Leading Change Initiatives

Motivation=Wanting to do something.

Sounds simple, right?

It’s not.

Does Your Kid Take Out the Trash?

Mine does. I haven’t got all the mysteries of parenthood figured out, but that one goes well at my house. At age nine, my daughter likes to take out the trash. In our apartment complex, this involves a walk with me, to cross a busy parking lot, go to the trash corral, and throw our trash into the dumpster. Why does she want to do it with no prompting?

Time with Mama. A little walk-and-talk with nothing pressing to distract us. (Recognition)

It’s a contribution to the house that isn’t too taxing and makes a big difference. (Achievement)

I never force the task on her; she bosses me around and tells me when it’s time to do the job. (Responsibility)

The longer we do this job together, the more she is able to contribute: directing when to cross the street, getting tall enough to use the dumpster almost all by herself, etc. (Personal growth)

There’s a bonus at the end: people often put toys and furniture in the big corral, especially near holidays and moving time (beginning/end of month), so she may get to bring something fun back with us. (External push)

Why Do You Take Out the Trash?

Because otherwise, the house gets icky

Or the spouse gets cranky

Or there’s no room for more

Or it’s just a habitual part of your day

Or you’ll get a big thank-you at the end

What’s the difference? I am lucky to have a kid who has developed mainly internal motivators for taking out the trash. Recognition, achievement, responsibility, personal growth. Yes, the potential for a bonus is an external “motivator,” and some of our finds have been pretty great, but these are infrequent enough that they are not a major influence.

Most adults are pushed by external factors to take out the trash: the prospect of a reward for completion or a punishment for avoidance of the task. The carrot and the stick. The satisfaction of a job well done got lost somewhere along the way. You don’t want the trash taken out, you want the carrot to be given or the threat of the stick to go away.

Trash Removal Is a Need, After All. Why Should We Like Doing It?

I’m going to let you in on a secret. When I was a teen in college, I used to clean houses for people. I liked doing it. I did more than necessary to earn my ten bucks an hour. Sure, the carrot of my four hours’ pay was there. That wasn’t too much, even then. Owners were rarely there while I was working, so I can’t say that their praise was significant. It was just plain nice to transform a house once a week. I got referred on and on, because the results of liking my work really showed.

That’s not the secret. The secret lies in those owners. Some people like a clean house. Some people like having their house cleaned.

When I came back, week after week, the same people’s houses needed barely anything. This meant I could do really in-depth stuff, making their house shine more and more every week. These folks had the internal motivation of loving a clean house; I just freed them to maintain it. And every week, the same people’s houses were utterly trashed as if I’d never been there at all. I’d spend so long just picking up junk, that I could barely get to the floors and the dusting, before the four hours were up. I pushed a clean house on them, but their own motivation was so completely gone that they had even outsourced the minimal stuff like picking up their socks off the living room floor.

Liking having a clean house resulted in having a clean house for some owners. Having an external factor come in and clean their house could not result in a clean house for others. Internal motivation gets things done; external pushing gets things done half-assed. Crude, but true.

The Second Secret

Yes, I’m going to let you in on another secret. I wrote earlier that I am lucky to have a kid who has developed mainly internal motivators. I’m not that lucky. I’ve been leading her there all along, and she has the internal motivators I intended to instill. I also wrote that I haven’t got all the mysteries of parenthood figured out, and to prove that—though I think I’ve followed the same path with homework, it’s pretty much on the carrot-and-stick level. The results aren’t 100%, but following the path toward internal motivation is critical.

Why Pushing Change Always Fails

Motivation=Wanting to do something.

As you manage your staff, you probably try two tactics to motivate those precious human resources. You praise, “communicate” (or my least favorite, “treat them like family”), offer pay raises, bonuses, privileges, or other incentives; or you scold, frown, write and enforce reviews, take away plum assignments, threaten termination. You prefer the first tactics, but resort to the second as necessary. Every year, you up the ante on the rewards to further motivate employees who got the extras last year. So, why aren’t your employees motivated?*

You’ve taken their internal motivations away. Simple.

In each case, who wants the change? You, the manager. You are pushing changes; the employee is just trying to catch the reward or avoid the punishment. The employee no longer wants what you want.

