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DON'T motivate your employees, but...

John Roulet, Forbes | May 20, 2009


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How do I motivate my staff? That question seems to baffle most business leaders. Motivating people seems to be more elusive than almost any other aspect of management. For that reason there are countless articles and classes devoted to it.

But, in reality, the strongest business leaders don't motivate their employees.

That's right, as a business leader, your job is not to motivate. That may sound blasphemous to you. After all, the leadership paradigm that evolved in the late 20th century tirelessly promoted the belief that motivating the workforce was essential to great leadership.

Humans come naturally to hard work and sacrifice; these traits are essential to the survival of our species. Evolution has hardwired us with the desire to do quality work. You may view motivating employees to be a critical aspect of your job, but have you ever had an employee express the need to be motivated? Do you need a boss to motivate you to do your job? Unless you're a very unusual person, your answer to both questions is no. You can be certain that most employees feel the same.

If an employee is truly unmotivated, it's probably time to take him off the payroll. Meanwhile, the critical issue isn't how to motivate but, rather, how to keep people from becoming demotivated. And the strongest business leaders understand this distinction.

An employee typically begins a new job excited to be part of the team and pleased to be making a living. Those who promote the need to motivate would certainly agree with that, but they also seem to believe that something must change over time, making it necessary to "remotivate." This, however, should be unnecessary. Our species' fundamental desire to do quality work does not change.

The common problem facing employees at all levels is not their own motivation. It is work environments that demotivate.

When work environments consistently fail to provide the direction, resources and respect employees require, their innate desire to achieve is suppressed or redirected. They experience frustration and a kind of learned helplessness.

They become motivated to retain their jobs rather than to perform them in a way that delivers optimal value to the organisation. This is a common and predictable problem. Once employees escape such a discouraging work environment, their motivation to deliver optimal value for their organization reemerges -- sometimes as they go over to a competitor.

Most leaders would agree that identifying what motivates all the diverse members of a staff is complicated and confusing. Motivating a group is even harder than motivating an individual. When you lead a team, there's an entirely different dynamic. What you do for one employee can easily demotivate others.

I know of a large company that has an employee recognition program that involves publishing a list each year of employees who have been promoted to vice president. Only a few senior executives know the criteria for inclusion on the coveted list.

The dozen employees with new VP job titles are, of course, pleased. But hundreds of others who feel they should have been recognised are displeased. They don't know why they were overlooked and why colleagues they may believe are of less value to the company were recognised. So the program benefits only a few and provokes uncertainty, frustration and a perception of disrespect in many.

That's a powerful and lasting demotivator. The intention is admirable--recognising outstanding employees--but the program, at least the way it is executed, does more harm than good. The company should get rid of it and its demotivating effect on the workplace.

When leaders decide to address demotivation, they quickly see that, unlike with motivation, it's essentially the same for every employee. You can be certain, for example, that everyone on your staff wants the following from you and always will: (1) clear direction, (2) the resources to perform as required and (3) never to be treated disrespectfully.

A work environment structured to provide those three things is also exactly what shareholders want and expect. Deliver them, and you will be on your way to leadership greatness. Fail to do so, and you may be an adequate leader but you'll never be a great one.

There are, in sum, two key steps to staying on top of motivation and demotivation.

First, hire and keep on your team only people who are motivated to do their jobs well. As Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, says, "Get the right people on the bus."

Second, understand that if they become demotivated, it is because of the environment in which they work. Strong and courageous leaders recognise that such an environment is their own failure. Understanding that can prevent you from misdirecting resources into unnecessary efforts to motivate staff.

We need a new leadership paradigm for the 21st century, with leaders taking a more realistic and enlightened view of the people who work for them. We need to create and maintain work environments that protect employees from the demotivation that has become endemic in modern business.


John Roulet is the author of The Supervision Solution: Manage Performance--Not People.


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