The Answer to Engaging Your People May Lie in a 2,200-Year-Old Story

The great Archimedes (287–212 BCE), one of the world’s finest mathematicians, was a person before his time. Not only did he invent integral calculus and figure the approximate value of π (pi) he is also said to be the father of the machine age by discovering and putting to use the properties of levers and pulleys.

In a letter to his friend, King Hieron of Syracuse, Archimedes said, “Give me a place to stand and I will move the world.” The king took him up on this claim and had the largest merchant ship of the age, the Syracusia, deliberately beached by a team of thousands of people and horses and fully loaded with cargo. For days they struggled and strained to ground the giant vessel. Then the king challenged Archimedes to move the ship back into the water by himself.

The story goes that Archimedes attached to the ship a complex machine made of levers and pulleys and, sitting at some distance from the port, gently pulled a rope through the machine. To the amazement of the king, the ship moved in a straight line back into the water. By applying the principle of leverage, Archimedes alone did the work of thousands.

Given enough support, any human being has virtually limitless power. Each person in your organization is unique and has an irreplaceable set of gifts, talents, skills, and passions that cannot be found anywhere else. Too many leaders have the pernicious paradigm that people are interchangeable, that one worker equals another, that they can easily replace one person with another person. They see a person as an asset, like a computer or a tractor or a robot, easily traded on the market.

It’s common in business to speak of people as assets (although they’re considered expenses on the income statement), and leaders often toss out the dull cliché that “our people are our most important assets.” But people are not assets. Assets are something that you own, like a machine.

Too many leaders treat people like machines. You can buy a car, fuel it, wash it occasionally, and take it in once a year for scheduled maintenance and keep it running without much thought. If something goes wrong, you can get it fixed or trade it in for a new one. Often leaders do the same with people: they pay a worker and bring her in once a year for a performance review to make sure she is “doing what it takes” to achieve the organization’s productivity goals. If something goes wrong, they get her fixed (“send her over to HR”) or trade her in for a new one. The leader shakes her head, wondering why that employee is not as excited or motivated as she to give a little “extra effort.”

The old industrial paradigm that an employee is an interchangeable cog in the machine is the most important reason why people are disengaged in the workplace, refusing to give the “extra effort.” That’s why the most important job to be done now is to replace that paradigm with a new paradigm: That every person is uniquely powerful. Your job as a leader is to unleash that power.

For years now, the mantra of leaders has been “do more with less.” Cut costs, leverage assets, maximize efficiencies—and it’s a good paradigm, as everyone knows. The problem is, it isn’t sufficient anymore. Some leaders even use that mantra to abuse people, loading more and more work on them without giving them the right kind of support. More often, leaders simply don’t understand the principle of leverage. Remember Archimedes: One person has virtually limitless power, given the right mindset, the right tools, and the right place to stand.

The job used to be . . . do more with less.

The job that you must do now . . . unleash people to choose to do infinitely more than you imagined they could

The new mantra is this: “Unleash people and they will choose to do infinitely more than you ever imagined they could.”

Four Steps to Get You Started

One of the best places to start to unleash potential is in throws of your day-to-day work. You don’t have to wait until the ‘right time’ – there will never be the ‘right time’ – you can start now!

Step 1

Make a list of all the things you do during a typical work week. All of them. Don’t forget email inboxes, papers that need attention, social media updates, phone calls to return, people requiring attention.

Step 2

Draw four boxes that look like this. Label the boxes as indicated.

Step 3

Drop each action item from your list into one of the four boxes as indicated. Then follow these recommendations:

Block 1 – Important and urgent things, like putting out fires, taking care of emergencies, meeting close deadlines, etc.

Do them and then analyze how to prevent them in the future. If you are honest, you will see that many of the things in quadrant 1 could have been avoided if you had prepared for them.

Block 2 – Important but not urgent things, like planning your time, working on long-term goals, continuous improvement, preventing future crises, reading and learning.

Focus your best time and energies here. If you do, you will have plenty of time for the things that really matter.

Block 3 – Unimportant things that are urgent, like some requests from other people, meetings you’ve been invited to but don’t really need to attend, etc.

Say no when possible to these things. A lot of what people ask you to do might not contribute at all to your top goals and personal priorities—and might even be better handled by someone else.

Block 4 – Unimportant things that are not urgent, excessive behavior.

Hold yourself accountable to these things. Don’t let relaxation or break time turn into excess, taking away from more important outcomes.

When you identified the activities in the four boxes, did you limit your responses to “work activities” only? Go back and list all your other activities in your personal and family life as well.

Step 4

Invite your team to go through this exercise. Ask: “What are we doing in boxes 3 and 4 that we shouldn’t be doing at all? What are the things in box 1 that we wouldn’t have to do if we did better preparation work? What are the things in box 2 that we should focus on?”


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