During a late lunch break yesterday, I happened to turn on the TV in time to catch President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris address the State Department. As they spoke, I recognized many of the team-building and leadership best practices that have been reported here at Fast Company for years. In around 15 minutes, their remarks were a master class in how leaders can build team morale and motivation.
Here’s how they did it:
Say “thanks”—and why
“[I]t’s one of our highest priorities, to thank you,” Harris said as she opened her remarks to the employees and diplomats in the audience, explaining that their work is important and that it matters. Gratitude is a simple yet underused power tool for managers.
As Fast Company previously reported, a study by Glassdoor found that 80% of employees would be willing to work harder for an appreciative boss, and 70% said they’d feel better about themselves and their efforts if their boss thanked them more regularly. And the words may have had more impact than just the immediate audience. Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recently found that just witnessing an act of gratitude can have a positive impact on others.
Harris followed up her thanks with some specifics, noting that the leaders appreciated the team’s dedication to the country and their “tireless work.” Shortly after Biden approached the podium for his remarks, he listed the qualities—education, abilities, sacrifice—that he appreciated. He also thanked their families for their sacrifices.
Business psychologist Mark Goulston says that being specific—in other words, calling out the behavior for which you’re grateful—is the first step in saying thank you properly.
Explain why their work matters
Most people want to feel that their work matters and to find meaning in how they spend their days. Biden called out the various segments of the State Department, ranging from new members of the foreign service to longtime civil servants, and told them that this was his main message: “. . . you’re vital, and the strength and success of our nation depends in no small part on you. You are the center of all that I intend to do. You are the heart of it.” Those are bold statements, but State Department team members who were looking for any validation that their work had meaning got it in those remarks.
Harris had similar insights: “Everything you do, every policy you advance, every partnership you forge makes a difference in the lives of everyday Americans,” she said. (But no pressure or anything, State Department folks.)
For anyone to be successful in their jobs, they need to know the expectations and benchmarks by which they will be evaluated and measured. Biden made it clear that this wasn’t just a lovefest. His remarks indicated that employees would be held to a high standard. “I ask each of you to abide by a few core tenets,” he said. These included:
- Working in the interest of the American people
- Improving diversity, inclusion, equity, and accessibility
He stopped short of the stern warning he gave his new appointees on Inauguration Night. He expressed confidence in the team and thanked them for their service. Then, he shared his expectations. “I am not joking when I say this, if you are ever working with me and I hear you treat another colleague with disrespect . . . talk down to someone, I promise you I will fire you on the spot. On the spot. No ifs, ands, or buts. Everybody . . . everybody is entitled to be treated with decency and dignity,” Biden said.
Create a psychologically safe environment
In addition to emphasizing the importance of diversity and creating an environment that reflects the population, Biden laid out his trust in his team bluntly: “I believe in you. We need you, badly. I trust you. I’m going to have your back.” These sorts of remarks go a long way to helping to create a psychologically safe environment for workers—a necessity for any leader who wants their team to be productive.
Biden closed with a touch of humor, which also helps, joking about looking forward to returning when the room could be filled to capacity and the podium didn’t have to be wiped down between speakers. Humor is another powerful management asset and can help people feel more at ease.
In just a few minutes, Biden and Harris used an array of techniques and tools to make their team feel safe and trusted, but also make clear their expectations and priorities. Their speeches are a good primer for leaders who need to do this in business every day.