CT: There’s a Reason Why No One’s Reading Your Emails

“With the volume of email we all receive, you can’ afford to keep writing bad emails that get ignored or deleted. When you follow all of these steps, you will maximize the chances of your emails getting opened, read, and acted upon!” Below is a blog by Carson Tate:

There’s a Reason Why No One’s Reading Your Emails

Are people not reading your emails? It’s frustrating when people don’t respond to emails. Your coworkers may never get that important information about a project you’re working on, and your boss may never answer the urgent question you have. Why? They probably get so many emails every day that they choose to ignore some of them to save time. Some of your emails may even get deleted without your recipient ever reading the message.

How to Get People to Read Your Emails

You need to figure out a way to make your recipients want to read your emails. Here are some simple tips to maximize the likelihood of your recipients reading your emails and actually taking the action you want them to.

Proof Your Emails Before Hitting Send

Proofing an emailing usually takes just an extra minute of your time, so there’s really no excuse for not doing it. If you choose to send an email with little to no punctuation, poor grammar, or simple typos, it shows a lack of professionalism. You are conveying a lack of time and attention to your recipient. When they see your email, your recipient may wonder how much you actually care about them reading your email. If you can’t take the time to go back through your email and make sure it’s clear and correct, why should they bother to read that same message?

Grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors are distracting. They detract from the message you’re sending and, in some cases, confuse the reader. If you want to be an effective communicator, you should always read back through your emails and make any necessary adjustments before you hit send.

Be Brief, Succinct, and to the Point

Email was invented to communicate information instantly. It’s a time-saver. But when you send someone an email that’s pages and pages long, you’re taking advantage of that person’s time. Most of us are reading our emails on mobile devices now. All of the scrolling through tiny text makes it especially difficult to read lengthy emails. So if a person opens up an email you’ve sent and sees that you’ve written them a novel, they probably aren’t going to take the time to read through it. Your email will either get deleted or forgotten before it’s ever read. When you write an email, get to the post quickly. Don’t ramble about unrelated topics or unnecessary information. Figure out the point of your email and don’t stray far from it in your message.

If you really think that you can’t be concise with the email you’re sending, you’re not using the correct platform for your message. Remember that there are other ways to communicate. Just because email has become our go-to doesn’t mean it’s your only option. So if you sit down to write an email and find that you have a lot to say, don’t write the email. Instead pick up the phone or go talk to your recipient in person. You’ll save both of you time!

Make Your Subject Lines Reflect the Current Topic

Your email’s subject line is your recipient’s first impression of you. And it may be their last impression if you don’t grab their attention enough to make them open your email. One sure way to get a person to NOT read your email is by keeping a subject line in an old email conversation even if it doesn’t reflect the current topic. This is off-putting and lazy. For the most effective subject line possible, always include two things:

  1. What action you want the recipient to take
  2. The date by which this action needs to happen.

This information will clearly and accurately tell your recipient what your email is about, and that will make them more likely to open your emails in the future.

Send a Link to Access Attachments on a Shared Drive

Sending several attachments in an email is overwhelming and inconvenient. It takes up precious space in your recipient’s inbox, and they have to spend time going through each attachment and downloading them. Don’t overload your recipient’s inbox. Instead, when you have three or more attachments, send a link so your recipient can access the attachments on a shared drive. When your recipient opens your message, they’ll see one link instead of attachment after attachment after attachment. It’s much more convenient and shows your recipient you care.

Include the Project Name and Next Action Steps

Have you ever opened an email that has an attachment but no body text? How does it make you feel? You probably think that the sender is rude to not even acknowledge you in the email. You may also be confused about why you’re receiving that email and what the sender actually wants from you.

Remember this is you’re ever tempted to send an email without body text. It might save you a little time, but it’s lazy and confusing. Give your recipient context. Always include the name of the project the attachment pertains to and what the next action step for your recipient is in the body of your email. It shows the recipient that you’re a professional who cares about effective communication.

With the volume of email we all receive, you can’ afford to keep writing bad emails that get ignored or deleted. When you follow all of these steps, you will maximize the chances of your emails getting opened, read, and acted upon! Don’t continue writing poorly crafted emails that might confuse or irritate the recipient. Take action and write better emails.

