Today’s Workplace: The Importance of Keeping It Real

Last year, I coached my son’s basketball team in the town’s youth basketball league. The NBA Championship was hardly at stake, although you might not have been sure of that the way a couple of the parents reacted to referees’ calls in the stands.

Our team had won three of its four games, and the kids seemed to be having fun. But as we readied for game five, trouble loomed on the horizon. The team we were scheduled to play not only was undefeated, but our most talented player was going to be away the weekend of the game. What’s more, another of our key players had fractured his foot.

So we were going to have to play the top team severely shorthanded with just six players. The night before the game, I decided some motivation was in order. And what better basketball movie is there to motivate a young athlete than “Hoosiers.”

My son watched transfixed as Gene Hackman willed the underdog team from Hickory to the Indiana state title. By the end, he was ready to run through a wall. I was pumped up too, “Hey if they could do it against those odds, why can’t we?”

The next day, I gave my best pep talk to the boys before the game. They went out and gave it absolutely everything they had. They went after every loose ball and hustled as hard as they possibly could. And… we lost by 24 points.

Was I terrible coach? No, don’t answer that one! And what on Earth does this have to do with today’s workplace? If you’ve ever sat in a meeting where it sounds like your organization is losing touch with reality, you don’t have to ask.

Much is being written these days about employee engagement and ways to get the most out of your employees. But as employee performance thought leader David Lee said during an XpertHR webinar, “Managers are not always mindful of the human element when dealing with their employees, a failure that can lead both to a mass exodus and to an apathetic workforce.”

And while it’s important to set goals, some of that apathy can come from tuning out your employees or setting unrealistic expectations. For instance, if a company sets targeted sales quotas that are millions of dollars beyond what it’s ever sold before, you might say it’s great to shoot for the stars. But your best sales folks might say it’s time to shoot for another job.

Goals should be realistic with a defined path for how your team can achieve them. Measuring employees by unachievable standards may create constant pressure that not only harms employee engagement but hurts a company’s bottom line. And low engagement inevitably can lead to increased turnover.

That’s not to say I should have told my boys on the basketball that they had no shot of winning that game. But it does mean I had to define “success” as controlling what they could control:

  • Giving maximum effort;
  • Passing the ball well; and
  • Playing as a team.

And by that measure, they did succeed, even if the scoreboard may not have reflected it. By my staying positive outwardly as the game went on, the boys did not get discouraged in the face of their daunting task, which helped them the following week when one of their two absent teammates returned.

Working against a solid opponent, but with the odds improved, we won the following week by a single point and played well as a team. We had lived to fight another day.

Taking a long view and understanding what success truly means also can help in the workplace. Engaged employees who feel their work is valued—rather than being belittled—will remain focused, productive and, most importantly, willing to put extra effort into projects. And while that additional effort may not translate into immediate results, it may help in the next deal or provide other future benefits.