Of all the questions I get asked after presentations or during workshops, probably the most frequent is, “How can I motivate this person (ie slacker) I have in my team?” Or variations of that same query born of frustration. It being the 21st century and all, and given the calibre (generally) of the clients with whom I choose to work, it’s not like these are impersonal, command-and-control drill-sergeant-types. Mostly, they’re reasonable people with a fairly good idea of how to work with most people. You know, like you.
One of the little rituals I get going during my sessions is that the answer to most questions a leader faces is, “It depends.” (Don’t knock it. You have to be there and it does make a good point at the time.) BUT this time with this question, my answer is, “You can’t.” Usually I’d say something provocative like that simply to be provocative and generate debate etc but increasingly I truly think that’s the answer and thinking the opposite can only lead to behaviours that ain’t going to work for anyone concerned.
Whatever motivates me (and I’ve yet to consistently work that out myself) may not only not motivate you, it can have a wide range of alternative effects, including the opposite.
I don’t want to get all Clinton on you and start defining what I mean by ‘motivation’ and ‘can’t’ (or in Clinton’s case – ‘shouldn’t’) but you might be getting upset as you think you’re a great motivator or you were once impacted by someone you felt was a great motivator or you heard that your favourite sports team brought in a former champion at halftime for a speech that motivated them to a win.
You might inspire people, as might that CD you heard or that halftime speech but that isn’t true behaviour-influencing, improvement-driving, long-term motivation. Motivation is a set of chemical and electrical actions in a certain part of the brain that I can’t spell that over time, through repetition and reinforcement, establishes an easily replicable pattern. Some people are highly motivated to eat fried foods, watch Battlestar Galactica or collect teaspoons. No one gave them a ‘motivational’ CD or a speech. It’s all about neurons, synapses and repetition. The bad news is that you’re not a brain. You cannot personally and directly motivate people. The good news is that you can influence. It’s a pedantic but important difference.
So, I’m being slightly disingenuous with my stark, “You can’t!” Leaders can certainly recruit people whose internal motivations suit the team’s. Leaders can ensure that recruits’ personal goals are already aligned with the team’s so YOU don’t need to DO ANYTHING TO THEM. It might take a bit longer to start with but its more effective and less work for you in the long run. Leaders can certainly recruit people who fit with the other team members and thus nurture a culture where motivation can occur amongst themselves. Leaders, to the extent that they can, should pay a salary and provide a physical environment that doesn’t demotivate.
Again, maybe I’m being a bit Clintony, but let’s reframe the question. Rather than ask what you can do to motivate someone else, observe and experiment how you might be able to connect with whatever internal motivations this person already has. (I’m assuming you’ve inherited this person. Ideally, you’d have put in the work up front and recruited people who are self-motivated for your team and fit. To not do that, just to fill a vacancy, will cause more problems long-term than it solves in the short-term.)
Maybe I’ve begun to convince you that motivation isn’t something you can DO to someone else? If nothing else today, I’ve invented an adjective, ‘Clintony.’ (Or, is it an adverb?)
Research by Jonah Berger and Devin Pope suggests that thinking you’re about to lose a contest can drive extra effort down the home stretch. Does it actually make a difference in the result though? Yes, apparently! Cool. Good to know but how can we apply this information usefully in our lives? My thoughts on that in a moment.
Berger and Pope studied tens of thousands of basketball games but don’t worry, it’s not another sports-to-management metaphor stretched to within a tenuous millimetre of its existence. They also ran another controlled study in which contesting groups were fed different information on their performance relative to their competitors – some were set up to think they were winning, some losing, some even-stevens and some neutral for a control group. Check out their study. There’s lots of detail and its summarised far more professionally than I can manage.
So, at halftime, if you think you’re behind, you will make more effort and this will have a statistically significant impact positive impact on results generally. Let’s stretch this a bit.
OK. To apply this in our work or life, we’d have to view whatever it is we’re doing as a contest in the first place, that we had some competitors against whom our performance was being scored. If you’re OK with that (and I am much of the time), we can use that research.
OK. There needs to be a score kept. I’m always a fan of measurement where its practical, fair and timely. AND what you’re measuring is important (not just because you can measure it.) AND there isn’t that law of unintended consequences thing. If a call centre measures speed of call and nothing else, you will get a lot of “Hello..Goodbye” in quick succession. If you try and encourage a population to help reduce the rat population by offering a bounty per rat tail, expect some short-term success followed by a boom in at-home rat-farming. Beware measurement and unintended consequences.