Advertisements

HBR: Automation Will Make Lifelong Learning a Necessary Part of Work

“We see retraining (or “reskilling” as some like to call it), as the imperative of the coming decade. It is a challenge not just for companies, which are on the front lines, but also for educational institutions, industry and labor groups, philanthropists, and of course, policy makers, who will need to find new ways to incentivize investments in human capital.” Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Susan Lund, Jacques Bughin, Eric Hazan:

Automation Will Make Lifelong Learning a Necessary Part of Work

President Emmanuel Macron together with many Silicon Valley CEOs will kick off the VivaTech conference in Paris this week with the aim of showcasing the “good” side of technology. Our research highlights some of those benefits, especially the productivity growth and performance gains that automation and artificial intelligence can bring to the economy — and to society more broadly, if these technologies are used to tackle major issues such as fighting disease and tackling climate change. But we also note some critical challenges that need to be overcome. Foremost among them: a massive shift in the skills that we will need in the workplace in the future.

To see just how big those shifts could be, our latest research analyzed skill requirements for individual work activities in more than 800 occupations to examine the number of hours that the workforce spends on 25 core skills today. We then estimated the extent to which these skill requirements could change by 2030, as automation and artificial technologies are deployed in the workplace, and backed up our findings with a detailed survey of more than 3,000 business leaders in seven countries, who largely confirmed our quantitative findings. We grouped the 25 skills into five categories: physical and manual (which is the largest category today), basic cognitive, higher cognitive, social and emotional, and technological skills (today’s smallest category).

The findings highlight the major challenge confronting our workforces, our economies, and the well-being of our societies. Among other priorities, they show the urgency of putting in place large-scale retraining initiatives for a majority of workers who will be affected by automation — initiatives that are sorely lacking today.

Shifts in skills are not new: we have seen such a shift from physical to cognitive tasks, and more recently to digital skills. But the coming shift in workforce skills could be massive in scale. To give a sense of magnitude: more than one in three workers may need to adapt their skills’ mix by 2030, which is more than double the number who could be displaced by automation under some of our adoption scenarios — and lifelong learning of new skills will be essential for all. With the advent of AI, basic cognitive skills, such as reading and basic numeracy, will not suffice for many jobs, while demand for advanced technological skills, such as coding and programming, will rise, by 55% in 2030, according to our analysis.

The need for social and emotional skills including initiative taking and leadership will also rise sharply, by 24%, and among higher cognitive skills, creativity and complex information and problem solving will also become significantly more important. These are often seen as “soft” skills that schools and education systems in general are not set up to impart. Yet in a more automated future, when machines are capable of taking on many more rote tasks, these skills will become increasingly important — precisely because machines are still far from able to provide expertise and coaching, or manage complex relationships.

While many people fear that automation will reduce the number of jobs for humans, we note that the diffusion of AI will take time. The need for basic cognitive skills as well as physical and manual skills will not disappear. In fact, physical and manual skills will remain the largest skill category in many countries by hours worked, but with different importance across countries. In France and the United Kingdom, for example, manual skills will be overtaken by demand for social and emotional skills, while in Germany, higher cognitive skills will become preeminent. These country differences are the result of different industry mixes in each country, which in turn affect the automation potential of economies and the future skills mix. While we based our estimates on the automation potential of sectors and countries today, this could change depending on the pace and enthusiasm with which AI is adopted in companies, sectors, and countries. Already, it is clear that China is moving rapidly to become a leading AI player, and Asia as a whole is ahead of Europe in the volume of AI investment.

We see retraining (or “reskilling” as some like to call it), as the imperative of the coming decade. It is a challenge not just for companies, which are on the front lines, but also for educational institutions, industry and labor groups, philanthropists, and of course, policy makers, who will need to find new ways to incentivize investments in human capital.

For companies, these shifts are part of the larger automation challenge that will require a thorough rethink of how work is organized within firms — including what the strategic workforce needs are likely to be, and how to set about achieving them. In our research, we find some examples of companies that are focusing on retraining, either in-house — for example, Germany’s SAP — or by working with outside educational institutions, as AT&T is doing. Overall, our survey suggests that European firms are more likely to fill future staffing needs in the new automation era by focusing on retraining, while US firms are more open to new hiring. The starting point for all of this will be a mindset change, with companies seeking to measure future success by their ability to provide continuous learning options to employees.

The skill shift is not only a challenge, it is an opportunity. If companies and societies are able to equip workers with the new skills that are needed, the upside will be considerable, in terms of higher productivity growth, rising wages, and increased prosperity. M. Macron’s point about technology being a force for good will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Conversely, a failure to address these shifting skill demands could exacerbate income polarization and stoke political and social tensions. The stakes are high, but we can already see the outlines of what needs to be don — and we have a little time to work on solutions.

 

HBR: How to Lose Your Best Employees

“When we are learning, we experience higher levels of brain activity and many feel-good brain chemicals are produced. Managers would do well to remember that.” What are you doing to keep your employees challenged at work? Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Whitney Johnson:

How to Lose Your Best Employees

You want to be a great boss. You want your company to be a great place to work. But right now, at this very moment, one of your key employees might be about to walk out the door.

