So what gets athletes energized and passionate enough to generate an entire post-game show of play highlights like these? It might be easier to answer the question by considering what would happen if we took away a few basic elements of the game that we all take for granted. Let's say we didn't tell the players who they were playing. They now have no idea what their opponents do well or where they're weak. Let's also take away the lines on the field so players can't tell if they're getting first downs or touchdowns. In fact, let's take down the scoreboard, or stop keeping score altogether, so players don't even know who's winning. Since the players aren't sure what they're trying to do, the coach tells them to forget about crossing first down lines or scoring and just do what he tells them to do. If the coach says to run with the ball one direction, then players do it until they get tackled or run out of field. When the game is over, the coach lets them know that it's time to go home.
How would an experience like that change the game? Players can be trained to make tackles, block opponents, run the ball, or catch a pass. The coach can try to motivate the players and get them enthused about making great plays. The team can still play hard. But would players play with the same intensity? Would we have game highlights to watch when the game was over? Not likely. Think of how energy and passion would leave the players. No amount of training or encouragement would compensate for the missing elements required to create the context that defines the game. Removing them pretty well destroys the purpose for playing. With no goals, no feedback, no understanding of what success looks like and what it takes to succeed, the personal drive to excel disappears.
As ridiculous as a football game would be without team statistics, a scoreboard, and lines on the field, we send our workforce players out on the playing field of the business every day under similar conditions. We don't tell them who we're competing against. In fact, we sometimes don't even let them know what game they're playing. We keep them ignorant about the products produced, services provided, the industry they're competing in, and what it will take to win in the marketplace against the competition. There's no scoreboard, no ongoing and visible measure of success, and little useful feedback for changing behavior in order to win the game. Instead, like players without context, we simply tell employees not to worry about figurative first downs and scoring and just do what the coach-supervisor tells them to do.
Does that sound crazy, or what? We think it's silly to expect football players to make spectacular plays without context, but can't understand why our employees won't. And because they won't, we think it's because they're lazy or, strangely enough, not motivated.
If we want to know how to turn this around, all we have to do is step back and see what the football team has that our workforce doesn't. We can start with the game and the competition. Teaching employees about the industry, who's competing, and how each company stacks up against the other is like providing division standings and team statistics to identify opportunities and challenges. Adding monthly or quarterly objectives lets the team know what it has to do to win each game. A scoreboard that's updated regularly with essential results tells employees how well they're competing as a unit. Critical team objectives well documented and published -- like first down lines -- gives everyone the targets they need to move the team forward each day. Employees who receive feedback on their performance during and after each game will know their statistics, or where they need to improve, to be a top contributor.
When players understand what they have to do and why, they can do more than just blindly follow seemingly meaningless directions from their supervisors. With all the elements of context, they are better equipped to step up and make spectacular plays to win the game.
Trying it on for fit:
Imagine that your workforce is a football team and your job is to provide league and team information, draw lines on the field, and provide the score as well as performance statistics for each game. Think of how you can create context for your players by providing each of these elements. Start by giving a crash course in your business even if it's just for your direct reports. Bring in experts from marketing, finance, operations, customer service, and other departments to help. Work to provide other football game elements by doing things like constructing sensible ways to track performance and involving the entire team in feedback discussions about how to do better.