OK. There needs to be a halftime, or at least a timeout. In this work or life situation we’re thinking about, we need to step out of the process and examine what we’re doing, how we’re doing it and how it’s going. Smart. That’s why they have halftimes and timeouts in sports. It’s not just about physical rest, although that’s a good idea too in work and life. How often are you and your people having a halftime or timeout that you constructively use for reflecting on performance, what’s working and what isn’t?
My last thought for now on imminent loss as a motivator comes from my own moderately serious basketball experience. Even now, as a try-hard old man in a semi-serious league, it’s quite obvious that in myself and others, when you’re seemingly exhausted and there’s only one minute to go and someone hits a shot that puts the game within reach, you will find reserves of energy from somewhere and often you make more than seems like your fair share of luck through hustle. Win or lose, I do recall being genuinely exhausted afterwards and it’s clearly unsustainable.
If we’re going to apply the research in our work or life outside sport and believe that overcompensating by creating a perception of being a bit behind to motivate people, it may work – in the short term or as a one-off. Try it too often you’ll foster resentment, ensure burnout and, whilst winning a game, you may lose a season.
Oh, and if you’re not going to read the full study, they do also say that being behind by miles almost always means you’re screwed.
Following my blog yesterday on motivating and retaining the best employees, this article fell into my RSS feed from Harvard Business Review bloggers Carolyn Dewar and Scott Keller. I was drawn to the provocative statement in their article, “So, ‘rational’ leaders don’t tap into the primary motivators of up to 80% of their workforce.” (Although I inserted the apostrophe & the inverted commas for more dramatic effect & a sarcastic tone I felt was inferred…)
Hey, it’s short, sweet, simple and makes a great point about people’s differences when it comes to motivation. And it takes their research and plugs it into some practical examples of what actual leaders actually did. Nice.
This Forbes article on motivating and retaining the best employees contains some very valid points. It’s simple, practical and useful. However, I think its entire premise is wrong. It’s crazy, in this day and age, that we believe or expect managers to believe that not only is it their job to motivate others but that it can be done at all. And by “done” I mean meaningfully, in the long term and able to be maintained without the constant presence of the so-called motivating manager. Carrots and sticks as motivators, be they bonuses or whatever, have their place – in a 1920s cigarette factory with managers carrying clipboards and stopwatches and the workers nicely uneducated cogs in a machine. A modern workplace of choice hoping to compete for real talent needs a different approach. The true test of a leader’s influence on, and motivation of, others is what happens when they’re not around.
Creative, self-motivated talent who can solve problems, show initiative and create value aren’t motivated by a carrot or stick. (Though they may be demotivated by the lack of a fair salary.) I’m really loving Daniel Pink’s book ‘Drive’ in which he says the three drivers for those people are autonomy, mastery and a sense of purpose. And these are the people you want, you know, because they DON’T NEED TO BE MOTIVATED. They’re inherently motivated by the work.
The Forbes article needs to be preceded by another about ATTRACTING EMPLOYEES THAT DON’T NEED TO BE EXTERNALLY MOTIVATED. The Forbes article is good advice and you could do a lot worse than to follow it. I especially like that it’s smart to have a true alignment of the personal goals of employees with the organisation’s goals. That’s genius and is almost another way of implying that they’ll be self-motivated. Shared self-interest is a wonderful thing.
The Forbes article also says that communication is good. Kind of obvious but true. A bit like the lyric in the song by LMFAO ‘Party Rock Anthem’ that goes, “Stop… hating is bad.” Nice. Come up with nine more. Never mind an article, there could be a book in that!
When you’re passing through a workplace and you’re not a fulltime member of that workplace yourself, you see what its like, perhaps better than those actually working there. Maybe you’re a consultant, a customer or even a leader from within the organisation but not directly from that particular workplace. You see what the team is like and how that manifests itself in the team’s results.
I heard about ‘Guerilla Gardening’ on the radio and checked out the concept online. In my version of history, it started in the U.S. with its many miles of barren interstate highways. In an ironically organic way, diverse individuals started a very informal and non-organised movement called ‘Guerilla Gardening.’ Dismayed at the barren landscape and with no formal bodies interested in beautifying their environment, people took it upon themselves to do so. Initially frustrated by red tape and bureaucratic resistance, various individuals took covert approaches and it caught on and took off. They created ‘Seed Bombs’ (also known as ‘Green Grenades.’) Clay shells were wrapped around a range of wildflower seeds amped up with slow-release fertilisers and so forth. Once hardened the clay shells were pretty solid. Drivers hurled them randomly out of car windows as they passed desolate stretches of road. Once the rain came, it broke down the clay and released the seeds and nature took its course. Out bloomed random, unplanned nature.