She has consistently brought her best game to work and has grown into a huge asset. But her learning has peaked, her growth has stalled, and she needs a new challenge to reinvigorate her.

As her boss, you don’t want anything to change. After all, she’s super-productive, her work is flawless, and she always delivers on time. You want to keep her right where she is.

That’s a great way to lose her forever.

This was my situation more than a decade ago. After eight years as an award-winning stock analyst at Merrill Lynch, I needed a new challenge. I’ve always liked mentoring and coaching people, so I approached a senior executive about moving to a management track. Rather than offering his support, he dismissed and discouraged me. His attitude was, We like you right where you are. I left within the year.

This kind of scenario plays out in companies every day. And the cost is enormous in terms of both time and money. But if I had stayed and disengaged, the cost may have been even higher. When people can no longer grow in their jobs, they mail it in — leading to huge gaps in productivity. According to Gallup, a lack of employee engagement “implies a stunning amount of wasted potential, given that business units in the top quartile of Gallup’s global employee engagement database are 17% more productive and 21% more profitable than those in the bottom quartile.”

And yet engagement is only symptomatic. When your employees (and maybe even you, as their manager) aren’t allowed to grow, they begin to feel that they don’t matter. They feel like a cog in a wheel, easily swapped out. If you aren’t invested in them, they won’t be invested in you, and even if they don’t walk out the door, they will mentally check out.

How do you overcome this conundrum? It starts with recognizing that every person in your company, including you, is on a learning curve. That learning curve means that every role has a shelf life. You start a new position at the low end of the learning curve, with challenges to overcome in the early days. Moving up the steep slope of growth, you acquire competence and confidence, continuing into a place of high contribution and eventually mastery at the top of the curve.

But what comes next as the potential for growth peters out? The learning curve flattens, a plateau is reached; a precipice of disengagement and declining performance is on the near horizon. I’d estimate that four years is about the maximum learning curve for most people in most positions; if, after that, you’re still doing the exact same thing, you’re probably starting to feel a little flat.

Take my own career: I moved to New York City with a freshly minted university degree in music. I was a pianist who especially loved jazz. But I was quickly dazzled by Wall Street which, in the late 1980s, was the place to work. I secured a position as a secretary in a financial firm and started night school to learn about investing.

A few years later, my boss helped me make the leap from support staff to investment banker. It was an unlikely, thrilling new opportunity that required his sponsorship and support. After a few years, I jumped again to become a stock analyst, and I scaled that curve to achieve an Institutional Investor ranking for several successive years.

When I began, I was excited to be a secretary on Wall Street. I was also excited to become an investment banker. And I loved being a stock analyst. Though I started in each of these positions at the low end of their respective learning curves, I was able to progress and achieve mastery in all of them.

Eventually, I became a little bored with each job and started looking around for a new challenge to jump to. Most of us follow similar patterns — our brains want to be learning, and they give us feel-good feedback when we are. When we aren’t, we don’t feel so good. The human brain is designed to learn, not just during our childhood school years but throughout our life spans. When we are learning, we experience higher levels of brain activity and many feel-good brain chemicals are produced. Managers would do well to remember that.

Because every organization is a collection of people on different learning curves. You build an A team by optimizing these individual curves with a mix of people: 15% of them at the low end of the curve, just starting to learn new skills; 70% in the sweet spot of engagement; and 15% at the high end of mastery. As you manage employees all along the learning curve, requiring them to jump to a new curve when they reach the top, you will have a company full of people who are engaged.

You and every person on your team is a learning machine. You want the challenge of not knowing how to do something, learning how to do it, mastering it, and then learning something new. Instead of letting the engines of your employees sit idle, crank them: Learn, leap, and repeat.

HBR: Track Your Time for 30 Days. What You Learn Might Surprise You.

I would encourage you to do a time-tracking exercise for 30 days. The information would be invaluable to being more productive and evaluating your schedule.  Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Dorie Clark:

Track Your Time for 30 Days. What You Learn Might Surprise You.

It’s hard to know if we’re really making efficient use of our time. It seems like we’re working hard — and we’re certainly stressed out. But are we spending our time on the right things? That’s the question I set out to solve at the start of this year. I was feeling overwhelmed after spending the fall launching a new book and was finally turning to the litany of tasks I’d neglected in its wake.

