Is Your Team Treading Water?


When I was 14 I dove into synchronised swimming. It was a sport that swam quietly under the radar back then.  I wasn't very good at it but I loved it.

A crucial skill to master was the egg-beater kick, a way to tread water that freed your upper body for other important tasks, like making fancy shapes in the air. If you've ever seen the impossibly wide smiles of a synchronised swimmer as she or he madly beats their legs under the surface, you may have concluded they were working hard for a disproportionate return.

The eggbeater, cleverly though, has two uses - it can be very handy to stay comfortably afloat, or it can be used to propel fellow synchro swimmers out of the water. 

Just as the eggbeater has two gears, so too your team are either comfortable treading water or deliberately focused forward with intentional action. The act may look suspiciously the same, it's still the eggbeater, but there's a big difference between being busy and being focused.


Being focused mindset:
- clarity of outcome
- responsibility to process
- confidence to innovate
- safe to say "I don't know yet"
- agility to adapt without forgoing commitment to the result.

Being busy mindset:
- at the affect of circumstances
- language of drama and justification
- avoiding clarity in results
- believing if others were different, things would be better or easier.

There's no denying busy is part of our day to day life, but if a busy mindset becomes a chronic condition, your team might look like they're moving when in fact they're comfortably treading water.

Keeping people focused on the right things is a common challenge for leaders and managers because of the multi-layered pressures on their people, but also because a busy mindset:

- Means we can keep doing what's known and comfortable rather than what may be unfamiliar but needed.
- Feels productive as we tick urgent things off our list.
- Is much safer than challenging the status quo and risk being judged a fool.


If you suspect your people might be being busy rather than focused, here are a few suggestions to inspire them toward intentional and courageous thinking and action:

1. Every quarter, review with each team member their top priorities so you can both can ensure their work is aligned with business strategy. I call these priorities High Payoff Activities (HPA's), credit to Paul J. Meyer, who explains that 80% of our time should be invested in our top 5 or 6 HPA's. This gives your people a lighthouse to guide them in their decision making when faced with conflicting priorities.

2. Have regular 1 on 1's with each of your team - surprising how we know this but in reality it's the first thing to be rescheduled when we get squeezed. During your 1 on 1's, agree clear expectations for the week / month / quarter ahead (in line with the HPA's) and ask your team member what could get in the way of fulfilling on these expectations. Dig for the possible obstacles and help them think creatively about how they will move through them. When people feel safe to acknowledge there will be challenges ahead, they will feel more empowered to come to you with their ideas when things go off track.

3. Be inspired first. If you're not inspired about what you want your people to focus on and why, it's unlikely they will be. Sure, we've all got a job to get on with, but a lack-lustre, distracted conversation with you where it's obvious you're thinking of the next thing, will result in less than ideal results.

4. Understand what drives each of your people, what inspires them to want to contribute more - then find something within the outcomes you want them to focus on, that speaks to that natural inspiration. Match the pathway to what matters most to them.


Coaching a highly driven CEO recently who was engaged to turn the business around, she shared with me that she hadn't heard any ideas from a few of her people in the two years she'd been there. After implementing the tools from the coaching, she realised that in her haste she was always quick to fill the silence, she didn't allow space for people with different communication styles to include themselves in the conversation, and therefore she assumed they didn't want to offer anything or didn't have anything of value to contribute.

As a result the business was missing out on their highly experienced ideas. When this leader invested a little more time, care and appreciation in her people in the ways that connected with what was important to them, they were inspired out of their comfortable busy-ness and eager to contribute in new ways.

5. Everyone wants to learn, grow and do well. Even those in your team you think have given up. Our job as leaders is to be all-in with our people, believe in them beyond their belief in themselves and learn how to elicit their best.


When our teams look busy, it's usually because they are, and it can be tempting to leave them to their own devices because we're busy too and no-one wants to be micro-managed. But even though the signs above the surface look like things are moving, results may not be gaining ground in the way their hard work implies they should.

Underneath the surface people may be unsure how to change direction, doubting themselves in a new role, fearful of making an approach across functions or resentful because they feel they always give more than they receive.

The privilege of leadership requires us to look below the surface and find out if our people have become comfortable treading water or they're prepared, inspired and ready to launch.