I had the fortunate opportunity to develop and instruct a three-day class on managing teams for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department where I serve as a sergeant for the Department’s Academy and Training Bureau. The class is for both police supervisors and professional staff supervisors. The team management class gives students the skills needed to manage teams effectively. I take great pride in offering the course which has provided meaning for my work.
In every class, I offer the following scenario:
Meaningful Work: Avoiding BurnoutYou have two employees of equal tenure. One is an outstanding worker that goes well beyond what is expected of her. The other is a worker who waits for direction, does the minimum amount of work possible, and does not take initiative for anything. There is usually some laughter at this point since we all can identify that we all supervise these two types of workers.

But I follow up with this crucial question, “Which of the two gets paid more?”

The answer is simple. The two get paid exactly the same amount. Due to civil service agreements, maintaining a competent evaluation is all that is needed for an employee to receive a paycheck. Whether you do the minimum or you perform well beyond expectations, the paychecks are identical.

So, I ask, “How do you get employees to perform at a high level?” I have yet to hear that an employee simply needs to be told what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. That is the recipe for micromanagement and low performance.

Meaningful Work: Avoiding BurnoutWhat I do hear is that an employee’s pride, work ethic, and personal values need to be identified so those traits can correspond with what is expected of them. People perform at a high level because of personal fulfillment and accomplishment. It allows them the opportunity to contribute to the team, agency, and organization. Ultimately, it provides meaning for the job they are engaged in every day. Providing an environment for employees to have a meaningful impact on their work product and others is a foundational requirement for supervisors to provide employees. Otherwise, you may have more of the, “I’ll do the least amount of work possible,” employees than those who contribute to the mission of the team.

One strategy in enabling team members to work at a high level of productivity is to help them find the meaning in their work. People need to know how their work is an integral part of the mission of the organization. Meaning can take many forms, but those who find meaning in their work will not only work harder, but they are less prone to burning out. Burnout results from those who do not see the relevance of their work and its impact on the team.

Meaningful Work: Avoiding BurnoutSo how do people find meaning in work? First, lay the foundation for meaningful work. The methodology for accomplishing this is can be relatively simple. A manager must trust their people. In an era of helicopter parenting, where parents attempt to ensure predictable outcomes for their children, helicopter managing (micromanaging) may be the default comfort zone for many leaders. Micromanagement is the enemy of trust. Also, building trust enables managers to build relationships where employees feel that they are a needed part of the team.

Communication is the foundation for building trust with our teams. The daily conversations that we should be having with our teams give us the opportunity to convey our expectations, ethical practices, and vision for the team. It also provides an opportunity to ask well developed questions which move our people in the direction we want them to go. This is not a gimmick though. Our intentions should be to benefit our team members, our organizations, or the team itself. Plus, people are adept in sniffing out frauds, so don’t be one. Be genuine with your intentions; it will pay dividends for everyone involved.

What are the questions to be asked? There are a few that I’ve garnered over the years. Here is a quick sampling of questions which should be modified to the unique needs of your team:
Meaningful Work: Avoiding Burnout

  • What is your role on the team?
  • Is your role an integral part of the team’s mission?
  • Are you learning in your current position?
  • What are your work-place values?
  • What is getting in the way of those values?
  • What needs to be changed?

These questions are for you as the team leader and your team members. If the questions have negative responses from your employee, there may be a need for identifying if you are the source of the negativity. Or, it may be that you are not communicating well enough with your team members to convey their importance to the team. The answers will also provide you with a game plan on how to address the problems identified by your employee.

When the answers are positive in nature, simply build upon them. There more well-developed questions that are asked, the healthier the conversations taking place with your people. Conversations lead to influence and a sharing of ideas. It is the basis for team-building and accomplishment.

Ask questions often. Ask your team questions frequently. Ask yourself questions always. Multifaceted inquiry will lead you down the path to meaningful conversations and hopefully meaningful work for your team.

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