Inspired by a colleague, the time management expert Laura Vanderkam, I decided to spend the month of February tracking exactly how I spent my time, down to half-hour increments. It wasn’t high tech — I used an Excel spreadsheet — but even the process of remembering to write things down was arduous. After all, we’re used to living our lives, not recording them. But the insights I gained over the course of a month were extremely useful. In particular, there were four that made me rethink a lot of the conventional wisdom on productivity and time management. While I encourage you to do your own time-tracking exercise, if you don’t have the time for that (ha!), here’s what I learned:

The right kind of multitasking can be transformative. We’ve all heard plenty about the dangers of multitasking — we can’t do multiple things at once effectively, and we’ll always suffer from cognitive switching costs. That’s true for certain activities but — crucially — is irrelevant for others. For instance, almost anyone can easily listen to podcasts or audiobooks while exercising, cooking, or commuting to work, and if you’re dining alone, you can read while you eat.

With a month’s data in hand, I was astonished to discover I averaged almost two hours of reading each day, plus an additional 90 minutes of listening to audio content. “Reading more” is a common aspiration for busy professionals — one poll reported that nearly one in five people claimed it as their New Year’s resolution — and “strategic multitasking” is a surprisingly easy way to fit it in.

There are benefits from combining your personal and professional networks. Many people still hold to the idea that friends and business don’t mix and that you should separate your personal life and professional life. And it’s true that boundaries can be important for work-life balance.

But if you relish what you’re doing, the most interesting friends in the world are often ones with whom you can share both personal matters (discussing hobbies or commiserating about interpersonal relationships) and those related to your business. As I’m writing this article, in fact, I’m on an airplane with one of my closest friends, who nominated me for an elite business consortium that we’re now participating in together. In my time-tracking exercise, I counted my time under multiple categories if it legitimately filled both criteria. Amazingly, this allowed me to have a full 29% more time in my month — 866 hours instead of the typical 672 — which helped me to get more done.

For example, I learned that I spend 19.3 hours per week with friends and 17 hours doing some form of networking. The overlap isn’t perfect, but it’s close, and those relationships have formed the core of my professional success. I might spend more time socializing than some — I live in a city, and I don’t have kids — but the same principle of building overlapping personal and professional circles holds no matter how many hours per week you have to devote.

Certain hours of the day are especially likely to be “wasted.” I don’t waste much time on social media (I define “waste” as time spent scrolling aimlessly through feeds, rather than posting with a professional purpose in mind). In fact, it only came to 2.5 hours during the entire month of February. In the scheme of things, it’s not much, and we don’t need to optimize every minute. But I’d at least like to be deliberate in how I choose to slack off, and social media wouldn’t be my top choice.

During the times when I did fall into the social media rabbit hole, a clear pattern emerged: It almost always occurred between 10 PM and 11 PM. Despite recent questions about the accuracy of Roy Baumeister’s seminal theory of ego depletion, it certainly seemed to be the case for me that I was most susceptible to distraction at that time, when I was worn down from the demands of the day but not tired enough to sleep. Realizing that this time of day is when my defenses are lowest, I can now guard more vigilantly against misspending time.

Certain tasks carry disproportionate psychological weight. Before starting my experiment, my perception was that I was besieged by email, which was crippling my productivity. But the reality was somewhat different. Indeed, I spent about 1.35 hours per day handling messages, which isn’t trifling. But it’s also not overwhelming, and well under the amount of time I allocated each day to pure client work (my top priority), networking and time with friends, and even reading.

However, even recognizing this, email still bothered me the most of any task, and I felt constant psychological pressure when I was “behind” on my response times. It wasn’t so much the frequency of checking email that stressed me out. (Some have experimented with checking email only twice a day, with mixed results.) For me, the anxiety came from the feeling — endemic to the nature of email — that people were awaiting my response and that I was constantly being handed new tasks for my to-do list.

My time-tracking experiment, however, helped me put things into perspective. We may never be able to fully escape feelings of email-related guilt. But I’d much rather accept a minor twinge now because I’m slow in responding to someone’s message (the urgent) than the long-term shame I’d feel looking back and discovering I’d become an email ninja while jettisoning my own strategic priorities (the important).

Time tracking can be onerous. In fact, I assigned the experiment to the mastermind group I run, and several participants just couldn’t finish it. One strategy I used to force myself to log my hours every day was “habit stacking” — tying the new behavior to an existing one. In my case, I left my Excel document open on my computer so that it was the first thing I saw when I returned to work after a break. That prompted me to record whatever I’d been doing in the interval, whether it was sleeping (after an overnight break), taking a meeting, or having lunch.

If you can manage to keep it up, the knowledge gleaned from time tracking can be invaluable. Understanding where you can successfully multitask, essentially giving yourself more hours in the day, can transform your productivity. And recognizing which activities are stressful enables you to make smarter decisions about how to delegate or reshuffle your workflow, so you can optimize for the tasks that suit you best.

