“I don’t know what’s wrong with the workforce today,” the manager said. “They just don’t seem to have any initiative.”

I know management said that about us 30 years ago, but many of my peers are saying the same thing about the workforce today. With so many “lazy” people in the workforce, it’s amazing we get anything done — yet we do.

Frankly, I don’t know if I believe the workforce is any less motivated today than my generation was 30 years ago (or the generation before us, for that matter). I’m the geezer in an organization filled with young people. All of them are highly motivated and engaged. What’s more, over the years I’ve met very few people who consciously want to be mediocre. Even fewer want to fail. And that’s every bit as true of today’s workforce as it was 30, 60 or even 100 years ago.

Most of the time when the workforce fails, it’s our fault as leaders.

I don’t think it matters if you’re the CEO of a multi-national enterprise or the owner of a Main Street business; part of your job is to create an environment that invites initiative and encourages engagement. If you don’t believe that, maybe running a business isn’t such a good idea for you.

I’ve owned and worked in small businesses my entire working career. I’m convinced that the leaders who are the most successful at achieving these objectives share some common traits:

They are able to help people understand how what they are doing is important. Most people want to be a part of something meaningful. Most of us will never cure cancer, put a man on Mars or figure out how to end world hunger. Nevertheless, it’s in our very nature to do something that matters. Those business leaders and entrepreneurs who are successful at helping people understand how what they’re doing is meaningful find that those who want to be part of their organizations show initiative, engage in their work and perform at a higher level. Part of the reason I’m at Lendio is because I believe in our mission. My colleagues and I believe we’re doing something meaningful to help small businesses and fuel the American economy.

They empower people to make decisions about how they do their job and who they do it with. It might even sound counter-intuitive, but those closest to the work really do understand it the best and should be empowered to directly impact how they do it. A couple of years ago I was in Tokyo visiting a Casio manufacturing plant. On the wall of the conference room in Japanese kanji was the phrase, “Mainichi Kanzen,” or “Everyday Continuous Improvement.” The employees at Casio were empowered, and encouraged, to ask questions, fix broken processes and make their products better. I’m sure this causes headaches for their managers when employees point out failed processes, but they understand that people want to be exceptional and make exceptional products. This type of environment invites initiative.

They recognize accomplishments and celebrate the victories. I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t appreciate it when they are recognized for exceptional work. If the only time an employee hears from the boss is when they’re on the “hot seat,” we don’t get their best work. What’s more, when peers are also encouraged to recognize accomplishments, acknowledge team players and reward exceptional effort, it fosters an environment where people are engaged and looking for ways to make a difference. At Lendio, every month we have a formalized process where employees are encouraged to point out colleagues who have gone above and beyond. Our CEO even puts his money where his mouth is and financially rewards the employees recognized by their peers. As a result, employees are mindful and aware when someone steps up — they don’t take their colleagues for granted.

I have a friend who works part-time for the Jazz on game day. He’s a PR professional and the Jazz isn’t his full-time gig — he just enjoys working with the team, he feels what he does is meaningful and it’s satisfying to him (I’m sure catching a glimpse of every home game doesn’t hurt, either). Jeremy works with the Jazz PR team making sure the media there to cover the game have everything they need, coordinating interviews with the players and the coaches, and making sure both the Jazz and the visiting teams have up-to-date statistics during games.

He let slip one time that he was cleaning the tables the media sit at one night before the game and I asked him, “Why are you doing that? Isn’t there a cleaning staff?” He said they were busy at the time and he wanted to make sure everything was ready before the press started to arrive. I don’t know if anything had actually been spoken verbally, but somehow he feels empowered to do his job on game nights the best he can. And, if that means cleaning the tables or emptying the trash, that’s what he’s gonna do. What a great example of an engaged employee with some initiative.

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To be honest, I don’t know if it’s him or the way the Jazz organization works with him, but don’t we want all of our employees to feel the same way about what they do? If so, it’s really up to us. We can’t rely on whether or not it comes natural to our employees, but we can create the type of environment where we invite initiative and encourage engagement.

As a Main Street business evangelist and marketing veteran with more than 25 years in the trenches, Ty Kiisel writes about leading people and small-business issues for Lendio (lendio.com).