To lead, you must stop pushing changes NOW. Leaders create the opportunity for internal motivation to take hold.

From Manager to Leader

Almost every owner or manager I talk to who is dissatisfied with the company’s growth will eventually point to their staff. “I love this work,” they say. “I’d do it without pay. Every year I offer more for good performance, but they don’t love the work and don’t want the company to succeed like I do. What’s going on?”

What drives us to give our best efforts?

  • Recognition
  • Achievement
  • Responsibility
  • Personal growth

So what can I say to this owner?

Dear Owner

Dear Ms. Owner:

When you tell me how much you love this company, you do not talk about the work (unless it’s to tell me that 19-hour days do not pain you), or the pay (owners are often paid less than their top staff), or the great hours, benefits, or privileges. You tell me about devotion, about the day you first went “in the black,” the first time the local press gave you a glowing review, or how getting to know your customers has made you a better person.

Are your employees sharing in that success? They crave what you crave. The glow of an unbiased opinion; the satisfaction of doing a job better than anyone knew it could be done; the chance to influence and create company growth themselves; personal attachment to outcomes; feeling like their excellent work makes a difference, and that each day they become even more excellent!

Your staff want to go home and say to friends and family: “This job rocks. When I am there, I rock. I can hardly wait to see what happens tomorrow.” That, Ms. Owner, is when staff become brand Propheteers.

It isn’t money that is driving talented people out of the workforce and into self-employment in droves. It’s impotence. Nothing is more demoralizing than the feeling that you do not matter, that your forseeable future looks exactly like your present, and that you are spinning your wheels.

Ms. Owner, to lead you will have to give up some control. A leader is not a manager of each employee’s moments. A leader is a guide to the company’s Vision, chief cheerleader and creator of excitement. A manager dictates employee actions; a leader shapes and trusts employee desires.

A manager offers rewards for expected outcomes; a leader acknowledges extraordinary, unexpected results

A manager schedules performance reviews; a leader asks for personal accountability

A manager piles on the work with no obvious Purpose; a leader maintains focus on well defined outcomes, leaving methods to the employee

A manager treats staff “like family,” with empathy, in a hands-on way, and sometimes gets familial disrespect in return; a leader treats staff like critical stakeholders and responsible adults in their own right, knows how to relax, but never lets work becomes a codependency

A manager automates and simplifies; a leader removes layers of approvals and other barriers to success

Ms. Owner, my best wishes for your continued growth.


Leading Transformation

We owners love our companies. We are always looking for the magic potion that will make employees fall in love, too. Poor employee performance is a major pain point in Experience Design. Whether you are an owner or an employee yourself, you have probably seen him: the guy who does only what he’s told, collects the paycheck, and runs out the door at 5. Mr. Minimum. Always ready with a complaint at your expense; ready to bolt at the first offer that looks a bit better than yours. No loyalty, no matter how much you “treat him like family.”

If you are managing your employees, the bad news is you created Mr. Minimum. The good news is, with patience you can lead. Though human factors are never perfectly engineered, you can leave the carrot and stick behind.

Motivation=Wanting to do something.

You can say of your staff: “I’ve been leading them there all along, and they have the internal motivators I intended to instill. They know what we’re about, they are empowered to do their best for our success, and they love this company like I do. They want to be here. They want to tell our customers what’s great about us. Some of them would do it if they weren’t being paid. They are our biggest fans.”

You can’t “push change” if you want major, long-term results. You can lead growth, through this essential shift toward internal motivation.

If you really care about your staff as family, then start creating jobs that are fulfilling, exciting, and filled with challenges, just like their Mamas wish for them. Stop enabling them to howl about chores, and start driving them toward fun, enrichment, and adventure when they take out the trash.

It takes time, but look at it this way: It’s easier than getting your kid to love spelling homework.

What parts of your work would you do for free? How could a focus on internal motivators change the quality of work your company does?

Grow and be well,

Kelly Erickson


*Thanks to Frederick Herzberg, author of “One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?” (1968, 1987) for the Harvard Business Review [subscription required], who taught me that a Kick in the Ass is nothing like the internal desire to excel.