Now, ‘Guerilla Gardening’ is getting organised and the website looks quite scientific. But hey, I write about leadership, supervision, motivation, influence, communication and behaviour change – what does that have to do with seed bombs?
I wrote in my first paragraph about wandering through a workplace that wasn’t yours to lead. Maybe you notice that it’s ‘barren’? Maybe you try to work through formal means and there is resistance and red tape? If you tried developing motivational / leadership ‘seed bombs’ and throwing them into the workplace to hopefully take root and bloom, would you just be a mudslinging and interfering busybody or would you be an innovative, Johnny Appleseed kind of person. It depends, I suppose, on how you do it and what grows as a result.
Weeds maybe… And mud sticks.
When you read studies done after-the-fact about some of history’s biggest mistakes, such as the Bay of Pigs and Enron, you’ll often see the phrase, “the smartest guys in the room.” What the study-ers are trying to get across is that somehow a group of highly qualified and perhaps overly influential advisers managed to convince those who actually made decisions to take actions that ended up in destructive disaster. Each of us in our smaller and admittedly less-global-catastrophe-potential worlds probably encounter demonstrations of ‘smartest guy in the room’ behaviour’ too, possible even being demonstrated by ourselves!
You’re at a meeting. Someone is talking. You don’t get what they’re saying or they use some terms you’re not familiar with. BUT you don’t ask for explanation. Maybe you hope it’ll become clearer in time or with more context. Maybe you ask a weak question like, “Excuse me Bob, but for the benefit of the people in the room who aren’t experts on xyz, can you please explain…?” Driving some of that behaviour is fear of looking like you don’t know what you’re supposed to. It probably goes back to primary school or earlier. Might be some mommy issues in there too. Hey, I’m not judging you man.
These days I train, present to or even entertain groups of people from an incredibly varied range of careers, industries and associations. These people, in their own arenas, are experts, geniuses in the sense that Malcolm Gladwell or Jay Niblick write about. Maybe they’re not rocket scientists but in their field of bovine stomach enzymes, they are the smartest guys in the room, if not the world. Or geniuses about concrete or lab testing or motorsports or whatever it is my client de jour specialises in. Almost always, around these people at these events, I am the dumbest guy in the room. I get to ask innocently ignorant questions and not only do I not get mocked for my lack of understanding about bovine stomach enzymes, I get a handheld tour of all things cow-stomachy. And I learn. I’m a little sad that it’s only recently that I apply this approach to all my dealings.
This Wired article by Jonah Lehrer applauds the potential for mistakes as learning development tools.You can picture the scenes. Volunteers are plugged into EEGs. Brain activity is measured. Subjects experience mistakes. What happens inside their heads at the point they realise they’ve made the mistake and in the time afterwards? And how did things turn out for people with different readings? Go read Jonah’s story but long-story-short: when the mistake occurs there is a ‘ERN’ signal which is short, followed by a longer ‘P-e’ signal. In my terms, the former is the brain saying, “@#$%!.” The second is a period of heightened awareness and attention. This makes sense. I almost fell off a chair so I snap to attention and engage in non-chair falling activity a lot more consciously. The associated research shows that more successful people tend to have not so much longer but more pronounced ERNs and longer P-e’s.
There you go. Apply that in your life and get better results. Um, how? Doesn’t this brain stuff just happen to us like our height? Nope, it happens to us like muscle development. We go to gyms and run up hills to build up our strength. To work on our ERNs and our P-e’s, we need to exercise them. How? By proactively making more mistakes… (Let’s not do that whilst driving. Let’s agree to go do something that’s safe but challenging. Me, I’m teaching myself guitar. Once again, I’m the dumbest guy in the room.)
So, to paraphrase New Zealand’s anti-drinking campaign, it’s not THAT we’re making mistakes, it’s HOW we’re making mistakes.
Fail better; Feel better.
Last week I presented to a group of dairy farmers. And by ‘dairy farmers’, I mean a group of business leaders whose businesses just happened to be dairy farms. I rarely meet people who are so professional AND passionate AND successful. The presentation went well. Laughs occurred where they were supposed to and some where they weren’t, yet it turned out for the best. Questions and comments afterwards indicated that they got a lot of value out of it and it would make a difference to them. One guy asked me a curly question though.
