Quit Killing Your Team

How to build engagement and guide your team past burnout.

This is a guest post by Alex J. Hughes, an EC advisor, software product manager and writer. Join his free newsletter for strategies on living more deliberately and lessons from the top entrepreneurs, artists and scientists.

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Most people recognize the importance of hiring. Building something from nothing requires a core team of smart creatives with a deep well of curiosity. These are the innovators who are able to connect ideas between multiple disciplines and offer new ways of looking at the world.

But what’s valued in the hiring process–freethinking, curiosity, creativity–is often forgotten in the day-to-day. And it’s your job to preserve this, for both yourself and your team.

If you want to drive results, you need a better strategy than tightening your grip.

Not everything needs to be about efficiency, productivity, and deliverables. Breathing room helps nurture creativity and curiosity. Those who fail to grasp this nuance end up stuck in a one-track managerial mindset, unable to effectively lead.

Progress comes from having the autonomy to stray into the expanse of your mind and connect ideas in new and interesting ways. Focus on getting the conditions right so everyone has the opportunity to create these connections and find fulfillment in their work.

Without this, you’ll face a barrage of apathy, burnout, and unrealized potential. And once you lose engagement, meaningful progress becomes impossible or short lived.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t set deadlines or establish goals. You need this, too. But if you want to sustain engagement and encourage innovation, allow the people you invested the time to hire to do what set them apart in the first place. Let curiosity and creativity lead the way. This puts your team in a far better position to create something worthwhile.

Leaders fight for a balance between deadlines and exploration.

Designers need freedom to explore creative directions.

Developers need freedom to explore new technologies.

Product managers need freedom to explore different visions.

There’s a sense of artistic expression to each. Creating this space helps build morale by pushing each person to find a deeper sense of satisfaction and meaning in their daily work. It also lays the groundwork for innovation by encouraging people to bridge disciplines, offer new ideas, and test different angles.

This mindset is foundational to every high-performing, rewarding team that I’ve been on. Most recently at Asurion, during a recent year-long effort to drive messaging volume, my team reached a place where we were slowing down and struggling to sustain engagement. To rebuild momentum, we created space to explore how we might leverage a few of our ideas in the smart home–a new space we were all interested in.

We balanced this with our primary initiative, as it wasn’t immediately evident how it would fit in or what was technically feasible. But a few weeks later, we finished building out an Alexa skill which allowed customers to speak with our messaging experts asynchronously via text to speech.

We were able to create something entirely new with the capacity to change how our customers interacted with us. But even if we failed and came out with nothing to show for it, the change of pace held value of its own. It allowed us to reenergize and refocus.

What mattered most was that we gave ourselves space to explore.

There won't always be a one-to-one translation between what you’re exploring and the objective you’re working towards. Sometimes pursuing an idea out of a sense of wonder, is reason enough.

Engaging your curiosity and creativity will help expand your perspective and build momentum. Allow yourself to be distracted from time to time and follow the random ideas that strike your interest, regardless of where they lead.

The most brilliant minds throughout history infused their work with a wandering sense of curiosity.

Leonardo da Vinci embodied this better than anyone else. His entire life followed a series of digressions from his career as an artist.

Leonardo allowed himself to be distracted and seek knowledge for its own sake. This led him to study human anatomy, conduct dozens of dissections, create schemes to divert rivers, choreograph pageants, investigate the flight of birds, and create diagrams of technical innovations such as human flight machines.

Some consider this to be a lack of discipline, which only served to pull him away from more important work. But when you study his life in its entirety, you begin to see how these detours helped shape and inform his art. His obsession with human anatomy, for instance, helped him breathe life into the finest details of his paintings, as he worked from the inside out.

As for the more fantastical detours, such as schematics for flying machines or giant crossbows, I doubt Leonardo would consider this wasted time. It was a channel for his relentless curiosity and creativity–the very things that made him who he was, and a source of pure fulfillment.

Creativity and curiosity are the building blocks of engagement.

Everyone needs space to wander, much like Leonardo, and explore new technology, ideas, and interests. Otherwise, you’ll miss the opportunity to piece together your own insights.

Do you want a team of lemmings going through the motions? Or would you rather have a team that’s imaginative, engaged, and curious?

That’s the difference between driving your team into the ground with a relentless focus on productivity and allowing them breathing room to channel their own creativity.

Your first responsibility is to the people immediately surrounding you–not the product, goals, or traditional measures of productivity. You’ll achieve more in the long run when you have morale, engagement, and innovation on your side.