As I mentioned in a previous article, a client managed to push
me into a corner so I would talk about morale, time investment, and the theory
that links the two. After giving him an earful about how enthusiasm and
dedication impact morale
, I had built up a pretty good head of steam. Before
he could get a word in edgewise, I started ranting about those bugbears of
modern management: common goals and unification.

What are common goals, and how do we form them?

One of the two great tricks of modern management or
leadership revolves around understanding the connections between the myriad
motivations driving human action and the relatively simple strategic and tactical
goals guiding businesses. Using these connections, we then show employees how they
can fulfill their needs (e.g., becoming a local leader, caring for their
family) by acting in the role and performing the tasks we need them to

The other great trick involves constructing a team goal and then
linking that goal to the aforementioned personal motivations. Our most common linking
tool is the dreaded company and team bonuses, monetary rewards tied to
activities outside of the individual team member’s scope of action. We also use
sundry teaming methods to generate enthusiasm about the team goal.

More on morale

A discussion about a new report on morale dropping to an
all-time low in the IT field provoked responses from dozens of TechRepublic
members. As a result, we’ve created this article and these resources to help
boost sagging morale:

When we look at this in terms of time investment, though, it
all seems rather foolish. Each individual has time to invest in his own goals
in accordance with his motivations. Who exactly has time to invest in the
team’s goal? Who can demonstrate to everyone on the team the importance of the
goal through actions rather than motivational speeches?

Responsibility for the common goal lands squarely on the
shoulders of the group leader, who may or may not be the team’s manager. Team
leaders are the ones who must visibly, immediately, and relevantly invest time
into the common goal. More importantly, team leaders cannot just invest their own
time. They must convince—through power, authority, or influence—others to
invest time with them toward the goal they select. The leaders don’t
necessarily have to work toward the specific goal, but they do have to spend
time with the team performing tasks related to it.

Many erstwhile leaders become embarrassed when they do work
in front of the team that’s not immediately related to accomplishing the goal. However,
any work obviously motivated by the goal can show a leader’s personal time

As an example, take the case of one of the best IT project managers
I’ve ever met. He knows nothing at all about IT. However, he consciously
decided to build investment toward the project goals by making communications
and logistics phone calls from the desk of the person most directly affected by
the call. From that point, when that team member needs something, he picks up
the phone and makes the order or calls the person he needs to talk to. This
time investment meets the above three criteria (visible, immediate, and
relevant). In using this and a handful of other tricks, he has taken a broken
project team filled with good people and welded them together into a
world-class operation in a space of weeks.

Is unification a myth?

In a perfect world where the employees take responsibility
for enthusiasm and dedication, and the manager takes up the task of investing
in the common goal, one could hope that unification would logically follow. After
all, we’ve hit all the right buttons.

Unfortunately, just like everything else, unification has
more than one meaning and a wide variety of practical applications. In business
leadership, though, we mostly concern ourselves with just a few of these:
coordination of efforts, social stability, and work synergy.

It’s a nice idea that an enthusiastic and dedicated team
will somehow spontaneously coordinate with one another and with the outside
world. But we, as leaders, must “pave the road” for the team. It remains our
responsibility to make sure other teams provide the appropriate resources and
fulfill their obligations to our team.

Management skills cannot, however, create the social
stability aspect of unification. We want our team members to feel comfortable
communicating within the team on a professional level. This does not mean the
teammates regard one another as best friends. It does mean that the social
norms and communications methods established through the leader’s interactions
enable frank and open information exchange about task-related activities. Interpersonally,
they can bicker like schoolchildren in a playground as long as their
professional communication remains intact.

Finally, we consider a team unified when its work
demonstrates a synergy creating greater results than the sum of what each team
member could accomplish alone. Romantic descriptions aside, this synergy is,
unfortunately, hard to measure. Even the best team wavers in and out of it
uncertainly—one moment working in synergy with one another and then falling
back into a group of individuals.

When I look for synergy within a team, I pay attention not
to the output but to how it came about. When team members unrelated to a
specific task come in on their off-hours, of their own free will, to trace down
obscure problems and linkages between systems, I know we’ve achieved something.
When each team member jealously hoards his or her knowledge and
responsibilities, I know we still need more work.

Other people look for other things. Many think synergy
should remain intact over a long period of time, or that it exists only if the
team’s absolute output reaches X% over the sum total of the member’s average
output. Both of these measures seem somewhat naive to me. They fail to account
for the constant ebb and flow of circumstance and emotion leading to the
moments of unification.

Final thoughts on time investment and responsibility

Silence descended after I finally ran out of steam. After
considering his beer for a few minutes, my friend looked over at me. “So what’s
the bottom line?” he asked.

“Bottom line? Each person holds responsibility for their
emotional state, but a leader can help a team build social connections. Leaders
must visibly give time to their goals if they want their team to respond. Leadership
is necessary but not enough. If you want to unify your team, you have to manage
the outside connections and measure work results so the team can focus on the

“And team-building exercises?” he followed.

“Worth a lot less than a kind word and a good beer. Speaking
of which, you owe me another.”