5 Books on Doing Great Work

5 Books on Doing Great Work

The Backstory

Michael Bungay Stainer (author of the great book The Coaching Habit) recently asked me to list my Five Essential Books for Being a More Approachable Leader. He featured them on his blog Box of Crayons a couple of weeks ago. Everyone who follows our AL blog knows how much I geek out on Approachable Leadership. So of course I was honored and happy to oblige. You’ll have to go visit his post to get the low-down on those 5 books. But I think you’ll be glad you did. You might even be surprised by a couple that made the cut.

Making that list was really fun for me. I enjoyed thinking back on some of the books I’ve read and looking for connections between them. That’s what led me to write this post.

Many of my favorite bloggers/podcasters regularly feature book recommendations and books they’ve read. I especially pay attention to recommendations from folks like Michael Bungay Stanier (who I mentioned above), Brett McCay at Art of Manliness, Ryan Holiday, Tyler Cowen over at Marginal Revolution, Tim Ferris (and his many podcast guests), the team at Farnham Street, and Eric Barker over at Barking up the Wrong Tree (who has a new book out himself). These are my favorite posts to read. I discover lots of books this way (plus a few I can scratch off my list).

I’ve been on a bit of a reading tear. I read a lot when I fly, and I’ve been doing too much of that. But to make lemonade out of my travel schedule, I’ve decided to share my own reading list for the year. You can find the full list here. But today – inspired by Mr. Stanier whose brilliant podcast is about doing great work – I’d like to focus on 5 books I’ve read this year on doing great work.

5 Books on Doing Great Work

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

This one has been on my “to-read” list for a long time. I wish I had read it before. While on its face this is a book for artists like writers or painters, the substance can be applied to any professional. The big takeaway is that once you “go pro” in whatever you do, you have to do it every day (otherwise you’re being an amateur). The enemy of professionals is “the resistance.” Or all the things that distract you from your art or work. Pressfield’s story is inspiring but also sobering… going pro means a lot of work and there are no shortcuts. I really enjoyed this book but definitely left it feeling that I have a lot of work to do against “the resistance” in my own work.

Make It Stick by Peter Brown, Henry Rodiger, Mark McDaniel

This book blows up a bunch of myths about adult learning and offers a number of practical suggestions on the research-backed way to train and teach adults. It destroys myths like you should teach based on different “learning styles.” And that “cramming” is an effective way to learn. Instead you must adopt spaced, interleaved and varied practice. Forced retrieval and reconsolidation of prior learning. It also recommends using reflection and elaboration. As a teacher and training designer, I’ve been aware of these principles for years. But having everything laid out (especially with all the research about why it all works) was really valuable. This is a must read for those of you who teach or design training.

The Lean Startup by Eric Ries

So far the best book I’ve read this year. I should have read it years ago when it was first recommended to me. It is terrific. As soon as I finished, I made a bunch of Flashcards to study and cement the lessons taught (this was before I read Make it Stick, which recommends the same process 🙂 ) The core idea is that a business has one purpose: to find – as quickly as possible – something a customer will buy to solve a problem. It does this by running fast experiments to test hypotheses about how to solve the customer problem. The process of designing and testing those hypotheses is the magic of the model. It is a business strategy book, management book, and leadership book all rolled up into one. But how does it relate to great work? This whole model is about figuring out what solves a problem as efficiently as possible. Too much time and effort gets wasted on things that ultimately have no value – and that’s not great work. If you want to wring every ounce of value out of your work effort, this book is a must-read.

Draw to Win by Dan Roam

I heard about this one during an interview Michael Bungay Stanier did with Dan. When you start seeing some bad stick figure illustrations from me you can thank this book. I really enjoyed it. I actually spent the night after I finished it drawing for the first time in… let’s just say decades. Which was pretty enjoyable as I’m a somewhat visual person, especially in presentations. (I was an early adopter of Prezi, and love to “think” on a whiteboard.) Roam suggests that 2/3 of our brain is designed to process visual information. The big takeaway is that the person who draws the best picture wins. I plan to add more drawing to my toolkit after reading this. And after reading this next book, chances are good you’ll get to see some of them 🙂

Show Your Work by Austin Kleon

This one has also been on the list a while, and seemed like a natural follow up to Dan Roam’s book. The big takeaway here is that in today’s world we should always be showing our work. Not just the finished product. All of the work. By curating the things we are working on day to day, we get feedback all along the creative process. And it also helps keep us honest about doing our great work. Versus giving into the “resistance” – hate to have to tweet that you spent the last 3 hours on social media! You may have noticed that I’ve been posting pictures of my work with the hashtag #showyourwork. You can thank this book 😉

How to use these books to start doing your own great work

Most of us try to avoid bad work. But if you’re like me you can easily get sucked into doing not-great work. And this can kill your motivation and make you feel like you are spinning your wheels. These 5 books look at different ways you can ignite passion in your work, think a little more like an artist, and bring more of yourself to your work. And the more you fight the resistance, get efficient and targeted about your work, and apply your whole brain to your effort, the more great work you’ll produce. Let me know what you think about these books and share with me what you’re up to in the comments (and show your work!)

