How to Inspire Your Team to Put In More Hours (Though I Don’t Think You Should)

In startup culture, it’s an unspoken sin to leave the office before 6PM. When a few people start doing it, the trend spreads. Before you know it, you can hear a pin drop beyond the nine-to-five. Where did everyone go? Do they not care anymore?

Every boss I’ve ever had addressed clocking out early in only one way: complaining. Sometimes passive aggressively (ugh), sometimes by email (cowardly), sometimes at full company meetings (awkward). When these announcements spread, everyone takes the punishment, returns to their work with heads down and obliges like spiteful children – at least for a while.

Every time, individuals punished most by this approach are almost never the guilty ones. The goody two-shoes who always work hard hear the message and work harder. Those at fault for bailing early in the first place continue to rebel against Mom and Dad, never taking the message to heart. Complaining about early clock-out culture always results in the opposite desired effect: infractors keep infracting and you burn out your best.

As a leader, how can you keep people invested enough to stick around?

Lead by example. If, as a manager, you’re not the hardest worker pulling longer hours than anyone else, no one will hear you.

Reward visible hard work. Develop relationships with those who stick around late, engage yourself in their contributions, talk them up to their supervisor, privilege their projects over everyone else’s and move their career forward. Play favorites. When others ask why he or she deserves special treatment, make it clear. Time is scarce as a leader and the goody two-shoes stuck around after hours when you had the most available time. Everyone will start getting the idea.

Inspire with grand vision. No human will genuinely give their life away for quotas. When it comes to a greater sense of self purpose, who truly cares about percentage market share, impressions or sales? You think our soldiers risk their lives for America’s GDP? No, they fight to make America the greatest country in the world. If you lean on numbers for your company mission, you suffer from vision deficiency. Colonize other planets. Teach everyone to grow food. Cure cancer. Make everyone laugh. Raise the bar so high that you can’t possibly measure it. Keep your people looking up at the sky and they might stop looking down at their watches.

Set an example, reward good behavior and reach for the moon. Don’t punish the children.

Find the Root of the Problem

You cannot cure a disease by suppressing its symptoms. A quick fix will not make things better down the road. Do your research, break down the constituent parts and interview everyone involved. Understand why something is happening. Find the when, where, why, who and how. Do not be afraid of the answer. Accept the possibility that the cause of the problem may be yourself or someone close to you. When you find out, solve it. Make big changes. Whatever it takes.

Hierarchy Does Not Work Anymore

In a world where everyone in an organization needs to be on the same page, hierarchy can be fatal. The time it takes for information to travel up and down the ladder, pass decisions up to the qualified decision maker, and fix broken translations will derail your team. Hierarchy in an information-age company turns into a big clumsy game of telephone, a jumbled mess of words and directives totally unacceptable and avertable in a world ripe with efficient communication technology.

Hierarchy today helps only in one scenario: eliminating the time it takes to collectively vote on a decision that needs to be made. In some situations, big decisions need to be made quickly without consulting the committee. That said, the time it takes to disseminate and re-orient everyone around the decision may take as long or considerably longer than taking the time to vote in the first place.

An efficient organization awards every member of its team the autonomy and trust to make decisions and solve problems when they arise. An efficient organization rallies everyone around a core mission and invites everyone to shape objective extensions of that mission. An efficient organization promotes true transparency, total accessibility, and the free-flow of information. Everyone who needs to have a say has a say. No one is left out. And no one needs to answer to anyone but themselves and their work.

Give Everyone A Piece of Leadership

Dan Pink makes a big deal about autonomy, mastery and purpose as the three key motivators for success. I agree with each one. As a manager, you should do everything in your power to give each member of your team a little piece of leadership. Whether that be a process to oversee, a special project to helm or oversight to a group of people, give each person ownership of something they like to do (autonomy). Best if you give them something they have room to improve in and master (mastery). Bonus points if they come up with idea for what they own themselves (purpose). If you can be a trusting person and want to help people succeed, let go and give people the power to direct their own lives as often as possible. When you give your team widespread authority, it becomes your job to keep all the chips on the table. Make sure everyone is on the same page when and where possible. Different leadership means different directions – do not let your leaders completely run away on their own, or you will have fragmentation and anarchy. If only as an experiment, surrender control over every little thing and award responsibility. You’ll be surprised with the results.

