For technology professionals operating in today’s fast-moving world, few questions are as critical to answer as this: How do I motivate and inspire my team members to be their best?

At the SAP for Utilities, Presented by ASUG conference (Oct. 9-11; in Chicago, IL), attendees heard from Mel Robbins, internationally recognized host of “The Mel Robbins Podcast” and the New York Times bestselling author of The Five Second Rule and The High Five Habit, who believes that motivation starts with the individual.

Also known for her TEDx talk, “How to Stop Screwing Yourself Over,” Robbins maintains that one secret to success can be learned through a psychological trick she uncovered at one of her lowest moments: If you have an instinct to act on a goal, you have to do so in five seconds, before your brain kills that instinct. To break the cycle of procrastination, Robbins told attendees, “Just start counting backward—5, 4, 3, 2, 1—then move.”

Intended to disrupt familiar patterns of behavior, this method is central to Robbins’ work; the science behind it is compelling, as the countdown helps to activate one’s prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain in charge of decision-making and strategic thinking. Applied in the world of business, the 5 Second Rule can be used to retain focus, overcome self-doubt, and keep moving through times of burnout and complex organizational challenges.

Robbins sat down with ASUG to discuss the difficulties of business transformation, the top challenges identified by our members in Pulse of the SAP Customer research, and one simple habit of effective leaders that she says will help them to attract and retain skilled talent.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

ASUG: We’re committed to helping our members tackle challenges that organizations face—these are large, complex, multi-year business initiatives. What approach do you advise to tackling transformations at that scale?

Mel Robbins: Talking about transformation on this level, you’re talking about turning a cruise ship around in a parking lot. It’s slow-moving, with tons of people involved and a need for consensus building. You feel like you move forward an inch, then back a foot; it can be very frustrating when change operates like that, which is why you can’t rely on motivation.

Change needs to be a strategic, intentional decision, like crossing a bridge. The change you’re talking about doesn’t happen overnight; it happens over time. And visualizing yourself on a bridge when you want to drive change in a large organization or industry can be very helpful. You can locate yourself in an experience that can take a long time; you cross a bridge to go from one place to another, and if you’re on a bridge on a cloudy day in San Francisco, you can’t see the other side. Reminding yourself that you’re on the bridge allows you to wake up every day and put one foot in front of the other, so that you can continue the momentum while you’re still in your current role. That’s the key to multi-year transformation.

Also, your own frustration about the issues you face is the single biggest obstacle to you solving them. For example, getting frustrated about how difficult it is to attract and retain staff that has the skills you need—that resignation, complaint, and criticism, even if it’s true—activates the alarm system in your body, which interferes with the prefrontal cortex’s ability to problem-solve. We don’t talk about this enough as a business skill. Stages of stress, frustration, and overwhelm profoundly impact how you perform at work.

ASUG: As identified by our most recent Pulse research, some of our members’ top challenges are maintaining knowledgeable staff, tackling budget issues, building internal skills, and keeping up with the pace of technology changes. What’s your assessment of that set of challenges?

Robbins: When it comes to staff, there’s only one rule that everyone needs to know: people don’t leave jobs and companies. They leave bosses. If you have a problem retaining your team, you need to look in the mirror. I’ll tell you why they left: because they don’t feel appreciated. We make the profound mistake in life of assuming that everybody knows how we feel about them.

The single biggest habit you can adopt, if you care about attracting and recruiting and retaining talent, is not to manage them but to make them feel appreciated. And who is likely to know people with similar skillsets? The people that already work for you. They are likely to recommend your team if they enjoy working on your team; and people enjoy where they work if they feel like they belong, and if they feel like there’s a manager in the company who cares about them.

If you were to take on a practice related to this: make a habit of sending a text, a voice-memo, a voicemail, or an email that acknowledges somebody for a specific thing they did and why you appreciated it. If you do that every day, your team will feel different in a number of weeks, and you won’t have trouble retaining people, because they’ll feel seen and appreciated by this virtual high-five you’ve sent them.

Budget issues have more to do with your ability to advocate for the contributions you’re making. IT professionals too often make the mistake of seeing themselves or letting themselves be treated as a cost center as opposed to a really important contributor to return-on-investment (ROI). That’s more complicated, but it involves becoming more visible, packaging up contributions and fighting for a seat at the table when it matters.

In terms of keeping up with the pace of change, here’s what I’ll say: I don’t think you should. Part of the problem is that we’ve all bought into this idea that we have to run faster, and we’ve lost what’s most important to focus on: strategy. What are you doing, and why? If everything matters, nothing does. What’s the secret to keeping up with the pace of change? Don’t. Focus on strategy. You don’t have to know everything about AI in order to deploy a project that involves the best-in-class ways to utilize it, to meet your strategic objectives now. The more you feel yourself speeding up, the less you’ll focus on what actually should be happening.

ASUG: Your keynote explored how leaders can motivate themselves and their team members. What can you tell our readers about the connection between developing healthy habits and being an effective leader? 

Robbins: Simply put, the leader brings the weather. This is a common concept when it comes to management consulting and any other kind of strategic change initiative, though it doesn’t necessarily mean you are a leader by title. I personally believe every human being is a leader because a leader is someone whose actions impact other people. Your mood, energy, and disposition impact absolutely everybody. It starts with you.

This isn’t only common sense, but all the research concludes that, when it comes to effectiveness in leadership, the most important thing that leaders need to get right is to be right with themselves. You can’t be down in the dumps, depressed, and hard on yourself, and then come in and convince anybody else that you care about them, that their work matters to you, and that you’re glad to see them. One of the reasons why it’s so important to start to develop a habit that most of us don’t have—of encouraging ourselves, being positive with ourselves, and focusing on the wins—is that it impacts how you show up at work what other people pick up on.

ASUG: Finally, what role does motivation play in preparing individuals for change?

Robbins: Motivation’s never there when you need it. In fact, this is the heart of my work. Human beings love to talk about change; they hate doing it. The reason we hate changing is that our brains aren’t wired to change. Our brains are wired with a bias toward keeping things the same. The heart of my work comes down to a central fact: It is easy to know what to do. The secret is knowing how to make yourself do it.

In the traditional sense, motivation is when you feel like doing something. Transformation would be easy if we were motivated. We’d all have six-pack abs and a million dollars in the bank, if motivation was something you could dial in on-demand. If your formula for success and transformation is sitting around and waiting to feel motivated, you will lose every time.

When it comes to trying new things, you will always stop and think about whether or not you should do something in a micro-moment; and, based on the science, if you think about doing something for more than five seconds, your brain moves from a state of being present and ready to go into a state of subconscious patterns and habits.

For professionals as analytical as those who work in utilities, the thinking part is so important in your job. You have to get it right. You don’t want to blow up a city’s circuit breaker because you were moving too fast in terms of your decision-making. But if you want to change your own behavior and thinking patterns, to lean into new ideas, it’s going to require you to act differently than you do in your day-to-day job.

The first mistake everybody makes is thinking, at some point, that you’ll feel like doing it. That doesn’t happen when it comes to new things. The second thing is that you don’t have to feel like doing it, because you can learn how to hack it: how to manually switch gears between the parts of your brain that drives worrying, overthinking, analysis, paralysis, procrastination, self-doubt, imposter syndrome, all of it. You can make a five-second decision that interrupts those behaviors and helps you act, which is the only way to transform.

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