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Francis Wade | Why you aren't able to motivate your workers

Published:Friday | February 26, 2016 | 12:35 PM

Executives are often baffled; they ask why their employees are unmotivatable.

There's a good reason - employees just don't get enough of the right information to be inspired.

The problem starts with the curse of the corner office. Inevitably, executives lose touch with what's happening on the ground, inside the daily routine of the average employee. It's their job as a leader, after all, to become absorbed in strategic activities and concerns, but this sometimes crowds out their ability to engage in person-to-person enrolment. They fail to move employees to action.

Take the example of a transformation initiative. Executives can clearly see a long list of sound, long-term reasons to embark on the change, but an employee who is asked to sacrifice a comfortable routine in favour of new behaviour is likely to resist. They just don't understand the reason for the change: strategic objectives are seen as hopelessly abstract.

Until someone finds a way to communicate with them in language they understand, they are left hungry for the inside scoop.

This was revealed in the seminal work, 'Why Workers Won't Work - The Case Study of Jamaica' by Dr Kenneth Carter. The author culls prior research showing that managers honestly believe that employees just want more money. They are wrong. Multiple studies show they crave respect, recognition, and opportunity. One way to fix the problem is to give them pertinent data.

But it's more than that. Over time, in the absence of shared information, workers create their own de facto rules and standards.

Take the example of 'arriving at meetings on time'. A company that fails to reinforce an expectation should expect to see people walking in at different times, armed with plausible excuses. The same happens when a company verbally encourages a new behaviour, such as innovation, but continues to reward old behaviour, such as loyalty.

Managers don't understand that employees are constantly playing a very human game of 'boundary guessing', that is, they test whatever standards are in place to see what is or is not acceptable. In the example I gave above, the only reason people arrive late is because they have learned that it's okay.

By the time a manager decides enough is enough, it's too late. Their harsh countermeasures produce a backlash which convinces them nothing can be done. But all is not lost if they follow these steps.

Step 1 - Eradicate Foolish Standards

Often, when I consult with a first-time client, I discover upset employees railing against nonsensical rules. For example, a company that insists all employees arrive at the same time each day may be following old thinking that has long passed. Flexitime is often a better answer, improving employee satisfaction and customer service. Unfortunately, companies equate the practice with mayhem.

If you think your organisation is immune from such stale thinking, just ask employees who have been there for less than a year. With their outsider perspective, they may tell you where The Emperor Has No Clothes. Use them as a powerful resource to challenge accepted, but outdated, practices.

Step 2 - Translate smart standards into individual metrics

Once old standards have been replaced, use the momentum to translate new standards into a 'measurement language'. This happens to be a point where companies fall short. Often, even motivated employees can't tell what they should do differently in order to contribute.

Employees need easy-to-understand metrics to gauge their contribution to corporate goals. It helps them distinguish the 20 per cent of their specific behaviours that would vault performance upwards by 80 per cent. However, they need to be taught in blunt terms what to do and how to measure it.

Step 3 - Give Feedback Using Real Data

Finally, executives who give vague, biased feedback steal from employees. They don't give employees a deep enough understanding of how the organisation works.

Peter Senge in his classic, The Fifth Discipline, defined complex systems as those whose causes and effects are separated in time and space. In other words, in your organisation, it's hard for the average worker to see the link between their small actions and big results. There's just too much going on at the same time for them to see the connection.

A manager who doesn't share or understand these relationships robs his/her employees of important insights. The best way to share them is to use real data, versus the personal opinions that managers often fall into. For example, there's a big difference between hearing: 'I didn't appreciate your tone of voice in the meeting' versus 'When you used that tone of voice in the meeting, everyone immediately shut up'.

These steps lie at the core of the skills managers must use to produce motivated workers. We think the problem is Jamaican culture, but it's not. Managers need a new mental model in which the solution lies in their personal development as motivators.

n Francis Wade is the author of 'Perfect Time-Based Productivity', a keynote speaker and a management consultant. To receive a free summary of links to his past articles, email: