these on a scale from 0 to 100. 0 being no control at all, 100 being full control all the time.

If everybody thinks it’s somebody else who has to change first, no change will ever happen. The change starts with You.

(Unless you gave yourself a score of 0 on how frequently you feel the need to control or the lack of ownership of tasks.)

If you choose to take responsibility for unlocking your and your employees’ full potential and well-being, you will find you will need to learn a very different way of being, doing and relating to one another.
This is an exciting, challenging, painful and beautiful journey of personal discovery, increased self-awareness and self-development that goes much deeper than what most people used to do in a work environment. It will probably require the help of a professional coach.

What’s next?

Metaphorically control is like an extremely dangerous and powerful animal that lives in a very specific habitat, it feeds on a specific food, comes out of its lair at specific times, reproduces itself and interacts with other animals and plants in specific ways.
In order to maximize our chances of capturing it, we should weaken it first by dismantling its habitat, e.g. control feeds on hierarchy, creating flat organizations takes away most of its food and weakens it.

In a less metaphorical way, the issue of control is connected to a wide range of phenomena ranging from problem complexity, to organizational structures, reward strategy, business processes, project management frameworks and psychological processes.
We need to understand and potentially change many of these to create a more empowering, fulfilling and vitalizing work environment.

Are you ready for the journey?

In future articles we will discover the assumptions and problems that created control and avoidance, the organizational structures, processes and values that emerged and how these reinforce control and avoidance in the present. We will take a look at the alternatives as well, at each step we will explore what you can do, starting now.

If you want to proceed faster or you need personalized advice or coaching please feel free to contact me. ☺

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References and useful links