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The Role of Inspiration in Cultivating High Performance

How can you inspire your employees to maximize their talent and dedicate themselves to the team rather than to personal goals?

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Why would a person give up a career that he loves, that he has defied all odds to earn, and in the process give up millions of dollars in income and forgo the glory of being an NFL star? Why would he willingly give all this up in exchange for a life of adverse living conditions, with extended periods away from family and friends — all the while putting himself at risk of serious bodily injury, including the very real prospect of death?

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In Pat Tillman’s own words right after September 11, 2001: “At times like this you stop and think about just how good we have it, what kind of system we live in, and the freedoms we are allowed. A lot of my family has gone and fought in wars and I really haven’t done a damn thing.” In the words of Dave McGinnis, former Arizona Cardinals head-coach, “Pat knew his purpose in life. He proudly walked away from a career in football to a greater calling.”

Pat Tillman was an exceptional person with deeply held values, who was inspired by a once-in-a-lifetime event. Can you imagine the impact on your company if you could harness the power of this kind of motivation and commitment from your employees? Admittedly, a business cannot, and should not, expect that level of commitment. However, wouldn’t you love to have even a fraction of that commitment from the majority of your employees?

Every year we see something repeated over and over again — like a sports team that is a labeled underdog, yet defies all odds to win the big game. Why does this happen? In post-game discussions, the team is generally credited as being more highly motivated –“they wanted it more” is the phrase we so often hear. The reason they triumphed is often explained as follows: they trained harder, they pulled together as a team, they were focused on a common goal (as opposed to individual goals) and they played an inspired game.

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So can we all accept that it is possible to inspire people to deliver the maximum of their talent, work together as a team, dedicate themselves to team goals rather than personal goals — and in so doing achieve results well beyond their peers? While we see it with some frequency in sports, is it possible to achieve that level of commitment, that kind of motivation in a company? Can people be motivated to give more if they are truly inspired? The answer is emphatically YES.

The military offers us the first clue into creating inspired “team members.” How many times have we heard men and women of the military express the notion that they are “fighting for their country?” Is it just coincidence that they all say the same thing? I seriously doubt it. The military goes to great lengths to make sure that their “team members” know exactly what they are fighting for — it is their country.

But they don’t stop there; they make it even more personal. They reinforce one’s commitment at the most basic levels, from the branch of the military you’re in (e.g., the Marine Corps), to your squad, to the soldier next to you on the battlefield. It is not about you as an individual; it’s about your team and what you are all fighting for. And this clarity of purpose does not happen by chance — it is communicated strongly, emphatically and continuously in many different ways.

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So why is something this powerful and so clearly proven to work, missed by most companies? It is even more perplexing when you realize that most people yearn for something to believe in — they want a purpose to which they can dedicate themselves. In fact, when they aren’t inspired by their job, they go in search of inspiration in some other situation, such as a scout leader, little league coach, or a hospital volunteer.

Can the failure to provide the inspiration in larger companies be the very reason that so many people willingly choose to work in a start-up organization, even though it is well known that a very high percentage of new businesses fail? Can’t larger companies offer the same clarity of purpose as smaller companies?

Some cynics might suggest that inspiring employees is just a gimmick to get more out of employees; but in truth, we are doing nothing more than giving them a clear reason to come to work everyday. If they understand how and why they are contributing, then even if they put forth no more effort, their time spent will be more personally enjoyable and their efforts will be more productive for the company — everybody wins.

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Have you ever asked someone what the company they work for is all about, what their company is trying to achieve – only to hear them stumble with an answer? Is it any wonder that they are not motivated to give their all? How can they be inspired to exceptional performance when they can’t even articulate what their company is all about and what it is trying to achieve?

While helping employees clearly understand the purpose and objectives of the business has tremendous motivational potential, the failure to do so has a very real downside as well. If you fail to give employees a sense of company purpose, the more internally motivated employees, probably your strongest people, will find a purpose of their own — and that will likely lead to chaos and conflict as everyone pursues their own agenda.

So what’s the problem? Is inspiring employees really that difficult, or is it just overlooked? It’s hard to say. While we certainly cannot expect to inspire employees to make the kind of sacrifice that Pat Tillman made, a level of commitment as intense as his is not what is required to dramatically improve the performance of most companies! Now this is a really important point — the inspiration does not have to be “heroic” to be motivational — rather all that is necessary is a clearly articulated purpose with well defined objectives that employees can understand and buy into. Think about it yourself — it’s very difficult to be highly motivated by a fuzzy purpose, conflicting objectives or objectives that seemingly change on a whim.

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In future articles we will explore the characteristics of a strong vision statement — one that provides the clarity of purpose and sense of direction that can inspire employees to higher performance. And while cultivating high performance requires more than a vision statement, a well-framed vision statement is a central element.

But giving employees a clear sense of purpose against which to direct their energies and enthusiasm is not enough. We’ve all witnessed friends or business associates that started a new job full of excitement and desire to contribute, only to find them months later de-motivated by their on-the-job experiences. What happened in the ensuing months? Somehow the operating environment they were working in diminished that enthusiasm.

So before getting into the characteristics of a strong vision statement, one that can inspire exceptional performance, we’ll next explore the characteristics of a working environment that sustains, rather than strangles their enthusiasm.

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