I’ve been trying to teach my 5 ½ year old son to play tennis. Our typical session has been short – usually less than 10 minutes – so progress has come in fits and starts. Last week, I could tell he was starting to lose interest in our standard drill: me standing 5 feet away from him, bouncing the ball to him for him to hit.
So we invented a new game: I moved across the net, stood at the service line, and hit balls to him at the other service line. Each time he connected with the ball he got a point. Each time he missed entirely, I got a point. Then we spiced things up: each time he hit the ball over the net and hit it in the court, he got two points.
This was a big deal. Suddenly, his waning attention transformed into pointed questions about the rules and the point system. He decided he wanted to get to 100 points and he began angling for a lot of things to count for 2 points – a ball that first bounced on his side or a ball that landed in the doubles alley, for example.
Interesting. I had created an arbitrary system with an arbitrary set of rules (which I made up as I went along). But in his eyes, it was my job to define the rules of the game, and he’d decided he wanted to win at this game. I had suddenly become judge and jury on allocating something that was free for me to give out and mattered a lot to him. Needless to say, he got a lot of free two-pointers (final score of game 1: he trounced me 137-37).
Seem like a far flung example? It strikes me that this tennis court parable is an awful lot like work environments, where managers create (inadvertently or not) point systems that are no less arbitrary than the one I created on the tennis court. These points aren’t just about money, they’re about attention and opportunities and consultation and respect. What’s valued and sought after will vary depending on the culture of your organization. But you can be sure that, to anyone who values the work they do, the currency your culture trades in matters to them.
It was unbelievably easy for me to be generous with my son in giving out points. What about at work? If you have the respect of your colleagues and peers, then they’re watching you just as closely, and once the rules of the game are defined, you have the option of being generous or stingy in giving “points,” not just to people who work for you, but for peers and even for supervisors. It’s something everybody values, and cultivating your own genuineness and generosity here is one of the easiest ways to motivate, energize and inspire those you hope to lead.
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