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Take It From Gordy the Goldfish - You Can Re-Energize a Burned-Out Work Force

There’s no doubt about it: The past year or so has been a lean time for most companies. And while there’s hope that the worst, economically speaking, might be behind everyone, companies aren’t out of the woods yet.

The dark days of the recession have spawned a troubling new issue, one that could cripple organizations even as people head into recovery. The looming problem? A widespread loss of employee engagement.

“Even if companies haven’t literally lost their employees, many have lost them psychologically,” warns Jon Gordon, speaker, consultant and author of the new book The Shark and the Goldfish: Positive Ways to Thrive During Waves of Change (Wiley, September 2009). “Too many Americans are beaten down, burned out and completely de-motivated. And if leaders don’t strive to change that — to create a positive culture that energizes people — there will be dire consequences.”

Tired of working more hours for less pay under the threat of termination, many Americans have mentally checked out of their jobs. They are simply doing what they need to in order to hang on until something better comes along. In fact, a recent study by the Workforce Institute at Kronos shows that in organizations that have experienced layoffs, 40% of employees report that their productivity has suffered. Of that 40%, two-thirds think that morale has been negatively affected and that they aren’t as motivated as before.

This atmosphere isn't conducive to an organization’s success, now or in the future. But with limited funds and deadlines that still need to be met, what’s a leader to do? For starters, Gordon says, you must focus on winning in the workplace if you want to win in the marketplace.

“For leaders, now is the time to improve your company’s culture and get inside your employees’ heads,” he says. “You need to personally make sure that your company is a place where people want to work. You can allow the current economy to crush your morale, confidence and spirit, or you can choose to proactively shape your organization into one that is positive, resilient and prepared to take on challenges.”

That’s the lesson Gordon shares in the book, an illustrated fable that tells the story of Gordy the goldfish. Not used to fending for himself, the outlook for bowl-raised Gordy is grim after he accidentally ends up in the ocean. Luckily for him (and for readers from the schoolroom to the boardroom), Sammy the (nice) shark takes Gordy under his fin and teaches him a valuable lesson: the difference between a full belly and an empty stomach depends solely upon your faith, beliefs and actions.

“When fear and uncertainty become staples of daily work and life, they lead to a lack of trust, decreased productivity, poor focus, uninspired teamwork, and subpar performance,” Gordon says. “As a leader, though, you do have the power to take positive actions that will inspire your team to not just survive, but to thrive. Make sure that, like Gordy the goldfish, your employees aren’t just sitting at their desks waiting to be fed. Teach them how to find food for themselves, and their morale, focus, and commitment will increase exponentially.”

Focus on people, not numbers. True, there are a lot of numbers to worry about — investments, the bottom line, next quarter’s profits (hopefully) — and it’s easy to become fixated on those figures. If the brain is spinning with strategies on how to stay out of the red, Gordon suggests that people take a step back and remember that their company isn’t what shows up in the finance department’s spreadsheets — it’s the finance people themselves, and the HR department, and the salespeople, and support staff. Ultimately, an organization’s failure or success is determined by the moods, innovation, energy, thoughts and behaviors of  people who work there.

“It’s not numbers that drive people, but the people that drive numbers,” Gordon points out. “Too often, worried leaders approach this relationship backward. However, this isn't a time to ignore your people. Place your attention on them and on the process. After all, numbers are just measurements, and indicators of how well your people are executing. Remember, culture drives behavior, behavior drives habits, and habits drive results.”

Model good behavior. Leaders set the tone for how employees respond to almost every situation. They can inspire, or they can extinguish. For example if a manager greets a worker cheerfully even though they’ve both had to come into work an hour early, the worker is likely to mirror that attitude. Remember, whatever is expected from employees must also be expected from senior leadership. “Leaders need to be humble and hungry,” Gordon says. “Humble in that they seek to learn, grow and improve every day and hungry with a passion to work harder than everyone else. Now is not a time to be barricaded in your office. Now is a time to be in the trenches with your people, leading, working and building a successful future.”

Practice positive leadership. And no, “positive leadership” doesn’t simply mean the absence of overt negativity. It means remaining purposeful in the face of adversity. While it’s important to acknowledge the obstacles the organization is facing (after all, no one really respects a naïve Pollyanna), don’t dwell on them in meetings or in individual conversations, and don’t bring up bad news before pointing out one or two things that are going well. Instead of being disappointed by where the company is, optimistically focus on where it is going.

“Right now, negativity and fear are probably knocking your people off balance,” Gordon says. “It’s a scientifically proven fact that the nature of our thoughts affects our lives in tangible ways. I firmly believe that if you think your best days are behind you, they are. However, if you think your best days are ahead of you, they are. Therefore, it’s time to regroup, refocus and unite your people to create a winning mindset, culture and positive team environment. Remember, culture drives behavior. You win in the office first. Then you win in the marketplace. With a winning team, you create strength on the inside that can withstand the negativity, naysayers and adversity on the outside.”