Without data, it’s easy to paint an erroneous picture of how we spend our time, whether it’s inadvertently exaggerating the number of hours we work or assuming we’re wasting more time than we really do. My month of time tracking revealed useful insights that have enabled me to become more productive — and if you make an effort to evaluate your schedule, it may highlight ways you can optimize moving forward as well.

HBS: To Motivate Employees, Give an Unexpected Bonus (or Penalty)

What best motivates employees to do their best work? Below is a blog from the Harvard Business School Working Knowledge by Michael Blanding:

To Motivate Employees, Give an Unexpected Bonus (or Penalty)

Susanna Gallani finds that employees can be more motivated by the anticipation of a reward or punishment than the actual payoff.

In the 1992 film Glengarry Glen Ross, an executive played by Alec Baldwin presents a unique motivational scheme to a trio of down-on-their-luck real estate salesmen. There will be a new contest, he tells them, to see who can bring in the most sales. “First prize is a Cadillac Eldorado,” he says. “Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.”

This might seem an extreme way to motivate employees (and, of course, fails spectacularly in the movie). But companies hold so-called tournaments based on relative performance all the time to incentivize workers, says Susanna Gallani, an assistant professor in the Accounting and Management Unit at Harvard Business School.

How much those systems spur employees, however, may depend on how fair employees perceive them to be.

“We have a tendency to attribute favorable outcomes to our own abilities, but when things go wrong, we try and find other reasons to explain it,” Gallani says.

Which rewards motivate workers?

In a new working paper written with doctoral student Wei Cai, Subjectivity in Tournaments: Implicit Rewards and Penalties in Subsequent Performance, she finds that those perceptions can have a lot more to do with how employees are motivated than the actual consequences they receive.

Motivation is important in business for one reason: In the contract between employers and employees, it’s simply not possible to spell out how employees’ roles will need to expand to meet every contingency.

“Maybe there is an epidemic of the flu and everyone needs to work overtime, or there is an exogenous increase in demand,” Gallani says. “There is so much left unwritten.”

Because of that, employers rely on employee motivation to go above and beyond the contract and do what’s in the best interest of the organization.

“If you feel like you are being given a gift more than you thought you would earn, then you tend to go above and beyond to restore this balance”

Incentive mechanisms to motivate employees can take many forms, whether it’s tangible rewards or punishment, comparing one employee’s reputation versus another’s, or peer pressure to work on behalf of the larger group. All of those forms of incentive influence individual decisions, which are driven by expectations of future outcomes.

“We make choices in anticipation of what the consequences of those choices will be,” Gallani says. “If I work hard, I will get a bonus or greater respect from my peers or simply the confirmation that I am a good employee—so I will make choices to exhibit high levels of effort.”

In some cases, tournament incentives are structured in such a way that when some employees triumph, others fail. General Electric’s “vitality curve,” for example, made employees in the top 20 percent of performance eligible for raises and promotions, while those in the bottom 10 percent risked being demoted or fired. Industries such as investment banking, consulting, and academia routinely include “up and out” systems in which employees are either promoted or fired. While these systems are intended to spur hard work and high levels of performance, they also introduce potential risks.

The determination of winners and losers in a tournament-based reward system is rarely based on purely objective measures, such as how many sales employees make or how many units they produce. “The objective performance measures don’t take into consideration whether the machine broke down or whether someone is still learning the job,” Gallani explains.

To compensate, managers often inject an element of subjectivity into the competition to even out the scores, by taking into consideration factors that might be outside of the control of the employees or contingencies not foreseeable at the time the employee signed the contract. While subjectivity can improve the precision of the performance evaluation, it might also be open to bias. “Maybe you don’t like that worker, so you are biased consciously or unconsciously against him,” says Gallani.

Whether or not that bias exists, humans’ natural tendency to look for someone else to blame often makes employees believe that bias exists. Gallani and Cai decided to test the effects of those perceptions in a real-world scenario involving an anonymous Chinese company that operates in printing processes.

The company, which Cai found while she was home in China on winter break, runs a tournament-style reward scheme for departments, with each ranked on a 100-point system. Each month, the best performing department receives a bonus, while the worst performing department receives a pay cut. Determining whether departments were awarded the bonus or pay cut depends on objective rankings in the point system, but also on the subjective evaluation by top managers.