So get to reading and do more great work!

5 Turnover Excuses That Signal Your Managers Are The Problem

5 Turnover Excuses That Signal Your Managers Are The Problem

Have you ever quit your boss?

You wouldn’t be weird if you did. In fact, you’d be right in the middle of the bell curve. Because in a recent Gallup study of 7,272 U.S. adults a whopping 50 percent of employees said they left a job “to get away from their manager to improve their overall life at some point in their career.”

I want to point out one phrase again: “to improve their overall life.”

The work we do is directly related to our quality of life. If you’ve ever made the decision to quit a job you know how gut-wrenching it can be. Thus, as leaders who oversee the work-lives of our team, we have a responsibility to them. To “meet their needs as valued employees and human beings.”

But here’s the problem. When someone quits a job they rarely say, “I’d stay, except I hate my boss.” Occasionally you’ll hear something like that in an exit interview, but people don’t want to burn bridges. After all, there are no guarantees in life. Why not keep your options open? So instead of coming clean about how miserable their boss makes them they’ll point out a host of other reasons and tell you how hard it is to leave. And they’ll work real hard to say it with a straight face.

When You Should Dig a Little Deeper Into Turnover

That’s why if you’re a leader of leaders and you notice people departing from a work area (especially if those people are strong performers) you need to dig a little deeper than the exit interview. While you could conduct a bunch of “stay interviews” with the teammates who stay behind (I’m not a big fan of these and I’ll explain why in a future post) I think there is a more important person to interview: the leader who was just abandoned.

When someone quits a team it should have a big impact on the leader. This is a critical teammate who they’ve invested in and developed. They got the job done and cared for customers. Their departure stresses out the rest of the team while a new person is developed. Even in the most positive situation, where an employee grows and develops to the point where they can’t move up inside the company, it is still a big blow to the leader. They can be excited that their teammate has “graduated,” but still concerned about who’s stepping up next.

Other times the situation is more gray. The leader may not be sure exactly why the employee left. They might look behind the stated reasons to see if something else might be going on. That’s an OK reaction too. A leader who looks in the mirror and sees this as an opportunity to reflect and grow themselves is on the right track.

Turnover Excuses: The 5 Tell-Tale Signs Your Leader May Be the Problem

But some leaders, especially the ones who employees ARE leaving, will have a very different reaction. They’ll have a lot of excuses for why people leave. if you’re a leader of leaders you can learn a lot (and identify a much bigger organizational problem than losing one star contributor) by listening carefully to the turnover excuses you hear.

If you have a manager with a turnover issue dig a little deeper. Ask them why they think people are leaving their department or work area. Then listen very carefully to their answer. If you notice any of these 5 turnover excuses you might have a bigger problem on your hands.

One: Looking everywhere (but in the mirror).

Does your leader say things like:

  • Our orientation process stinks;
  • We need to stop getting people from want ads;
  • Anyone who’s worth a darn is already working;
  • Nobody wants to work hard any more;
  • Our pay and benefits aren’t competitive, etc.

If your manager offers no thoughts about their own relationship with the employees who are leaving or how they may have contributed you want to dig a little deeper. Pay close attention. Are all the excuses outside of the manager’s influence? Do they focus on how little control they have over the situation? That’s a tell-tale sign.

It’s not that these outside factors have no impact on whether someone stays or leaves. Each of them could contribute. But if the focus is only on outside factors you should seriously test the idea that these are the culprit. Correlation isn’t causation. Ask yourself: Do people stay in other departments that share these external factors? Then it’s likely the problem isn’t these external factors. Let’s dive into a few of these excuses a little further.

Two: We don’t pay enough.

This is the easiest cop-out. Don’t get me wrong – people do leave jobs to make more money. Money’s important.

But here’s the thing. Money isn’t everything. Especially for today’s workforce, people have a need for jobs to be about more than money. They’re looking for things like a “good work-life balance and sustainable business practices.”

