We’ve all heard about the shortcomings of millennials, so widespread throughout the Internet and social media. Chief among them?
Millennials lacking initiative.
But this article isn’t just about millennials.
A common complaint is millennials won’t do anything if they’re not asked, or that they would rather find a way out than a way through.
More experienced managers complain that, after assigning millennials to a task, they’re inundated with a million questions as if they’re incapable of doing anything on their own.
But this article isn’t just about millennials.
It’s about what to do if you have mindsets that need to change within your workforce, and you’re willing to make it a long-term goal to improve these mindsets.
Specifically, when your workforce seems to have an issue taking initiative. You need your employees to be more self-directed self-starters.
Here’s a quote. I’ll give you context in a moment, but first, just read the quote.
“We were seeing much weaker applicants. A lot of these kids didn’t just need discipline, they needed a mental makeover. They’d never belonged to a sports team, they’d never had a real job, they’d never done anything. They didn’t even have the vocabulary for ambition. They’d followed instructions their whole life.”
Is that a senior manager describing his unmotivated employees? An HR Director bemoaning the dearth of applicants?
That was General Charles C. Krulak describing new recruits to the U.S. Marine Corps.
When people are just told what to do their entire lives, it doesn’t lead to much of a feeling that they have control over their lives. That is what we call Locus of Control.
People with an Internal Locus of Control believe they control the course of their lives.
People with an External Locus of Control believe their lives are governed by forces outside their control.
So, your unmotivated employees? They’re probably an External - along for the ride because, in the end, they don’t control what happens to them.
General Krulak had to implement changes into the Marine Corps Basic Training. While much of their changes have been unpublished, Locus of Control researchers have published many similar methods.
You want your employees to be Biased Toward Action - capable of taking action when needed, believing that they can, and inclined to do something over doing nothing.
That’s what the Marine Corps wanted, and that’s what you want, too: a Bias Toward Action. Here’s how:
1. Forced Decision Making
In his book, “Smarter, Better, Faster,” Charles Duhigg interviewed General Krulak and a marine recruit. The recruit described a scenario where he and his other recruits were led into a mess hall kitchen, uncleaned from the worst of its post-lunch frenzy.
The recruits were told to clean it.
They were given no guidance or instruction. They had to work together, collaboratively, toward the end. They were forced to make decisions on how to complete unfamiliar tasks.
Now, you don’t necessarily need to set your employees off like this on every single task. This is an exercise that leads to a Bias Toward Action. If you’re not ready to trust your employees to complete essential work like this just yet, that’s absolutely fine. Find inconsequential, unfamiliar, collaborative tasks, and make it an exercise.
Make forced decision making routine, and you’ll find your employees taking more initiative when it counts.
2. Never Praise Natural Abilities
“You’re such a good leader!”
“You’re a natural.”
Those are nice things to say to people. They may even be true. But they reinforce an external locus of control.
If someone has a natural talent, if it’s something they were born with, then it’s not something that’s under their control. Someone may have fantastic natural abilities that are a true asset, and that’s great! But, if we’re trying to teach an internal locus of control, it’s not a good idea to praise people for something they didn’t control.
Instead, praise accomplishments, especially if those accomplishments took work. Give praise to an employee when they had control over a situation and used it well.
Praise accomplishments, not abilities.
3. Correlate Effort with Results
This goes along with #2. Externals don’t believe the choices they make can have an influence over what happens to them. So, find opportunities to show them.
When working on a project, you can point out that, “Because you took the time to review those numbers, you found a mistake. Because you pointed out the mistake and let us fix it, you saved us a thousand dollars and a week of work.”
As often as possible, find opportunities to show Externals how their actions influenced the result.
4. Confront External Statements
Externals may say something like, “I’ll never be able to do that.” That’s definitely an External statement - no matter what they do, they’ll never be able to do it.
Internals would say something like, “If I work on one piece at a time, I’ll eventually get it.”
In your interactions with employees, take notice of External-type statements they may make, and be ready to offer a reframed way of thinking. This may just be around the office, or you may need to make it a more in-depth part of your coaching with your employees.
If your employees say an External-type statement, offer them an Internal replacement. Also, praise employees for using Internal-type language.
5. Generate Choices
If you’re reading this, it may be because you’re frustrated that your employees aren’t generating their own choices. That’s not necessarily what you’re being asked to do here.
If you have employees who are never sure how to make choices, using past scenarios as an example may help. In your coaching with them, take a look at a past situation - when they struggled to write a cover letter for a grant application, for example.
Brainstorm with them what choices they may have been able to make. Could they have researched other cover letters? Could they have asked for examples from past applications? Could they have written a draft and shared it with a more experienced professional?
Often, Externals will have frequently occurring themes of stressful situations in their lives. Sit with them, isolate one, and make a list of other possible choices for that situation.
Defer judgement and don’t focus on how the choice might work out. Just brainstorm different outcomes.
Our minds are often rigid in their thinking, especially with Externals. This sort of exercise frees our minds and prepares us for the possibility of change.
6. Formulate Small, Realistic Goals
While coaching your External employees, set goals, but take care to ensure they’re not broad, unachievable goals, like, “I will double my sales closings in one month.” Failing in such a goal will probably reinforce the notion that they’re not in control of their destiny.
Instead, set small, realistic goals in short timeframes that they can achieve. Then, praise accomplishment and show correlation between effort and achievement.
7. Write in a Journal from Both Perspectives
This may seem extreme, but if you have employees who really struggle with Internal-type thinking, this is a good exercise.
Have the employees write a journal entry on a recent stressor, and then pinpoint the External-type statements. Then, have them rewrite the same scenario, but from the perspective of an Internal, and compare.
This highlights the difference in thinking between Internals and Externals, but, more importantly, gives them an opportunity to think like an Internal, which may be a good step.
8. Cooperate, not Compete
“The right wing and the left wing are part of the same bird,” or so the proverb goes.
Many studies conclude that when Externals face competition, they shut down. After all, if other people are better than them, why try?
Instead, find opportunities to offer up group rewards and whole group progress, rather than singling out the individuals. If the Externals believe they can make a contribution, that leads to more Internal-type thinking. If they are singled out and shown that they’re not the best - or even bad - then most Externals won’t see the point in trying.
This article is titled “The Long-term Solution.” Locus of Control is a deeply ingrained thought process. This is not a simple phenomenon and cannot be changed by a few, undemanding tasks. It will require consistent coaching. It will probably require even coaching the coaches - teaching team leaders and managers how to look out for Externals and how to coach them.
With long-term coaching, you teach your employees to be biased toward action. That’s something that takes the Marine Corps 13 weeks of basic training to accomplish.
At Conjunction Media, we’re not just about the media, we’re also about the teaching. You can teach your employees an Internal Locus of Control, and we can help.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org and ask your questions about Locus of Control, and see how we can help!