“It’s not just about who gets the reward or the penalty, but who was expecting to”

What makes the company perfect for research is that it publishes the objective monthly scores for each department alongside the actual winners and losers. Thus, departments can see any discrepancy between objective and subjective results, which happens about 50 percent of the time. In cases where employees thought they would be rewarded but weren’t, Gallani and Cai called that an “implicit punishment,” while in the opposite case, in which employees thought they would be punished but weren’t, they called it an “implicit reward.”

They found that when employees received rewards—whether they were actual or implicit—they tended to be more productive afterward. In the case of the implicit rewards, Gallani speculates that the extra effort is due to a principle of reciprocity. “If you feel like you are being given a gift more than you thought you would earn, then you tend to go above and beyond to restore this balance,” she says.

On the other hand, those employees who were punished, or who didn’t receive the reward they anticipated, tended to be less productive.

Perceptions are worth more than money

Surprisingly, Gallani and Cai found that the productivity boost or lag in response to an actual reward or punishment was short-lived in comparison to those from implicit consequences. (While they couldn’t say exactly how much longer the effects lasted, they liken it to the difference between a short-term and medium-term effect.)

In other words, the feeling of getting an unanticipated bonus or penalty was more motivating to employees than actually getting a bonus or penalty they earned—perhaps because they interpreted it as a result of bias either for or against them by their bosses.

“It’s not just about who gets the reward or the penalty,” says Gallani, “but who was expecting to.”

Ultimately, such tournament-style motivation schemes may be a zero-sum game, Gallani and Cai found, with the increased productivity of the winners and decreased productivity of the losers canceling each other out to create a statistically negligible overall effect.

The study’s findings are relevant for practice in that they point to side effects of tournament performance evaluation schemes that might undermine effectiveness of incentive systems. In particular, this study shows that the effects of rewards and punishments have wide-ranging consequences that impact not only the receivers of rewards and penalties, but also their colleagues, Gallani says.

Additionally, this study shows that workers are motivated not only by the prospect of receiving a reward or a punishment, but also by the methodology by which rewards and punishments are assigned.

Related Reading:

How to Demotivate Your Best Employees
The Power of Ordinary Practices
Sharpening Your Skills: Motivation

 

HBR: How to Motivate Yourself When Your Boss Doesn’t

Do you request feedback from your peers and/or managers? What do you do to motivate yourself? Below is a blog from the Harvard Business Review by Julie Mosow:

How to Motivate Yourself When Your Boss Doesn’t

Let’s face it: some bosses are not inspiring. They don’t motivate us to perform at our best — let alone improve our skills. What should you do if your boss is too hands-off, ambivalent, or downright demotivating? How can you keep your engagement up and your own professional goals on track? Is it possible to motivate yourself?

What the Experts Say

The good news is that while your boss has a lot of influence over how engaged you are at work, you can put yourself in the driver’s seat. “Employees have more control than they realize over their ability to build and sustain motivation in the workplace,” says Heidi Grant Halvorson, a motivational psychologist and author of Nine Things Successful People Do Differently. There are many factors that influence motivation, but “the most significant one is a sense of progress,” says Monique Valcour, professor of management at EDHEC Business School in France, citing Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer’s book, The Progress Principle. “And that comes from the feeling that we are doing work that is meaningful to ourselves, to our colleagues, to the organization, and to the world at large.” Halvorson adds: “Changing your mindset and habits can drive a more fulfilling, more motivated approach to work no matter who your manager is.” Here’s how to motivate yourself when your boss doesn’t.

Understand what makes you tick

If your manager doesn’t motivate you or, even worse, undermines you, it’s important to figure out what drives you personally and professionally. In The Progress Principle, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer stress that motivation stems from three things: love of the work itself, the desire to receive recognition, and a sense that our work matters and connects us to others. So ask yourself: When was the last time you felt a sense of meaning and purpose at work? What were the conditions that allowed those feelings to flourish?

Set your own goals

Valcour points out that many people feel they’re sprinting in place with no extra time to tackle anything other than their day-to-day responsibilities. However, it’s important to step back and look at the big picture. Make an individual career plan to help you track your projects and results and set goals for your own development. While some of these goals may be directly related to your current role, others may be geared toward learning and exploring areas of interest outside your job description. Even though it’s tempting to set demanding goals for yourself, Halvorson cautions against going overboard. “Although it’s counterintuitive, setting unrealistic or overly ambitious goals can actually be demotivating because there’s so much on the line,” she says. Instead, set goals with smaller milestones so that you can celebrate your progress each step along the way.