Furthermore, people who love their jobs (as in, they enjoy the work they do and the people they do it with and for) have a hard time quitting. Even when a better (financial) offer comes on the table. People who exit often say it’s because they are getting a raise. That’s considered a low-risk way to exit. But many people will stay in a job that’s not at the top of the scale because they love their boss.

I’m not suggesting that you pay below market and make up for it with strong leaders. But top talent won’t jump for money if it means working for a jerk (and they’ll boomerang right back if they do). If you are consistently losing people to a competitor who offers superior pay and benefits (and offers similar or better work environment and leadership) you have a structural problem. That problem could be isolated to a specific department (some high-skilled jobs are notorious for this behavior). But often where you see only isolated pockets of this problem you are looking at a leadership issue, not pay.

Three: The work itself stinks.

Okay, some work does stink. And it’s easy to blame high turnover rates on that. But these jobs are actually few and far between. That’s because job quality is relative. These positions are often low-skilled or entry-level jobs. Many times these roles attract teammates who are happy for the opportunity.

Is this a “foot in the door” role? Can people develop into better quality roles? Before blaming turnover on job quality again consider all the facts. Has turnover always been bad in this role? Who has been successful in the past? Are there locations where these jobs don’t turn over? It’s important not to be too quick to blame the work itself, even for some of these “crappy” jobs.

Four: They weren’t right for the position in the first place.

This may be a legitimate complaint. If your hiring process is pumping out C players who are expected to perform like A players you’ll have a revolving door. Finding the right person for the right position is one of the most important and most challenging aspects of any business. And honestly, as leaders, we get it wrong a lot. One HBR study actually found that “as much as 80 percent of employee turnover is due to bad hiring decisions.”

But this problem has a leadership component too. No doubt that the hiring process must serve with the talent needs of the organization. However, one reason for all these bad hiring decisions is turnover. The more holes you have to fill, the harder it will be to take the time and effort to find the right person. The business is breathing down your neck to fill the hole in the lineup. So you settle for the C player because you can’t wait for the A player.

Another option is to redirect struggling talent to other roles. An involved, approachable leader should also recognize when the work isn’t suited to the employee (or visa versa). So long as that employee appears to be a keeper (they’re intelligent, kind, hard-working, etc.), your best course of action is to switch them to a more suitable position. If that’s not an option at the time, keep it open. No need for you to burn bridges either. Who knows when they might be an A player somewhere else in your company. To dive deeper into why discussions like that are so important, check out this article.

Five: We’re better off. They weren’t motivated.

Is this a person with poor internal motivation? Or is it a person whose motivation was drained by a bad boss? Again, looking at the trends will tell you a lot. A bad boss will blame the hiring process. A leader will double down on their skills and habits to motivate their team.

Sometimes the loss of an employee IS for the best. So long as it’s handled right (as in, you replace them with the right person). But here’s the thing. Are you the kind of leader who tries to figure out why someone isn’t motivated? More often than not, you can turn it around. All it takes is a little investment on your part.

Is their lack of motivation work-related or personal? If it’s work-related, focus on progress. (For more on how to put the Progress Principle to work for your team click here). If it’s personal, simply taking the time to recognize their struggle and expressing concern will work wonders. They’ll immediately feel more connected to you and the company. Not only is that good for your turnover rates, it’s good for that member of your team. To feel important. To feel valued. And to feel like this organization, this team, supports them.

The Takeaways

There are many reasons people leave jobs. As the labor market tightens, turnover and retention will get worse. But the worst thing you can do is hire a great person only to see them walk out the door. That’s shooting yourself in the foot. That’s why you must diagnose when managers are causing turnover. Here are 5 turnover excuses that signal your managers are the problem:

  1. Did they blame everything but themselves? Are your leaders looking in the mirror when a teammate jumps ship? Or do they blame everyone else? Do your managers take responsibility when the chips are down?
  2. We don’t pay enough. Money is important. But it isn’t everything. Most people leave for other reasons (their leader and other factors their leader directly impacts).
  3. The work itself stinks. Job quality is relative. What “stinks” for one person may be a perfect fit for another. Blaming turnover on the nature of the work basically means this manager isn’t interested or willing to discover bigger issues.
  4. They weren’t right for the position in the first place. How much of this is caused by stress on your hiring process due to high turnover? That’s a hidden cost of turnover. And what do you do to save someone who might be an A player somewhere else in your company?
  5. We’re better off. They weren’t motivated. Motivation doesn’t fall 100 percent on the employee. Leaders play a very important role in keeping their team engaged. What are your leaders doing to manage progress and development? Are your leaders creating organizational citizens or organizational vandals?

