THE BLOG

How to Inspire Your Team

02/24/2015 03:15 pm ET | Updated Apr 26, 2015

When I was sixteen years old, I told my father I wanted to be a vegetarian.

"That's great!" he said, and jumped up from the couch, went to his file cabinet and pulled out old magazine articles and copies of nutrition guidelines.

You see, my father was a vegetarian. The articles discussed how to properly balance amino acids and other nutrients when you eat a vegetable diet.

I studied those articles and got started.

I was a strict practicing vegetarian...for three days.

So, you can imagine my reaction when, decades later, our sixteen year old daughter came to my wife and I and said, "Hey guys, I want to be a vegetarian!"

I explained to her that India was the cradle of excellent vegetarian cooking and that the very word came from an Indian word meaning "lousy hunter." (Well, that's what Andy Rooney said!)

Despite my fatherly wisdom (or perhaps because of it?) our daughter went on with her plan. And for several years now, she has not eaten any meat.

Why?

What do you suppose was the difference between my short-lived experiment and my daughter's lasting lifestyle change?

Let's start with me. Why do you think I wanted to be a vegetarian?

You might think it was because I wanted to be like my father.

Nope.

I'm not proud, but the simple truth is that in my warped adolescent brain, I figured that being a vegetarian would somehow help me get a date.

Now, contrast my shallow motivations with my daughter's reasons. She wanted to live a more sustainable, less impactful lifestyle, didn't want to inflict harm on other sentient creatures, and wanted a healthier diet.

The difference in our behavior came down to one thing: our reasons why.

Her 'why's were deep, compelling, and lasting. Mine were shallow and short-lived.

Now think about the work you ask of your team.

Those are their "whats" - the reports, the phone calls, the meetings, the manufacturing, the calculations...all the 'stuff' we do.

Now for the critical leadership question...

The Most Important Question You Ever Answer

In fact, this question is so vital, so full of life, energy, and potential that I can confidently say it is the most important question you can ever answer for your team.

The question is simply: "Why?"

This isn't a question about great metaphysical or philosophical dilemmas. It's about the most practical question every team member needs to be able to answer. Simply put: Why are they doing what they're doing?

Your job as a leader is to connect the "whats" to the "why."

When you don't connect the what to the why, you condemn your team to soulless drudgery. If you've ever seen the classic 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke where Paul Newman's character serves time in a prison chain gang, you'll remember the ditch scene. The jailers force Luke to repeatedly dig and refill the same ditch. The meaningless labor is designed to break his spirit.

Are any of your staff doing work disconnected from real meaning or purpose?

If so, there are only two possible reasons: (1) your staff don't understand the "why" behind the work, or (2) there is no legitimate "why." Unfortunately, as organizations grow, previously meaningful tasks can easily continue under the force of inertia and tradition. If left unchallenged, that inertia will eventually sap the life from your team.

What's without whys are a waste. They waste time. They waste energy. They waste your people.

Every single task performed by every single member of your team should somehow serve the mission of your organization. If not, it needs to be challenged, reexamined, and a better way found... or the task should simply be eliminated. Otherwise, you've sentenced your team to do work meant to break their spirit!

You can take just five minutes per month and double your team's productivity by simply asking them to think about various "whats" and asking, "why they are important."
Don't treat this activity as a quiz. Treat it as a mutual exploration...a chance for all of you to discover together why something matters.

In just five minutes, you will discover a renewed sense of purpose, the business of day-to-day tasks is imbued with meaning, and people sit up taller, smile, and have pride in what they're doing. Frequently, participants in this activity even tear up as they rediscover the meaning in their work.

If you don't like the answers you discover, that's okay. When you realize you're on a different road than the one you want, it's the first step to getting yourself on the right road.

Let me get a little more specific. If your "why" is all about you (e.g., "I'm doing this for more money, for more power, for more prestige"), you are right to be concerned. If that's your big "why," you have little chance to influence others and create a motivated team.

People Aren't Stupid

If it's all about you, they'll know it, and you can expect them to do only what they have to do.

Leaders who create motivated teams understand that people work best when their work has meaning (and your personal success isn't meaningful enough to them).

If you examine your big "why" and the answers sound shallow, vapid, and uninspiring, I applaud you for having the courage to go there. Now take the next step:
• Where can you find meaning?
• Why is the work important?
• How does it contribute to a bigger picture?
• And if you discover it does not...can you take steps to eliminate meaningless work?

Your Turn

Remember, to inspire your team, connect "whats" to "whys." You tap into natural energy and vastly increase your team's productivity.

Leave us a comment and share: How have great leaders you've known keep their teams connected to meaning and purpose?