Use if-then planning

Once you’ve decided on your goals, Halvorson recommends using “if-then” planning to stay on track or to handle setbacks. “Accepting that challenges are a part of life and being prepared to deal with them is critical to long-term motivation,” she says. For example, if your goal is to finish a presentation, but you find yourself getting distracted by conversations with colleagues, you might say, “If I haven’t finished the presentation by the end of the day on Wednesday, then I will come in early on Thursday to finish up while it’s quiet.” Or you might use if-then planning to move past a low point. For example, “If we don’t receive funding for this project, then I will rewrite the business plan and approach the partners again.” By anticipating obstacles, you’re less likely to get stuck.

Evaluate your own performance and ask for feedback

One way that poor managers undermine motivation is by not giving sufficient feedback. “Seeking feedback is important,” Valcour confirms, “even if we sometimes hear things we’d rather not.” Halvorson believes that most managers are willing to offer feedback if you ask. You might request the feedback directly and in the moment by saying something like, “How did you think the meeting went? Is there anything I might do differently next time?” You might also look to peers for an objective assessment of your performance. Ask people who will be candid with you and whose opinions you trust. Another option is self-evaluation. “We’re more capable than we realize of generating meaningful feedback about our professional accomplishments,” Halvorson says. “Look critically at your own work and ask yourself the same questions you would use to evaluate the work of others. For example, consider if you’re moving fast enough or if the quality of your work is what it should be.”

Expand your internal and external networks

If your manager isn’t motivating you, it’s essential to look for support elsewhere — not only to boost your confidence but also to increase your visibility. Find mentors within your own company to give guidance and perspective, and, if possible, develop an in-house peer group designed to help all of you move forward. You can also seek out and develop external relationships. Valcour is a strong proponent of online networking. “Particularly for people who live far away from their colleagues, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other networking sites provide a sense of connectedness to a larger professional community that might otherwise be difficult to maintain.” Even for someone in a major metropolitan area with many opportunities to connect, online networking is an effective way to stay in touch with colleagues and to keep abreast of industry-wide developments.

Focus on learning

By shifting the focus of your work from performing perfectly to consistently learning and improving, you create the conditions for both heightened motivation and success. “Research suggests that this change in mindset reliably results in better performance,” Halvorsen says. “When it comes to achievement, attitude and persistence are often more important than innate abilities.” Her advice: break the habit of kicking yourself when things don’t go perfectly and replace it by telling yourself that you’ll learn from your mistakes, move on, and do better next time. “No matter your manager’s approach, breaking away from results-oriented thinking is one of the most powerful things you can do to boost your own motivation.”

Principles to Remember

Do:

  • Determine your own personal and professional motivators ­— you can’t rely on your boss to get ahead
  • Ask for feedback from your colleagues
  • Build a support system inside ­— and outside ­— your company

Don’t:

  • Set unreachable goals that stall your sense of moving forward ­— keep your goals manageable and celebrate your progress along the way
  • Underestimate the value of self-evaluation — look critically at your own work
  • Dwell on your mistakes ­— it’s more important to keep learning

Case Study #1: Cultivate a supportive, effective network

A vice president of human resources in the financial services industry, Lisa Chang* has had five different bosses during the past two years. The revolving door of managers proved to be very demotivating. So she looked elsewhere for support and decided to create an internal network beyond her team. Lisa developed relationships with three senior women in the organization: a woman who was briefly her supervisor before taking a role elsewhere in the company, another who is a leader in the client group she serves, and the chief human resources officer. “It’s unusual to have such a candid, open relationship with someone so senior, Lisa explains. “The chief human resources officer has given me opportunities at every turn in addition to being someone I can go to for advice.”

Lisa has looked to her peers as well but she feels that these mentorship relationships have been a far more effective way for her to stay motivated. “My peers and I are all in the same boat, so most of them wouldn’t have been a great help to me. By looking to more senior employees at the company, I’ve been able to create the kinds of relationships I might have had if I had been working with a great boss.”

While the lack of consistent, managerial support is not what Lisa would’ve hoped for, the situation has provided Lisa with the opportunity to learn from company leaders she otherwise wouldn’t have met. She says: “I’ve been able to seek feedback, challenge myself through new opportunities, and perform effectively in my role despite the leadership vacuum.”

Case Study #2: Stay focused on your own growth and development

Mark Barnaby* has risen through the ranks at several different investment banks, but with a string of managers who were either completely hands off or overly involved, staying motivated hasn’t always been easy. He coped by staying focused on his own ambitions. “Focusing on my manager’s faults just distracted me from my own goals, so I made it my priority to find ways to help him succeed while learning myself.”

He figured out what his bosses weren’t good at and stepped into the gap. “One of my bosses was a big picture thinker, but her approach wasn’t the right one for our work. I helped her by drilling down into fine points of regulatory policy, providing much needed detail in meetings, and being an in-house resource for her. Doing all of this helped me develop the subject matter expertise I needed to continue to move forward professionally.” Developing and meeting his own objectives kept Mark going even when his bosses didn’t.

