How Do You Keep Employees Enthused Over the Long Haul?

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I recently heard an interview with a performer in the Blue Man Group, the popular theatrical organization. This guy said that for the first year he was with the group, he knew he had the best job in the world. He got to fully use his artistic skills in a uniquely fun and rewarding environment, and there was even room for improvisation to keep him on his toes. But even so, after several hundred performances, his mind started to wander while on stage. He’d catch himself contemplating where he was going to eat after the performance or making out a grocery list. It appears that even the best job in the world eventually gets boring.

We’re creative beings and once we’ve created a product or mastered a skill, the energy for it easily wanes. This is a real problem in business where a group or organization has high energy when initially formed, but it usually fades significantly over time. So how can we keep employees enthused about their jobs year after year? Many organizations think they’re addressing this problem through performance metrics that employees have to consistently hit or else be fired. But success these days is more about coming up with creative solutions than it is about optimizing the mechanical performance that is driven by performance metrics. Creative solutions require emotional enthusiasm, not just motivation to work hard.

Smart leaders have learned to keep enthusiasm naturally high by organizing the work in creative cycles. The movie industry provides a great example. Within the span of a year or so, people join together to envision and plan the movie, create it through relatively short phases, and then disband with the satisfaction of their creation. There’s little opportunity for tedium and boredom because the different phases change the work patterns and keep it fresh, plus the cycle of clear beginnings and endings provide the excitement that accompanies the start of something new and the fulfillment that accompanies its completion. Although movies are not your typical work product, there are ways to get more of the work in businesses to fit this type of model.

One of my recent consulting engagements provides a good example of this. This Information Technology (IT) organization had a large support group that kept the systems running, as well as several project teams that built and implemented new systems. As is typical, the project teams had much higher enthusiasm than the support organization, largely because projects continuously create whereas support maintains what already exists. Our solution was to re-organize the groups to form five large teams that included both support and projects for five major areas of the business. We implemented a rotation of employees between projects and support, to occur at the end of each project cycle. We also incorporated much of the support work, such as non-critical maintenance requests, into the projects so that more of the work was done in cycles. These changes ensure that none of the employees are doing repetitive tasks for long periods, plus there are start up phases where employees get the thrill of envisioning what they’re going to create next and close out phases where they can step back and appreciate what they’ve produced. This organization is enjoying significantly increased enthusiasm, creativity, agility and performance.

Lots of organizations engage employees in process improvement, and this provides great opportunities for employees with even the most routine jobs to be involved in creative cycles. Their work in process improvement can give them a break from their repetitive tasks, and can be designed to give them the thrill of envisioning the next cycle of improvements and the pleasure of seeing them implemented.

As we learn more from neuroscience about the incredible power of group emotions, we see reasons to adopt techniques beyond the ordinary. For more on shaping team emotions to increase creativity and performance, including research references, get notified of the upcoming book Primal Teams: Harnessing the Incredible Power of Group Energy or sign up for a monthly summary of articles.


About the Author:

Jackie Barretta is a thought leader sharing ideas on how to create a more just and peaceful world. She is also a CIO, and in this role she has led large organizations with hundreds of employees through challenging times and major transformations.
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  1. Norman Wolfe  November 26, 2012

    Jackie, I have often looked to the movie industry design as a potential model for the way organizations can operate. As you point out there is a lot to give this approach to work credible consideration.

    What I wonder is whether current businesses can actually operate under this model. It is a model based on forming group of specialists to come together around a specific project (a movie) and then disband). Can business bring together workers for a specific project and then disband. While this approach does keep the creativity high we know in the movie industry there is never a guarantee of continued employment from one project to another. Which leads to the famous “its who you know that counts” in the movie industry.

    How do we marry the benefit of coalescing and then dissolving teams for specific projects while at the same time keeping a sense of continuity of the organization’s community of players?

  2. Jackie Barretta  November 26, 2012

    Norman, those are good questions. I see the example I gave in the article as providing some answers. First, I’m saying that a key concept of the movie model is its cyclical nature, with clear beginnings and ends, as well as phases that vary the work patterns. In other words, it’s the cycle of 1) excitement for starting something new, 2) relatively short phases that vary work patterns and reduce tedium, and 3) endings to provide the satisfaction of completion. Projects, of which there are many in business today, provide the same basic features. In my example, we transitioned some operational/maintenance work into projects, and I provided some ideas on how businesses can do more of this. Also, I make the point that rotating people among positions is another way to keep the work fresh. These things, of course, can be done within an organization, with the same people, so there is a sense of continuity.

  3. Jim Wilcox  November 27, 2012

    The continuous improvement aspect is interesting. Thinking back to my manufacturing days, I recall that looking at my work from that perspective made it fresh. We were doing the same work, but viewing it from a different perspective. Much like making a drive that you make every day, but pretending that you’ve never done it and noticing things for the first time. The novelty eventually wore off but, for some time, the same old work seemed fresh and exciting. We also had classes and continuous improvement team meetings. Most people appreciated a chance to get away from their work, even if they had to work harder after the meetings to catch up. Could an organization sustain a regimen of learning over a long period… or indefinitely? Many jobs are just repetitive.


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