You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.

John Kabat-Zinn, Director, Stress Reduction Clinic


When an individual’s arousal level is low, performance is also low. That’s when you get ‘presenteeism’, a well documented workplace phenomenon covering a wide range of less than peak productive behaviours. The mind and body aren’t energised or prepared to face the demands of performance.  This may look like someone who is over-tired, hungry, unmotivated, distracted, without goals – going through the motions, in other words.

“Presenteeism” comes about when, for some reason or another, employees are disatisfied with their organisation, the role they are in, or their leader .  Unlike absenteeism, “presenteeism” means that employees are  turning up and might outwardly seem ‘busy’. However, they might as well have stayed at home, since they are mentally absent. They are just filling their time with as much as busy-work as possible to still get paid.  And this shows in overall organisational productivity.

So what causes “presenteeism”?  Any number of things, of course. Perhaps a leader has unconsciously disengaged a team member by a behaviour or a less-than-empathetic communication style. Perhaps the leader hasn’t learned enough about the learning and working preferences of each staff member and is attempting a one-size-fits-all approach.

Or perhaps there is something more subtle at play. Time and again, I’ve seen complacency take over in a workplace.  I’ve realised that if employees don’t have stretch goals to achieve, they are less likely to be engaged at all levels.

Your team wants to be challenged, and they want to be excited to come to work every day. Everyone loves to have tasks that make their minds come alive. There is a flip side to this, though, because certain personality types will thrive with big challenges and others will be overwhelmed.  It’s important to ensure that what you are asking is not impossible. When you task your team as a whole or individual team members to complete what they perceive as an impossible challenge, you’ll get the opposite reaction of what you’re looking for.

Building on the previous Pillars in Training, Learn Their Learning Style, once you have a profile for each team member, you’ll knowing what their strengths are and you can offer and adapt challenges to suit them individually. Then, you can challenge your team in such a way that each member is able to perform optimally.



High performance comes about when an individual is suitably challenged and motivated (arousal) and the challenge matches their skills and abilities (performance). Give someone a job they aren’t equipped to fulfil, and they won’t succeed. Give someone a job they are overly equipped to fulfil and they may not have enough motivation to get the job done.


Encourage your team to challenge you…

In “Every Leader Needs a Challenger in Chief”, a recent article for HBR, Noreena Hertz, writes:
We’re all drawn to people who repeat back to us what we already believe. But dissent, not consensus, leads to smarter decisions. Still, few leaders actively seek out challenging opinions. Are you clearly signaling to your team that you want to hear views different than your own? When people are encouraged to express divergent opinions, they share more information, reconsider assumptions, identify creative alternatives, and alert you to errors. Let your team know you welcome their opinions even—especially—if they differ from yours. Or take it a step further: Enlist a trusted Challenger in Chief to interrogate you about the decisions you’re making, inviting you to rethink, contradict, or even refute your position.
In this way you are living the change you want to see in your workplace.

…then, give them challenge

  • Speak Encouragement — It’s easy to assume this – to overlook speaking encouragement. Speak it and speak it often. When you see improvement, share it with someone. When you see the slightest good, celebrate it like it’s party time. Seriously. Go over and above to breathe encouragement to your team. Trust me, they are listening.
  • Give Them Opportunity — If you want to raise others up, you need to have high expectations for them. Challenge them to do things they don’t think they can do. Don’t just speak it, give them opportunity to do it. Oftentimes this is exactly what they need to move to the next level. They need to be given a chance. There is risk involved here. You may be able do it better, more quickly and more efficiently, and with less stress. But if you’re always the guy on the front lines, how will anyone else learn to do it?
  • Love What You Do — People who are passionate about what they do are defined by something. There’s a quality about them that attracts others. If you don’t love what you do, you won’t attract great people.
  • Communicate Vision — No one will rise up and reach their highest potential under a safe, boring leader. If all you communicate is manageable, easy goals, you’ll lose the imagination of your team. Present a compelling, captivating story to them. Dream big. Communicate big. Lead your team to do great things.