Early on, Mark knew his growing interests would serve him well. “There is enormous demand for this kind of knowledge,” he explains. “During the past decade, regulatory policy has emerged as a critical focus of the banking industry.” Even though Mark admits that helping managers who weren’t helping him was frustrating, he acknowledges that it was the right decision for him and for everyone involved to approach each situation with a positive, goal-oriented attitude. He advises, “No matter what, never make an enemy of your boss.”

*not their real names

 

Everwise: Seven Tactics to Boost Learning in the Workplace

Does your company provide a learning work environment? Is your company helping you improve your customer service and/or productivity skills? Another resource is Lumber Buildings Material Foundation (LBMDF) for educations seminars and online learningLMS.  Below is a blog from Everwise by Nicole Beckerman:

Seven Tactics to Boost Learning in the Workplace

Successful organizations emphasize ongoing professional development and gaining new knowledge. A learning culture benefits companies by enriching the employee experience, boosting productivity and innovation, and curbing turnover. It is an essential priority to remain competitive in today’s rapidly-changing landscape. Employees must be prepared to learn and adapt to rapidly changing conditions and new technologies. Employers would do well to provide an environment for doing so internally.

While modeling curiosity and prioritizing a passion for knowledge starts at the top, growing an organization-wide learning culture requires on-the-ground efforts. Though employees are busier than ever, there are simple, cost-effective ways to integrate learning into their work experience. Here are seven tactics to get you started:

  1. Learning lunches: Change things up at lunch time by giving employees a chance to increase their knowledge. Mid-day is an ideal moment to shift gears from active work to take in an educational presentation. As this is typically a break time and people will be eating, it’s a good time to present knowledge directly rather than with interactive formats. If employees need extra enticement to attend, offering free food or dessert is always a crowd-pleaser.
  2. Staff presentations: Having employees share their expertise is a great way to capitalize on in-house knowledge and make people feel valued. Setting up presentations where your employees educate each other in person or via online tools is a powerful way to foster connection and learning. This is also a chance to expose people to new experiences outside of their department. Even simply having staff share with each other what it is that they do and what they are working on helps build interpersonal relationships and a clearer picture of the organization for everyone.
  3. Speakers: Industry experts are a valuable source of the latest trends, and inviting them to work with your employees brings a useful outside perspective. If they are physically visiting an office, get the most out of their presence with an interactive format such as a workshop or a small group activity. Make sure to prepare employees to take full advantage of guest speakers by promoting their arrival, distributing background information in advance about them, and sharing related learning materials to spark questions.
  4. Webinars: As a useful way to spread information among a large group of people, webinars are an essential part of efficient learning. They can be one format option for delivering a presentation from an employee or a guest speaker as discussed above, but to keep it more engaging consider putting together a panel discussion. This way, even if employees are passively watching the webinar or are engaged in another activity (like email) at the same time, they will still take in a variety of perspectives and insightful questions.
  5. Distribute resources and news: Most professionals have a genuine interest in their field and want to stay up to date, so employers can facilitate learning by bringing news and resources directly to them. This might look like an organized list of resources for learning that employees have easy access to, or even a more dynamic method like periodic emails with news, relevant articles, and links to short-form video clips.
  6. Stipends: A direct and straightforward way to promote learning is to simply subsidize it. There a variety of ways to provide funds for education, so organizations should consider how predictable they would like this expenditure to be, and how much direct control they would like over the learning process. Some organizations offer an educational stipend as a simple cash bonus add-on to the employee benefits package and let people use it as they see fit. Others will pay for particular courses from approved providers. Another related option is to pay for employee’s’ membership in professional organizations so they can continue to network and learn via a trusted third party.
  7. Office Library: If you have an open office plan, chances are the environment can get noisy and social, which might be great for morale but not conducive to learning. Consider designating a space or specific room as a quiet area, and supplementing it with learning resources to create an office library. Create an employee book exchange or facilitate monthly book clubs. This separate space can be a strong part of emphasizing learning culture by making it clear in a tangible, visible way.

This list is a place to begin your journey towards a learning culture and spark ideas. However, change efforts should always be tied to an organization’s large-scale development strategy. In implementation, make sure these efforts are also tailored to the unique style and priorities of your staff. Finally, modeling learning culture from the top is essential to reap the full benefits, so leaders must walk the talk.

Culture evolves when an entire organization gets on board, and producing a company of nimble, motivated learners is a worthy goal for everyone.