Ever heard any of these turnover excuses before? Were they a signal to you of a bigger problem? What’s made the biggest difference in turning around your turnover issues? I love hearing personal experiences from our readers!

5 Clever Ways to Get Turnover Under Control

5 Clever Ways to Get Turnover Under Control

Looking to stop the “corporate death spiral” and get turnover under control?

Quick recap from last week:

There’s more to the cost of turnover than recruiting, hiring, and training expenses.

  • You lose tribal knowledge, connections, and intellectual property.
  • Additional pressure is put on top performers which leads to frustration, reduced productivity and innovation, and lost opportunity.
  • You also face the potential risk of a bad new hire.

All of this places you smack dab in a “corporate death spiral.”

The corporate death spiral means you’ll never get turnover under control. The loss of one employee (good or bad) feeds the flame. You end up stuck in a cesspool of negative effects. Which leads to the loss of another employee. And another. Throw in the loss of a customer or two (or twenty). Massive collateral damage.

What can you do to stop the bleeding? I thought you’d never ask.

Here are 5 Action Steps to Get Turnover Under Control

One: Be Approachable.

You probably guessed this one. But the fact is employees of Approachable Leaders have 71% lower turnover intention. And the main reason people quit their jobs is because their boss is a jerk. (Hot tip: don’t be a jerk.)

Unapproachable leaders are in the eye of the corporate death spiral. They can’t attract or keep talent. Even the company hesitates to place decent people in their department. And things just get worse and worse.

Approachable leaders have no problem keeping their talent together. It’s harder to quit a job when you have a real connection with your leader. When you feel valued and important. You know they believe in you and they encourage your growth. Which just makes the team even more valuable.

These are the three pillars of our leadership model: openness, understanding, and support. (This article dives into these concepts a little more.)

Two: Touch Base with your Hiring Process.

Sometimes turnover is a good thing. Like when the person who leaves wasn’t a good fit or they are a “B or C” level player. When this happens, turnover is an opportunity. If you handle it right.

Get in too big of a hurry to fill the position and your new employee may be worse than the one you lost. Or just as bad. In either case, you set your organization up for failure.

In 2010 Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh said bad hiring decisions cost his company “well over $100 million.” Ouch! And it all starts with management. Bad managers make bad hiring decisions.

Chances are good your talent acquisition process could use an upgrade. Do you feel like your process is about average? I’ve got bad news for you:

Organizations fail to choose the right talent for management positions 82% of the time.”

Three: Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself.

Remember when I said a lot of people quit because of their boss?

When leaders get frustrated, stressed, and overworked (sound familiar?) is when things fall apart. Your patience plummets and you close off from your team. You become hard to approach and communication skills take a nose-dive.

That’s why it’s so important to take care of yourself. Give yourself what you need (time, space, an hour to yourself, or even a day off) so you can be the kind of leader your team needs.

You’ve got yourself in check. Now you need to get your turnover “early warning system” in place.

Four: Look for Signs an Employee is “On the Fence.”

Quitting a job is a huge decision for most people. It involves a lot of preparation. It takes courage to leave the stability and financial security of a job. Even if the next step is in place, it’s still unknown and uncertain.

Most people think about quitting quite a while before they pull the trigger. And if you pay close attention, you should recognize when you’re on the verge of losing someone. Signs to look for include:

  • a drop in performance;
  • changes in relationships; and
  • decreased enthusiasm about the company and management.

We are releasing an Early Warning Toolkit on these “tells” soon. Stay on the lookout for that.

Five: Focus on Ways to Include an “At Risk” Teammate.

After bad leadership (and often in addition to bad leaders) there are three main reasons people quit a company:

  1. They don’t feel they belong;
  2. They don’t feel they matter; or
  3. They feel stuck.

These three areas are where to focus if you notice the signs someone is looking to jump ship. Help them see that they are a valued member of the team. Make sure they connect their work with the mission of the company and the value it brings to your customers and the world. Work with them on making progress and give them more say in their work life.

Engaging employees is an important way to reduce turnover, but it’s tricky. We broke it down for you in two recent blog posts here and here.


To get turnover under control you must understand why people quit in the first place. Here are the 5 action steps you can take to turn around your turnover problems:

  1. Be a more Approachable Leader. People rarely quit leaders they love. Approachable Leaders know what’s going on with their team.
  2. Touch base with your hiring process. Hire slow. Be patient. Get the right person, not the next person. If you get this right this person will be on your team a long time.
  3. Check yourself. Don’t be the reason your turnover rates are so high. Remember to take care of yourself so you can be the kind of leader your team needs.
  4. Look for signs an employee might be “on the fence.” People rarely quit out of the blue. Look for the tell-tale signs your team members might be looking for greener pastures.
  5. Focus on ways to include an “at risk” person. Once you’ve identified a dissatisfied team member, do your best to turn it around. Find out what they need more of. Or less of. Act on it.

