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Stop Trying to Motivate Your Employees

I told Ryan as we settled down at our table at Chick Fil A. Ryan is a general manager of a fast growing small business in Atlanta. He had contacted me a week ago to ask for help in motivating his under-performing employees. 

“Nothing seems to be working” he said in a frustrated tone. “They show up late, don’t follow rules, and at times just don’t seem to care.”

This sounds very familiar I thought as I listened. I hear this very often from many of my clients as they try to manage their teams.

“We’ve tried giving them more money” Ryan said. “Even had more meetings” he shared. “Nothing seems to be working”.

Ryan did not want to hear what I was about to say. 

“You are not responsible for your employee’s motivation.” I stated boldly.

Ryan looked at me with a confused stare. “I’m not?” he responded.

No, your employees are responsible for their own motivation” I shared.

This makes sense if you consider that despite amazing progress in science the past hundred years leaders have yet to figure out how to somehow find a way thru the skulls of our employees and then manipulate the workings of their brains to cause them to feel more motivated. Not humanly possible.

Hence, we are all responsible for our own attitudes which include self-motivation.

Very simple thought with terribly complicated implications for leaders.

“Ryan, are you still with me?” He seemed to be just catching his breath from my last statement. He seemed both elated with the idea that he was not to be held responsible for his employee’s motivation and confused as to how to move forward.

“That’s the good news Ryan” I said.

“The bad news is that you are responsible for three important factors that can have a dramatic impact on the collective motivation of your team.”

I then explained the following.

#1. You are responsible for hiring workers that are self-motivated. Since we now know that we can’t motivate them ourselves, it just makes sense that we must instead look for talent that already have high levels of self-motivation. A significant part of the interview process must focus on the level of self-motivation of the candidate.

#2. We must create a work environment that supports highly self-motivated workers. In his best-selling book on motivation “Drive”, Daniel Pink tells us that the three drivers of motivation are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Autonomy means giving our employees the independence they need to operate effectively. Mastery is giving employees opportunities for professional growth. Purpose is making sure your organization has a powerful “why”. A reason for being.  Provide heavy doses of each of these three factors and watch your employee’s motivation grow exponentially.

#3. Eliminate the de-motivators. This must come first. Before any employee can feel motivated, we must eliminate any inherent work elements that might cause them to feel de-motivated.

The best example is money. Money is not a motivator. Never has been. Show me someone who does a celebratory dance when they receive their bi-weekly paycheck. Doesn’t happen. What happens if there is no paycheck or if it is delayed? Employee motivation will plummet. Lack of money can be a significant de-motivator. The key is to take money off the table for employees as a concern.

Other examples of de-motivators can be technology not performing as expecting, difficult work conditions (hot, cold, crappy furniture etc.), and being surrounded by under-performing terrorist-like employees.

If the leader can master all three of these areas, you will find yourself surrounded by highly motivated employees and there will be a long waiting list of like-minded applicants waiting to get in. Examples of this include Chick-Fil-A, Quik Trip, and Zappos.

Okay, I think I got it” said Ryan with a more positive look on his face than he had when we started.

I could see Ryan needed more time to digest this new found knowledge. This was going to be a paradigm shift for him just as it has been for others. And yet much easier to understand than to put into practice in a small business.But than what other options do you have? 

Turn the Ship Around! A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders

David Marquette, an experienced Navy officer, was used to giving orders. As newly appointed captain of the USS Santa Fe, a nuclear-powered submarine, he was responsible for more than a hundred sailors. In this high-stress environment, where there is no margin for error, it was crucial his men did their job and did it well. But the ship was dogged by poor morale, poor performance, and the worst retention in the fleet.

Marquette acted like any other captain until, one day, he unknowingly gave an impossible order, and his crew tried to follow it anyway. When he asked why the order wasn’t challenged, the answer was “Because you told me to.” Marquette realized he was leading in a culture of followers, and they were all in danger unless they fundamentally changed the way they did things.

That’s when Marquette took matters into his own hands and pushed for leadership at every level. Turn the Ship Around! is the true story of how the Santa Fe skyrocketed from worst to first in the fleet by challenging the U.S. Navy’s traditional leader-follower approach. Struggling against his own instincts to take control, he instead achieved the vastly more powerful model of giving control.

Before long, each member of Marquet’s crew became a leader and assumed responsibility for everything he did, from clerical tasks to crucial combat decisions. The crew became fully engaged, contributing their full intellectual capacity every day, and the Santa Fe started winning awards and promoting a highly disproportionate number of officers to submarine command.

No matter your business or position, you can apply Marquet’s radical guidelines to turn your own ship around. The payoff: a workplace where everyone around you is taking responsibility for their actions, where people are healthier and happier, where everyone is a leader.

I highly recommend this book.

IPIP-NEO Behavioral Assessment 

This is a free on-line behavioral assessment that measures you on five personality traits. It takes 10-15 minutes. Very interesting report follows the assessment.