Looking Back & Forth

It’s very difficult to routinely switch gears between inward-facing and outward-facing responsibilities in an organization. One minute, you’re hunting outside for growth opportunities. Next, you’re back home taking care of chores and drama. It takes a special kind of person to juggle both simultaneously and not twist his or her head off looking back and forth all the time. One of my mentors in college made a point to hunt outside in the morning and clean up internal messes in the afternoon. By batching his processes, he was able to oversee a very large company and scale it with relative stability. I struggle to build that structure into my day-to-day management, but I see how necessary it is to find focus and routine in your operations.

True Transparency

I hear a lot of companies toss it around – a buzz word like “web 2.0” and “organic.” Think you’re transparent? Call me crazy, but the following things mean “transparent” to me:

  • Total access to numbers and data
  • Public punishment and public reward
  • Open doors (or none at all)
  • No hierarchy, only leadership
  • Forgiveness, not permission
  • Strong communication
  • Free-flowing ideas

While company culture stands to benefit from it, transparency may not work for everyone. Apple is doing just fine without it. If you cannot accept the list above, do not pretend to embrace transparency.

Vision By Numbers

It’s exciting to see the success and growth of an organization through the numbers: sales milestones, unique visitors, engagement statistics and more. It’s very practical and momentous to set metric goals that everyone can reach for and beat. But numbers cannot tell the whole story. And metrics can only inspire a team so far. It takes a portrait of the future painted zealously by leadership to truly inspire. Something greater to work towards. Something to believe in.

The best preachers don’t talk statistics or business. True vision cannot paint by numbers. There are no formulas or metrics for dreams. Speaking abstractly and passionately about a vision for the long-term future can open minds to the possibilities and help your team imagine their way out of the status quo.

Metrics and numbers keep an organization accountable to measurable improvements. Numbers have their place and should be respected. But they only serve to measure movements that already exist. Why not strive to make new movements and invent new metrics? A vision by numbers is not enough. The opportunities are boundless for your organization, but only if the vision you paint for your team allows them to be.

Resurrecting An Idea

Leaders do not live forever. Therefore, every follower has the opportunity to lead. By the hands of those who follow, the messages and teachings of a leader can live on. Apprentices, disciples and true believers are responsible for standing up for and keeping an idea alive. Traditions, trades, crafts and stories all pass away if not nurtured.

Fable or history, the story of Christ survives. No matter what you believe, you can admire the staying power of the brand and message. If the Disciples of Christ broke into the tomb to exhume Jesus’s body, give him a proper burial and cover their trail by haunting the authorities with his resurrection, the story bears no less weight. These followers loved a man and his teachings so much that they risked everything against one of the harshest regimes in history to help the memory and message never die. The power of that rebellion lasted two millennia and continues to live on. Even if the man never existed, cultural outcasts stood for, developed and passed on the message until it flourished throughout the world. Followers became leaders to resurrect an idea and keep the light alive. That’s worth celebrating, no matter what you believe.

Vacations Take Courage

You know what’s terrifying? Abandoning work, teammates, income, bills, children, friends, pets, chores and other obligations for a week or more. Even more so terrifying to do all that and go to a place you’ve never been. Leaving town is easier for people with low-stakes employment, structured vacation time and a shorter list of things to abandon. It’s much more difficult for people entangled in their work or community. An executive responsible for hundreds of employees who depend on him or her may never feel comfortable leaving all that behind. It’s a scary thing. To take a vacation takes courage.

To take a true vacation takes even more courage. By ‘true vacation,’ I mean a designated period of time where you can completely let go. For people in control day-to-day, this can be as terrifying or more so than leaving everything behind. My father planned everything his entire life (he plans cities and suburban spaces for a living). Vacations were no different. When things didn’t go to plan, he’d stress out. Stress breaks the true vacation. As my parents upgraded to an empty nest, things got a little easier. The allure of short spontaneous trips popped up all the time. These days, I’d swear that my mom does more vacation planning than my dad. They are becoming notorious for randomly skipping town. Vegas here, New York there. More power to them.

Like defying your fear of heights by climbing a wall, it gets easier time after time. Overcome the first few trips and you start to overcome your hesitations. Before you know it, you’ll be a vacation master. Like anything else, mental health takes conditioning and practice. Vacations are big wins for your mental health.

Growing Pains

Growth is an awkward and confusing experience. By building on the old and bringing in the new, life mixes up and turns to chaos. Oftentimes, you experience bumps and bruises. In the worst of situations, there may be casualties. Whether you like it or not, that’s the name of the game. The only way to stop growing pains? Stop growing. Or die. I endorse neither. Growth and change are instrumental to life. Hell, they’re key to adaptation and survival. Suck it up, learn to love the pain and enjoy the ride.