What’s your experience with retention? Are your hiring and onboarding processes effective? Do you have any leaders driving away top talent?

Turnover Costs: 8 Hidden Costs of Employee Turnover You May Have Missed

Turnover Costs: 8 Hidden Costs of Employee Turnover You May Have Missed

Turnover costs a lot.

Turnover is a huge headache. It’s also expensive. You know turnover costs a lot, but do ever wonder what it costs you? Experts project voluntary turnover will hit 20% this year with direct costs over $11 billion. Yes, $11 billion.

But these direct costs are just the beginning. In addition to the hard costs of recruiting, hiring and training new hires there are many hidden costs.

8 Hidden Costs of Employee Turnover

One: Knowledge Gap

When you lose a member of the team, you also lose that person’s “tribal knowledge.” Tribal knowledge is the know-how a person accumulates in the trenches. Every person develops tribal knowledge as they learn their job and react to things that pop up. This unwritten playbook helps them be better, faster, and more efficient. Much better than standard procedure. And when they walk out the door, so does all that knowledge.

Quick Tip: Honor all this knowledge and try to document it. You’ll recognize your teammate, capture knowledge, and increase the value of your business. You will reduce the time it takes to train a replacement. And you make it a lot less likely they’ll jump ship in the first place!

Of course, there’s the darker side of tribal knowledge. Someone who’s been around knows the good, the bad, and the ugly of your company. They know where all the bodies are buried. You may prefer to keep that knowledge inside the tribe 😉

Two: Lost Connections

We talk about this all the time. Relationships and connections. When you lose a team member, you not only lose their connections with teammates. You also lose the connections they’ve built with your customers and vendors. The UPS guy and the people who cut the checks.

Each of these lost connections can damage your company. It can hurt morale and customer relationships. Things slow down because connections are often the lubricant that smooths out frictions we may never see. Some of the effects will be obvious right away. Others won’t emerge until the iron strikes the coal. These are the “thousand cuts” we don’t notice till it’s too late.

Three: Lost Intellectual Property

Taking trade secrets is unlawful. Yet it happens every single day. Customer lists, processes and procedures, formulas, sales strategies, and much more floats around the heads (and cell phones and home computers) of your team.

Often this happens unknowingly. Even when on purpose, it is very hard (and expensive) to prove. Every time an employee leaves your company you must ask: Is your “secret sauce” walking out the door?

The costs of lost intellectual property may not be obvious until months or years later. They play out in the business headlines every day. And trying to put this genie back in the bottle is difficult and expensive. These cases costs companies millions of dollars every year.

You can try to keep this valuable information from your competitors. But the best solution is the simplest. Don’t lose the talent in the first place.

Four: Added Pressure on Top Performers

When you lose an employee (even a bad apple), the best members of your team suffer. Your top people step in to carry the weight of the person who left. After all, that’s one of the reasons they are your top people. But this is a dangerous bargain. It can leave your top folks feeling unappreciated or taken advantage of. They get frustrated with other team members who don’t step up.

If these feelings get too strong you have a bigger problem. Your top performers start looking for greener pastures themselves. After all, if that slacker Karla found a better-paying gig with less stress and a more flexible schedule, why can’t I?

Maybe you feel like this isn’t too big a concern because you will reload. You can get a replacement for Karla into the game quick, right? Well… maybe yes. Maybe no. That’s the next two hidden costs.

Five: Cost of a Bad Hire

How effective is your hiring process? Do you bat a thousand at getting only “A” players? Or do you sometimes bring in a “B” player? Or the occasional “C” player?

Most companies focus too much on getting a new person in place and too little on getting the perfect person in place. After all, the business wants the position filled. Finding good people is hard. Finding the perfect person? Well, that’s nearly impossible. And that’s a very costly problem.

The hard costs of turnover can be tough to pin down. What’s your share of that $11 billion?  It varies by type of business and the position. But the financial cost of a bad hire is normally one to five times that person’s salary. (Here’s a great infographic detailing the staggering cost of a bad hire.)

But I’ve got bad news. That $11 billion figure is conservative. That’s because it focuses on the hard costs of recruiting and getting a new person in the door. But if you replace an “A” player with a “B” player (or heaven forbid your new recruit is a “C” player) you haven’t begun to figure the costs correctly.

