Most often attributed to the Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffet, the phrase “skin in the game” probably originated in a California newspaper in the summer of 1912.
Regardless of origin, the phase has been quoted millions of times in baseball dugouts, football huddles, board rooms and corporate meeting rooms. One of the more famous recent uses of the phrase came from Barrack Obama prior to his being sworn in as president of the United States. The president-elect was describing the shared sacrifice needed by all Americans to resurrect the economy.
“Skin in the game” is used to describe commitment and participation in any activity. It is especially descriptive of the difference between someone who is fully invested in an activity compared to those who are passive spectators. It might be money invested, time spent or actual skin shred on an athletic field, “skin in the game” is a very descriptive phrase that is more powerful than “buy in” or “commitment.”
I have had the privilege of spending a significant amount of time with an executive in the convention services industry. Her favorite take on “skin in the game” is “are you interested or are you invested?” Highlighting the difference between true commitment to a task, project or issue, “interested or invested” challenges people to check their level of commitment. Beyond buy-in and even more business relevant than “skin in the game”, “interested or invested” is a great self-check in anything in which you claim to be committed.
When examining interested, you see people that probably talk a good game. They express their commitment to others and they will argue tooth and nail about their level of commitment. Unfortunately, when you scratch the surface a little, you realize their commitment level is nothing but talk and their involvement beyond the minimum requirement is nonexistent. There is no initiative and there certainly is no subordination of self-interest for the good of the organization.
An interim step between interest and invested could best be described as involved. Involvement is different from investment because of the emotional commitment required. Involvement looks a great deal like fully engaged team members because those team members are in motion and action is occurring. Work gets done, extra labor is applied, time is spent but it is still not at full investment. Involvement is action without commitment. It is better than being interested but can still be fleeting because there is no real emotional commitment. It is the living together of work commitment level.
Invested is when a team member gives of themselves, commits their own time and resources and is really committed to the direction, mission and vision of the organization. That is the team member that asks what needs to be done and not “what’s in it for me”. It is the team member that works to get something done without inquiry about overtime. It is the team member that is becoming a business partner and moving away from being an employee. Not that compensation should ever be ignored but it is not the most important part of the equation. Doing what’s right and what is needed is the most important part.
Invested is also about subordinating self-interest and comfort. It is truly amazing how committed some people claim to be but when their comfort is challenged, they revert back very quickly to being moderately interested. How invested would you be if that investment meant taking a pay cut? How about downsizing your office? How about requiring more work at the same level of compensation? Those are some of the litmus tests for true investment compared to interested or even involved.
To improve the investment level of your team and even yourself, consider the following steps:
- Increase Participation
Seek out, solicit and allow more team member participation in key decisions, organizational direction and daily operations. Nothing builds team member investment like participation.
- Increase Honest Communication
Share successes and challenges with team members. When they are seeing both the good and the challenging, they are more likely to respond with higher commitment.
- Utilize Personal Loyalty
If you did your job as leader and built solid relationships with team members, you can now capitalize on those relationships to increase investment and move them out of interest.
- Don’t Judge Others Based on Your Investment
People arrive at the investment stage at different times and at different paces. You might have achieved near instant investment and it may even be a part of your DNA. Don’t be too anxious to judge others if they are more hesitant or reluctant to move that quickly. They may have been burned by a bad boss. They may have been swallowed in a corporate takeover after providing a high level of commitment. Encourage them but let them arrive at investment at their own pace.