Tuesday, March 17, 2009

How Leaders Motivate Their Team in Tough Times

Motivation2bd19770jpeg “They should be grateful that they still have a job.” I heard that comment recently from a middle manager who failed to understand that in a down economy, turnover among the best performers goes up! Yes, you read that right. A Towers Perrin study of 90,000 global employees found that 58 percent of all employees are actively looking to change jobs or at least open to leaving if a good opportunity emerged. (1)

Contrast that middle manager’s attitude with that of the vice president of a Southern California company who recently asked if I would speak at his management meeting about “Staying Positive When Things Seem So Negative.” He pointed out that the cost of recruiting, interviewing, hiring, and training an employee was between $6,000 (to replace a frontline employee) and $90,000 (to replace an IT engineer). He said that if I helped one manager retain one employee, it would cover all my expenses.

So, what’s your strategy for keeping your best people fired up as the world tries to pull them down? Professor Nohria and his colleagues from Harvard may have some clues for you. (2) They surveyed employees at 300 of the Fortune 500 companies and found that motivation consists of four core emotional drives:

A. Acquire. This drive relates to our desire to obtain physical goods, positive experiences, and social status. It tends to be relative, meaning we always compare what we have to others. Thus, the drive is NOT met when everyone at work receives the same reward or perk, regardless of his or her contribution. Equal is seldom fair. (3) When I was conducting research at UCSD, our luminary leader Dr. Froelicher satisfied this drive by making sure rewards were tied to performance. For example, we were not able to go to scientific meetings unless we had our research abstracts accepted. If we didn't conduct excellent research, regardless of our status, we didn't go to meetings. How could you reward your better performers?

B. Bond. Human beings have an internal impulse to connect to others. This includes small groups such as our families, as well as larger collectives, including organizations, associations, and nations. At work, employees who feel proud of an organization are very motivated. At UCSD, Dr. Froelicher fostered bonding among coworkers by having Friday afternoon parties, picnics at the beach, and encouraging us to exercise together. In addition, we frequently collaborated with other divisions. We attended their meetings, invited them to ours, and shared best practices. How might you encourage more camaraderie, collaboration, and cross-functional communication?

C. Comprehend. Everybody wants to make sense of the world around him or her. People become frustrated when things seem senseless. At work, people try to satisfy this drive by making meaningful contributions and making meaning out of what happens around them. This drive was satisfied at UCSD because we had a wide latitude in the type of research each of us was able to conduct. We investigated areas that we found interesting and meaningful. We also contributed by educating our colleagues at local and international scientific meetings. How could you increase motivation by improving job flexibility and lifelong learning?

D. Defend. Defending property, positions, and accomplishments is core to who we are. This drive is rooted in the fight or flight mechanism that has evolved over millions of years. In a competitive market, staying in touch with what may threaten you is critical and motivating. Knowing that we were competing for very limited research funds kept motivated at UCSD. How can you motivate your team by educating them about market conditions, threats, and opportunities?

These are the ABCDs of human motivation. Give me a call (310 397-6686), and we’ll discuss how to adapt them to help you motivate and retain your best people during these tough times.

Keep on eXpanding,


1. A Towers Perrin study of 90,000 global employees: http://www.towersperrin.com/tp/showhtml.jsp?url=global/publications/gws/index.htm&country=global

2. Nitin Nohria, Boris Groysberg, and Linda-Eling Lee; Employee Motivation - A Powerful New Model, ‘Harvard Business Review,’ July-August 2008, 78 - 84.

3. Joel Brockner; Why It's So Hard to Be Fair, Harvard Business Review, March 2006, 122 – 129.

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