Topgrading and the Cost of a Mis-hire

One of the best books on hiring “A” players is Brad Smart’s book Topgrading. In it he makes the case (and offers a great process) for hiring “A” players. In a study of over 100 client companies Smart and his team found that an average managerial mis-hire cost companies nearly $1.5 million per manager (14.6 times base compensation). Hiring costs were only $31,643. The cost of failure, mistakes, wasted and missed business opportunity? Over $1.2 million.

Turnover costs are much more than the cost of replacing lost talent. Do you end up with worse talent when you finally get the replacement up to speed? Do that consistently and you end up in what Smart calls the corporate death spiral:

“… we are sometimes asked to help correct an insidious corporate “death spiral” in which poor executive hires result in lower-level A Players quitting, leaving B/C Players who hire and promote more B/C Players. The shareholders are left bleeding and wounded, and the company may become moribund. Mis-hires can kill companies, individual careers, and real people whose stress causes heart failure.”

A team is only as good as its weakest link. So guess what happens to team productivity when you start adding a bunch of B/C links to your chain? That’s hidden cost number six.

Six: Productivity Plummets

Companies in the “death spiral” don’t just get poor performance from the new players. Everyone’s performance drops. Your team picks up the slack for the new players, which slows down their normal pace. They get frustrated training and re-training recruits that don’t get it. They stop helping new people, figuring they won’t last long anyway.

This reduced productivity is inevitable once turnover picks up. The entire team is stressed. They fail to meet team goals. Individual goals falter too. Rinse and repeat.

Seven: Lost Opportunity

Turnover costs business opportunity too. Time spent picking up the slack for lost teammates or training new ones is time not innovating or looking for new business opportunity. This cost is not just hidden from view, it’s enormous. Brad Smart calls it the single biggest cost of turnover:

 “The single biggest estimated cost in mis-hiring is the wasted or missed business opportunity. For decades I have witnessed multi-million-dollar fiascoes that clearly could have been avoided had an A Player been hired instead of a B/C Player. Gross neglect by a B/C Player salesperson resulted in the loss of the #1 customer in one client company. In another, incompetent information technology consultants were hired. Why? Because they were friends of a B/C Player CIO. The losses in information technology bankrupted the company. In companies that Topgrade sales departments, the sales of new A Players are sometimes twice that of the replaced Non-As; the “wasted or missed business opportunities” are easily estimated in sales organizations.”

How many multi-million dollar fiascoes and lost sales opportunities can your company withstand before it breaks? That’s what I thought. But we’re not done.

Eight: Hurts Overall Work Environment

All these challenges make for a pretty crappy work environment. Poor performance, lousy habits, and lack of engagement spread like wildfire. And they negatively impact a team even if you replace the bad hire. As Falon Fatemi mentions in Fortune, bad hires erode work environments:

“A bad apple spoils the bunch, so to speak. Disengagement is contagious, which may be why employers can’t seem to defeat it. …In many ways, a bad hire’s effect on company culture echoes beyond the employee’s tenure. Poor performers lower the bar for other employees, and bad habits spread like a virus. I once hired a manager who built a chaotic, everything’s-a-fire-drill environment. Even after removing the employee from the equation, we still had to invest time and resources to reset the behaviors of team members who emulated the manager’s approach.”

Action Steps to Turn Around Turnover

Is your company facing any of these hidden turnover costs? Next week we will offer some practical tips on how you can stop the “corporate death spiral” and get turnover under control.

5 Research-Backed Ways to Improve Employee Engagement

5 Research-Backed Ways to Improve Employee Engagement

How Do You Increase Organizational Citizenship (and Employee Engagement)?

Quick recap from last week:

  1. Chasing employee engagement (especially employee happiness) doesn’t work. Engagement is too squishy to define and often your unhappy or frustrated employees are your most engaged.
  2. What does work is increasing Organizational Citizenship Behavior (OCB). That is the only observable way to know whether your employees (or you) are engaged or not.

Which brings us back to the key question: How do you increase Organizational Citizenship?

Here’s 5 Research-Backed Steps to Increase OCBs for Your Team

One: Focus On Progress, Not Engagement.

Have you ever struggled with meditation? You sit and tell your brain to be calm, but instead your “monkey-mind” goes into overdrive thinking about… well, everything but being calm. The masters know the answer is to stop forcing the issue and to just notice what’s happening. Each time you catch your mind wandering now is a sign of progress. Which ironically makes the distractions less concerning and, in a way, welcome.