It wasn’t a negative question and he precursored it with all the things you’d expect an experienced and positive manager of people to say. He clearly had bought into employee engagement’s value to his business, along with goal setting and performance management (done the right way!) and feedback and so forth. He knew what a KPI was and he wasn’t afraid to use it. His question was, “What can I do about Sleepy?”
To be honest, it is a question I hear a lot in various forms. Almost all supervisors and managers I meet (and potential supervisors and managers) aren’t too worried about most people. They worry about negative or angry people. They worry about conflict. I’m sure I did too back in the day. Funny thing though, is that they’re relatively easy to deal with. Negative non-performers are obvious and a problem that you’re motivated to deal with. If it is 3-strikes-and-you’re-out level of serious then there’s a fairly prescribed path to follow in law and HR policy. I think the tough ones are like ‘Sleepy.’ Often not obvious, not a squeaky wheel demanding immediate attention yet potentially quite a drain on productivity down the line. There are clues like absenteeism, reduced participation and so forth but a pretty obvious clue is that they have a nickname like ‘Sleepy.’
Sleepy wasn’t avoiding work or doing it below expected standards. The farmer saw him as lacking drive, initiative, repeating mistakes, being ‘blinkered’ and generally operating to the letter of the law.
Sleepy had an actual name but his nickname was Sleepy. I wondered if it might be that quirky nicknaming thing where you do the opposite like calling a redhead ‘Bluey.’ Nope.
I asked my usual range of triage questions of my farmer. What have you done so far? What’s worked? What hasn’t? Tell me about ‘Sleepy.’ Have there been times you have seen him motivated? What caused that state?
My farmer didn’t tag Sleepy as a problem child. Quite the reverse, he was an above-average performer but my farmer was frustrated because he knew Sleepy was capable of so much more and the farmer wanted to move him towards that ‘so much more’, partly to improve results at his own farm but also for the sake of Sleepy himself.
I’ll ask you all the same question. What can we do about the Sleepys (Sleepies?) of this world? I’m giving it some thought and my next few blog entries will tackle aspects of my answer. I’ll probably start by thinking back to when I was that guy.
How many coffee shop loyalty cards do you have? (If you have more than one, you may wish to consult a dictionary for the meaning of the word ‘loyalty.’) Do they all operate the same way? Think about all the old-fashioned loyalty cards you’ve seen. Not the new electronic point-collecting plastic cards with magnetic strips or microchips. Think of the timeless dog-earred cardboard ones with ten squares or cups or whatever and purchases earned a stamp or a holepunch. At some delicious and delirious future time, you get that tenth stamp and the next cup is FREE!!! It’s like Christmas but without the immense tension, family drama and homicidal / suicidal thoughts.
Did those cards affect your behaviour? Did they drive your decision-making? In what ways? Which type of cards were most successful – for the cafe? The whole point of those things, one would presume, was to increase profit in the long run for the cafe. They’re not giving you free coffee because you’re awesome. (This is no way belittles your actual level of awesomeness.)
In 2006, a study was done at a carwash contrasting two different approaches to loyalty cards. Half the cards were normal ‘get eight stamps, get one free’ cards. The other half were the same except that the card needed TEN stamps but the first two stamps had already been given. For that second group of cards, the first purchase was, in effect, the THIRD stamp.For the business, the cost was the same for both types of card – the customer still needed to buy eight carwashes.
And this had what impact?
19% of the first group of cards got redeemed up to the tenth and final stamp thus rewarding the customer their freebie. And how did the second group of cards go? 34%! Almost double. AND they filled their cards quicker AND as they got closer to completing their card, the gaps between carwashes diminished. The closer they got to their ‘goal’, the more active they appeared to be pursuing it.
That’s interesting in and of itself if you’re running a business and considering implementing a loyalty card. That’s not what I’m writing about though. This is just a demonstration of a good old predictable human trait called ‘Endowed Progress.’ People are more likely to progress towards a goal if they perceive that they have already made progress towards it.
How can we help others move towards their work and life goals leveraging the endowed progress effect? Weight loss or a promotion are common goals. Although both would be better expressed using something like the SMART model. (Specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timebound. “Lose 10kg in 3 months etc”) Somehow we / they need to give themselves credit for the progress they’ve already made before they officially start. The weight loss or getting promoted equivalent of two free stamps.
Conversely, people can experience negative effects with endowed progress. Ever waited for a bus? The bus is late. The bus is later still. Maybe the bus isn’t coming at all? Again, research indicates that the more time we invest in waiting for something, the more irrationally attached we become to continue waiting. (That said, you just know that the moment you walk just far enough away, the bus will come around the corner… psych!!)