Fill the void. These are uncertain times. Employees are questioning how their industries and jobs will be affected by the current economy. They’re unsure about what actions to take. Unfortunately this uncertainly creates a void, and Gordon’s theory is that where there is a void, negativity will fill it. In the absence of clear and positive communication, people start to assume the worst, and they will act accordingly. Leaders must ersonally meet with their employees and continually communicate, communicate, communicate. They must be seen and heard, and they must also hear and see. If they always fill the void with positive communication, then negativity and fear can't breed and grow.

“Make transparency the norm, not the exception — after all, the more you communicate, the more you foster trust,and the more loyalty is built,” Gordon says. “Talk to your team members often, and let them know where they stand. Encourage your managers and supervisors to do the same. Host frequent town-hall meetings in which you listen to employees’ fears, concerns and ideas, and share your vision for the future.”

Tell "energy vampires," “It’s time to get on the bus…or off the bus.” No matter how many pep talks you give or good behaviors you model, your efforts won’t go far unless everyone is on the same page. That’s right: everyone. Leaders might be tempted to think that a few nonconformists and cynics won’t prove to be a major problem if the majority of the people begin to share in a positive vision, but Gordon insists that they’d be wrong. In fact, in his best-selling book The Energy Bus, he calls those who are a constant source of negativity energy vampires because they suck the energy and life out of everyone around them. Their presence pollutes the waters and can have a highly detrimental effect on the team’s morale, confidence and overall performance.

“Once you’ve identified the naysayers on your team, gently approach them and give them a chance to get on the bus and share in a positive vision,” Gordon advises. “However, if these energy vampires refuse to get on board, then you must get them off the bus. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it. Even if your biggest complainer happens to be your highest performer, his negative energy outweighs his positive contributions. Once again, it’s crucial to remember that culture fuels performance and results. One cancer cell can multiply to destroy the body.”

Forbid complaining. All complaining. As Gordon explains in his book The No Complaining Rule, successful organizations with great cultures focus on solutions, not on complaints. The rule is simple. Let employees know that they are not allowed to complain unless they also offer solutions. “Remember, banning complaints is tough love for the good of the whole organization,” Gordon says. “When you boil things down, complaints are just noise and nothing more — but each one does represent an opportunity to turn something negative into something positive. Turn your employees from problem-sharers to problem-solvers — it’ll make an unbelievable difference in your office’s atmosphere, and it will lead to new ideas, innovations and success.”

Teach people to be heroes, not victims. Gordon firmly points out that both heroes and victims get knocked down. The distinction between the two groups lies in the fact that heroes get back up, while victims simply give up. Help employees to realize that they aren't victims of circumstance. Rather, remind them that they have a high locus of control — in other words, they have a significant influence over how things turn out.

As Gordon points out in The Shark and the Goldfish, goldfish let fear paralyze them, but sharks choose to swim ahead, believing that the best is yet to come. Faith and belief in a positive future lead to powerful actions today. Remember the Positive Shark Formula: Events (E) + Positive Response (P) = Outcome (O). True, people can’t always control the events in their lives, but they can control how they respond to these events — and their response determines the outcome.

"In a rapidly changing world, it’s important to choose faith over fear,” Gordon says. “The two share a future that hasn’t happened yet. And the main thing that separates them is hope, or a lack thereof. Faith believes in a positive future and creates heroes, while fear believes in a negative future and creates victims. Think about it. The rest of your life hasn’t happened yet. Why not choose to believe that good things are coming your way?”

Focus on the small wins. The key, says Gordon, is to always place attention on those little, ordinary, nonspectacular “wins” that add up to big successes. His credo is to expect success, look for success and celebrate success. When people focus on small wins, they gain the confidence to go after and create the big wins. It’s the same advice Gordon gives to NFL teams, as well as to Fortune 500 companies.

“Keep in mind that employees might currently be discouraged or burnt out right now, so make sure to really highlight and celebrate the small wins in order to foster loyalty, excitement and confidence,” Gordon says. “After all, championships are won as the result of many small wins.”

Make sure to have sharks in key positions. When the economy was thriving, it didn’t matter as much if key employees turned in a mediocre performance. Now, that isn’t the case. Gordon suggests looking at your team and figuring out which people display the characteristics of driven, go-get-’em “nice sharks” (a la Sammy), and which are “goldfish,” or more-natural relationship managers.

“Your sharks are the people you need in sales or business-driving positions,” Gordon says. “Your goldfish, or relationship managers, are better suited to answering phones, taking orders and cultivating customer goodwill. People who aren’t in the right positions won’t thrive — and your organization will constantly find itself struggling. Too many organizations have relationship managers in sales positions, and that’s why they aren’t thriving. Put your people in the right positions and allow them to do what they do best — and they will help your company to perform its best.”

These are uncertain times, and no one can predict how the future will look. Realistically, even if leaders devote themselves to helping their employees think their best and be their best, some might still find themselves better-suited to positions outside the company. That’s OK. The main thing is emphasize to the team that the world is full of opportunity for those who are willing to stay positive, work hard and find it.

“Ultimately,” Gordon says, “by filling the voids with positive leadership, positive communication and positive action, there is one thing you can be certain of — a future in which your organization is stronger, wiser and better than it is today.”

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