Engagement works the same way. You can’t force people to be engaged organizational citizens. Engagement is voluntary. No matter what you pay or offer in benefits. How cool your product or service. Whatever perks you offer. Everyone still chooses how much of themselves they are going to give from day to day. And in that sense, “everyone is a volunteer.”

But there still has to be something you can do to encourage people to bring their volunteer spirit with them to work each day. The good news is that there is. Help them see they are making progress in their life. Here is a model to guide you in doing just that.

Two: Ask “What’s Next?” To Blaze the Trail

Step one to helping a team member make progress in his or her life is to ask one simple question: “What’s next?”

If you’ve ever gone on a hiking trip, you’ve noticed the trail is usually marked with blazes. These blazes are painted or hung on trees. They are a sign you are on the right path. Often, they are spaced pretty far apart so it’s not abnormal to walk for a while without seeing one. But you know that if it’s been too long, you are lost. And that you need to retrace your steps in order to find where you got off the path.

“What’s next?” is a way for you to blaze the trail for your teammate. This question helps you figure out what path they are on, and what series of steps they’ll need to take. Notice how this question avoids looking too far ahead. That’s on purpose. Focusing on a big goal is often counterproductive. It makes it easy to give up (as in “I’ll never lose 100 pounds, so why not eat that third helping”). And even more interesting, sometimes reaching a big goal can be depressing. And have the ironic effect of making it easy to quit after all the progress is made.

Asking “what’s next” gets your teammate thinking about progress, and that’s a HUGE motivator.

Progress becomes a self-reinforcing, virtuous circle.

People who are making progress in their lives are more motivated personally. They are also more motivated to help their team.

Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer studied the power of progress at work in their recent book The Progress Principle. The main conclusion of their study is that when we make progress, we improve our “inner work life” – the way we internally experience our work. And inner work life is directly connected to engagement.

So step one is to stop focusing on engagement and start focusing on progress is by asking “What’s next?”

Then, the question is, how can a leader help refine a goal into a proven way to manage progress? We’ve developed the Win, Know, Show model to help you do just that.

  1. What is their next small win?
  2. How will they know from the work itself whether they are making progress?
  3. When and how will they show their progress?


Ready to learn more? Let’s start with small wins.

Three: Identify a Small Win

So you’ve asked “What’s next?” And just like a Zen master you’re no longer focused on the end result of engagement. Instead, you’re focused on small steps your teammate takes each day. The next step is to help your teammate identify a small win.

A small win isn’t a big ambition. It’s the next logical improvement they need to meet their “what’s next” goal. It should require a little bit of a stretch, but nothing too far out of reach.

Setting a small win helps make sure your teammate can see progress.  What kind of small wins work best? Progress that relates to improving on a task. Or deeper involvement in a project. Maybe even process-related goals like working harder or longer.

Here’s what the professors have to say:

“We discovered that the inner work life effect operates in three primary ways: attention to tasks, engagement in the project, and intention to work hard. When inner work life is good, people are more likely to pay attention to the work itself, become deeply engaged in their team’s project, and hold fast to the goal of doing a great job. When inner work life is bad, people are more likely to get distracted from their work, disengage from their team’s projects, and give up on trying to achieve the goals set before them.”

One other critical point. Your teammate’s next small win (or their “What’s Next?”) might not be work related. That’s cool. If it’s something you can help them with, do it. Progress won’t always be work related. And occasionally, progress on personal goals might even mean your employee leaves to pursue some other life ambition. You may not like that, but here’s the good news.

That person will run through brick walls for you while they do work for you. They will be your biggest fan (and recruiter) when they leave. And leaders with a reputation for developing talent will attract more of it.

Four: Know When You’re Headed the Right Way (or the Wrong Way)

Making progress is motivating, but daily frustrations can easily overwhelm any progress you make. Professors Amabile and Kramer note:

“The connection between mood and negative work events is about five times stronger than the connection between mood and positive events. Employees recall more negative leader actions than positive actions, and they recall the negative actions more intensely and in more detail than the positive ones.”

That’s why it’s important to establish your “right way/wrong way” yardstick. How will you and your teammate know whether they are making progress? Ideally this feedback will come from the work or task itself. You also want to ask up front about what sorts of obstacles or frustrations could get in the way of progress.

Make sure to talk about how to measure progress.

A good place for inspiration? Video games. The reason video games are so addictive is that they give you immediate “right way/wrong way” feedback. It’s easy to see whether you are improving or getting worse. You can watch your score, the damage you’ve sustained, and the damage you’ve invoked upon your opponent.

