By Craig Ross
Does your team embody success? Or, does it do what most do: Wait to function with poise and confidence only after team members have achieved their objectives? A man I once knew helped me understand the important difference between these two approaches.
It took nearly two years to learn my neighbor's secret. Early small talk, including the traditional "What do you do?" questions, first elicited "I'm a manager here in town." Later, as the relationship grew, more was revealed: "I work in operations."
Until finally, one hot summer day as we sat in the yard trying to keep cool, he revealed his truth: "I work for the local government," he said. "I oversee transportation."
Despite my authentic and respectful interest in his work, you would have thought he was having a root canal. It was too painful to continue talking about his work. He quickly changed the topic.
Not long after, my family moved, and my neighbor and I drifted apart. But the experience of his "head down" declaration has stayed with me. As someone who works in an organization devoted to developing humanistic capabilities in leaders and teams, I've often wondered: What caused my neighbor's pain?
A Crisis of Confidence
What I've learned since is that my neighbor wasn't alone in his experience. A silent crisis of confidence can occur within government agencies.
Given the work our organization has done for and within government, we have seen people and teams who have committed their careers and lives to serving our communities, only to be saddled by destructive public perceptions about government and its employees. This doesn't work; it's not good for anyone.
In the United States, roughly 21 million people are employed by government.1 This means that each of us are nearly twice as likely to have a neighbor who works in the government than one who works in the manufacturing sector.
To have members of the community—who serve the community—keep their heads down because of where they work or the work they do, is bad for productivity; worse, it depraves humanity.
Despite the myths that government workers can be lazy, overpaid, and love bureaucracy,2 our experience is that government workers rival—and in several cases, beat—their peers when it comes to demonstrating important values. Their work ethic, driven by a deep sense of purpose and altruism, is often exemplary.
Still, we operate in an extended era of public government bashing. This is why leaders within the government sector must purposefully and effectively guide and influence how a team sees itself.
In 20-plus years of experience in equipping teams to do big things, I have found that teams that deliver extraordinary results while enriching the lives of teammates, see themselves differently than their underperforming peers.
Specifically, instead of waiting to succeed before acting successful, they first act successful and then succeed. In other words, the sooner your team embodies success, the sooner it will be a success.
Here are three proven steps we guide our clients through so their teams can better embody success.
Acknowledge current perspectives and beliefs. Before anyone starts with a motivational speech about how people ought to think and act to succeed, it's critical to first acknowledge the experience your team members are having today. Prepare your team for more productive thinking with questions like these:
• How do we believe we (as government employees) are perceived today?
• How does the perception of others make us feel and act?
• What is out of our control, and in our control, as it relates to how we are perceived by others?
Identify a common vision and motivations. Teams only become bigger than the sum of their parts when the members of the team identify and align to the specific thinking and inherent behaviors necessary to succeed together. This is the step of bringing the best of humanity into the work your team is doing. To accomplish this, ask your team these questions:
• Why is believing—embodying our ability to be successful—now (instead of later) important to each of us?
• Who do we need to be as people—together—to succeed as a team?
• What does it look like for us to better embody success?
Determine how the team will be accountable to embodying success. Teams that do big things determine what they want the future to look like and then are accountable to a plan to getting there. These questions mobilize hearts and minds so your team can deliver on its vision:
• How and where have we already developed a mindset of success?
• What one action can we take now to better embody success?
• How will we measure and celebrate our progress?
Public perception of any team influences how the members of that team think and act. Teams that succeed build a healthy autonomy so they are increasingly independent of what others think of them. This frees them to more effectively embody the thinking and actions necessary to succeed.
We all deserve to hold our head up with a certain dignity when people ask what we do. My neighbor certainly should have. Your team is justified to do so, too. As the team leader, do you embrace the responsibility to make this so? If not, start now.