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VIEWPOINT: Inspiring employees: It's all in their heads

March 17, 2008

"How can we have greater influence on our employees? We hire good people, we spend lots of money to train them, we tell them specifically what we want, and we motivate them to comply. In spite of all of these efforts, too often we still don't get the desired response."

As a psychologist, I'm often asked this type of question, and I know the answer is complicated. Sometimes the employee has personal, i.e. psychological, reasons for not performing. But as a business owner, I know that most often this frustration is due to a lack of understanding, on the part of management, about what it takes in today's work environment to most effectively influence employees.

Times have changed. Gone are the days of influence through "carrot and stick" management. In this present age of abundance, external contingencies matter less. Increasingly, motivation must be intrinsic and management's influence must be relational.

Studies from around the world indicate that employee engagement is directly related to management's power to influence. Those same studies consistently show that, where "positional power" is less compelling in persuading employees to do what you want, it is managers' competence and credibility that determine their influence.

Competence is what managers do and how well they know and do their job. Focus is placed on training managers in skills and techniques for doing their job because no one is inspired to follow someone who doesn't know what he or she is doing. Without competence there is no influence.

Credibility is what kind of person the manager is. To have maximal influence, a manager must be trusted. And to be trusted, those in leadership must be worthy of that trust. Trustworthiness is a function of consistency of message and behavior. Some call it integrity; but no matter what it's called, it matters more in today's workplace than ever. Increasingly, influence comes through what your charges think of you as a person, their relationship with you, rather than the position you hold or the contingencies you control.

Today's workplace influence is about inspiring others. Not the inspiration of a charismatic person; in fact, quite the opposite. It is the inspiration of a leader's character, rather than personality. It's "what we are" all the time and everywhere, whether anyone is watching or not. It's authenticity, being the same person at work, at home and in social situations.

So let's assume you are a competent manager. You know what you are doing on your job. How do you "get in the heads" of those you supervise to have maximal influence?

First, make a habit of taking a fearless inventory of your own life. Do you live in a way that communicates the values of the work culture you'd hope to see with those you are trying to influence? Your greatest leadership limitations are the inconsistencies between what you expect of others and how you live yourself. This is, after all, your credibility.

Second, recognize that words count. There are no "throwaway words." The first minute of an interaction determines the outcome. The interaction that starts well ends well. Use positive language, be direct and, above all, be consistent in what you say. Words reflect who and what you are.

Finally, recognize success and accomplishment. Always push for improvement and celebrate the gains made by those who work with and for you. This shifts your associates' consciousness, their frame of mind, to optimism and hopefulness and inevitably increases their creativity and productivity. Inspiration is always positive and hopeful.

Oh, by the way, do you have teen-agers and the accompanying anxiety of raising them in this day and age? Well, consider that the aforementioned works in influencing them, too.



Sipes is a clinical psychologist and the founder and senior partner of locally based Indiana Health Group, a behavioral health firm, and founder of nextVoice, a company designed to help people lead better lives.
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