What measures are available that can help your teammate see progress in real time? If there aren’t any visible “production” measures, how about process measures? What other ways are there to get feedback?

If you’re having a hard time identifying ways to get feedback, that might be a signal that you should re-think the small win. If you can’t measure progress it’s going to be easy to get stuck.

Don’t forget to look for obstacles and possible frustrations up front. Then, come up with a plan to overcome them. There are two important reasons for this. First, as the good professors suggest, you need to make sure the “steps forward” to “steps back” ratio is around 5:1 in favor of progress. Second, the best research shows that if we plan for obstacles we are way more likely to “grit” our way through them (even if we plan for a different obstacle than the one we eventually face).

This is why it’s so important for leaders to work every day to reduce daily frustrations. It doesn’t matter how much progress you make doing good things for your team. The daily frustrations will outweigh them all day, every day. Avoid taking one step forward, just to take four steps back. Really focus on discovering and reducing daily frustrations for your team.

Five: Show Your Work

You and your teammate have blazed the trail and identified the next small win. You know how you’re going to measure progress. But that’s not enough. Perhaps the most important step is for your teammate to show their progress.

Austin Kleon wrote a brilliant book called Show Your Work. While he focuses a lot on people who work in the visual arts, the lessons he teaches apply to all of us. His basic idea is that the “finished” project is perhaps the least interesting part of the work. What is most interesting are the steps taken to create the project. So his advice: Show Your Work.

This advice can really apply to any field. There are reality TV shows on almost every network today that take us behind the scenes of virtually every kind of work (car shops, kitchens, remodeling, dirty jobs, and so on). People love the chance to show off what they’re working on. It gives us a sense of pride. Honors the craft we dedicate our lives to. Not only that, the feedback you get by sharing your process creates the opportunity to teach and motivate others. It also gives you the chance to learn from others who may have a trick or shortcut you never thought of.

Some people feel like showing their work is showing off.

There is a little element of that, too. But it’s showing off in the best sense of that word. It’s not bragging or taking a victory lap. It is saying, “here’s what I did – the value I created.” It gives others permission to shine a light on the value they create too. Kleon created a great way to do this. Simply take a picture of your work (or of you working) and post it somewhere with the hashtag #ShowYourWork.

Whether your teammate posts their work for the world to see, or just shares it with you or the department, the important thing is that they get a chance to share. Building that into the progress management process helps to set a time-frame for progress. It gives them a reason to get something done (and let’s face it – sometimes that’s the motivation we need to get our noses on that grindstone). If your teammate isn’t ready to show at the designated time, that’s a great signal to check in and see if something is in the way or if they are off the trail.

The Takeaway

Everyone’s a volunteer – so look for OCB instead of engagement. You can’t force people to be engaged. In fact, engagement is such a squishy concept, it is nearly impossible to measure. Which is why leaders should focus on Organizational Citizenship instead.

There are 5 ways leaders can help create more organizational citizenship at work:

  1. Focus on Progress: Nothing motivates more than progress. Managing progress manages inner work life, and generates both internal motivation and motivation to help your team (aka organizational citizenship behavior).
  2. Ask “What’s Next?” This blazes the trail for progress. Make sure your teammate is focusing on the next blaze, not the end of the trail (big goals often kill motivation and progress).
  3. Identify the Next Small Win: Once you know where your teammate is headed, identify the next small step they can take to get there. Focus on task, process or effort-related goals. And it’s OK if the goal isn’t work related.
  4. What’s Your Yardstick? Make sure your teammate can measure progress, ideally from the work itself. Having trouble figuring out a good yardstick? That’s a sign you might want to revise your small win.
  5. Show Your Work: Take a victory lap. Figure out how your teammate can show their progress to you and others. Remember this isn’t bragging. It’s a way to honor the work and to get feedback and advice from others.
Bonus tip:

Don’t forget to lead by example. We’ve already established you can’t force people to engage in OCB activity. But you can help get the ball rolling by volunteering yourself. Organizational citizenship is contagious. Volunteering encourages others to volunteer. Also, make it a priority to zealously remove small daily frustrations. This shows OCB on your part (you don’t have to care about “the little stuff,” but you can choose to). It also shows your team that you value their daily experience. And you recognize that their struggles are real and valid.

Leading by example is the simplest and most effective way to develop and nurture the culture in your workplace. You are watched more than you realize. And, like us all, your actions speak much louder than your words.

Which of the 5 tips for encouraging OCB at your workplace do you see the most room for improvement? What’s your next step? How will you know if you’re making progress? Who can you show that work to? See what I did there 😉