Helping Small Business Think Big

Thinking Out Loud


I was asked the other day to write a story about some event that occurred that taught me a key lesson about managing people and providing motivation.  So, although I changed the names and dates to protect the innocent, this is the true story I wrote:

           It was Friday afternoon, the tenth of April.  I had just finished a difficult performance review with Wes.  I closed it by reminding him of the key steps he needed to take to improve specific skills and then telling him that I would be watching his performance.  I also told him that I would watch for ninety days and then we would talk again.

This was really a fairly standard review, much like all the rest but it hadn’t been a very pleasant meeting.  Wes disagreed strongly with my assessment but he handled it maturely and returned to his station to continue that day’s work.  As he left the room, I made a few notes to myself and then placed his review into his file.  OK, that was done.  Now back to some other routine functions.  It was just another day at my company, an 85 person courier service in Seattle.

As time went by I noticed that, to his credit, Wes actually made some special efforts and began to improve those weak areas that were holding him back.  His interpersonal relations with the other office folks became smoother and he fine-tuned his understanding of the computer system.  It seemed like our performance review discussion was having the desired effect.

Summer rolled around and suddenly it was July.  On the morning of the tenth of July, I was busy answering emails, meeting a client at 10, visiting our airport operations office in the afternoon and, of course, just dealing with the standard daily events that flew rapid fire in my general direction;  All in all, a busy but normal day.  Late in the afternoon, I drew a breath and looked at my desk calendar.  I noticed a note to myself: “90 days for Wes” was all it said.  That was enough to jar my memory.  I still had a lot on my plate and it would be close to 7pm before I left for the night … but I knew what I had to do.

I went up to Wes’s work station and said, “Wes, can you stop by my office and see me before you leave tonight?”

To my immense surprise, Wes lit up and beamed back at me. “I thought you’d forget!” he said.  And that was when I realized how many times in the past I had forgotten!  When I casually told Wes that we would talk again after ninety days, it had not occurred to me that we would be taking me quite so literally.  I didn’t realize that the employee is taking me at my word and he is counting the days too!

Wes met me in my office at the end of his shift and we had a very amiable conversation.  I applauded his efforts and commented on the specific things he had done to improve.  In contrast to our last meeting, there was much more smiling and laughing.  And I couldn’t help but wonder how different it may have been if I had failed to follow up with him that afternoon.

As a business owner or manager, you can only do so much yourself.  Your business grows and performs well when your employees are motivated and engaged and feel they are valued and appreciated.  Showing respect for people starts with treating them as you would like to be treated.  Keeping that deadline with Wes told him that I valued him and respected him as a person.  Keeping my commitment to him was a small thing but it was pivotal to our relationship.  Wes became a trusted and long-term employee and returned value to me and the business many times greater than the value of those few minutes I gave him that day.

Sometimes credibility can be won with the stroke of a pen; A simple reminder to keep your commitment to another human being.  Keeping your promises is a key to maintaining motivation and gaining loyalty and reciprocated respect from your employees.  And it starts with the little things.


Fear is a great inhibitor to progress.   As managers we deal with a variety of fears every day but one I see frequently blocking paths in business is the FEAR OF BEING WRONG.

There are few things harder to do than take a strong position on an issue, discuss it with others and then, over time, come to the conclusion that you are wrong.  What does that do to your status as a leader and manager?  Probably nothing good.

So how can you deal with that problem?   I have struggled with that issue for many years but finally became comfortable with this solution:  MAKE IT A SEARCH FOR THE TRUTH.

For example, say you are meeting with five supervisors who report directly to you.  Your problem that you are discussing is a distressing increase in sick time taken.  Your belief is that it is an aberration and a cyclical event.  You believe that it will pass and is not worth everyone’s concern.  You have seen that before so it could well be happening again.  You are quite certain.

The temptation is to announce your feelings to the group because later, when you are proven right, it will enhance your image as the see-all, know-all manager.  That feels pretty good.  So don’t do it.  Do you eat chocolate all day just because it tastes good?  NO.  You exercise some judgment.  Do the same here.

Start the meeting off with something like this:  “Ok, we’re all here to discuss this latest negative trend on sick time and I am sure most of us have an opinion about why it is happening.  I know I do.  But for now, in today’s meeting, let’s just keep an open mind.  All we want to do is find the TRUTH.  What is REALLY going on?  One or more of us might be right already but we also might be wrong.  Let’s not worry about who is right.  Let’s just figure out the truth.  Now, with that in mind, let’s hear each of your ideas on what is up.”  Then start around the room.  Save your own opinion for last.  By the time you hear everyone else’s you may want to change yours.  For example, Pete may say that he noticed that ever since management changed the PTO policy that morale has taken a dip.  Hmmmm.  That makes you doubt your own theory.

Then when it is your turn, set a good example.  Tell people your original theory and how certain you were and then admit that Pete’s point changed your view.  Now you are thinking there could be another reason for the problem.  If others counter that or change their original stance too (even if they disagree) praise them for keeping an open mind and focusing on finding the TRUTH rather than vindication of their original theory.

The fear of being wrong dissipates when your focus is on finding the truth rather than proving you are more clever than the others.  Fear of being wrong causes delays and wrong courses of action so change your focus and find the TRUTH instead.  And quit eating that chocolate!




Why do some manage via FEAR?

Kurt Nelson, an authority on motivation, writes about the 9 keys to motivating employees and his article is a nice addition to the motivation library.  One of the keys he discusses is the use of Fear.  He writes:

3.  Fear works for only a short time

Often the default motivation lies in the command and control management style that uses fear to motivate behavior change.  The problem with this is that it only works as long as it is monitored and does not produce long lasting change.  Even worse, it creates a lack of trust and loyalty so that people tend to leave the company or sabotage it more often.   It is important to understand that managers often create a fearful situation through ignorance and not on purpose.   This is done through managers actions (or lack of actions) and words (or lack of words) that could be misconstrued or interpreted in the wrong way.  Humans have the innate tendency to think the worse if something has any ambiguity around it.

Excellent points.  Number 3 is particularly intriguing to me.  We’ve all worked for someone who manages via FEAR.  And you are right … it’s not so much on purpose as it is out of ignorance.  They simply are not sure how else to do it.  No one starts out with the idea of managing via Bully Tactics.   Kind hearted, empathetic people promoted to management follow their instincts and seek a different way.  But the majority of folks promoted into management are placed in their roles with no discussion of HOW to act.  If they are not already pre-disposed to building trust and collaboration, they turn to using fear, because it is the obvious way to get short term results.  The solution is to employ clear and timely management training and, in the real world, that rarely happens.  Something to think about the next time you move someone up the ladder.


My favorite EASY way to motivate my workforce

Just read another article at about “How to destroy employee motivation”.  It reminded me about some of the resistance I have gotten from Managers who think efforts to motivate are a waste of their time.

In my journey of consulting with business managers or owners about employee management (and particularly employee motivation) I often run into many objections.  Frequently the objection to trying to motivate employees is “sounds like a lot of extra work”.  And yes, it can be sometimes.  But there is no more important job for a manager than building and nurturing a motivated work force.  The larger the company, the more important that becomes so it is time well spent.

One of my best responses to those managers who seem less inclined to do more work is to tell them there is something they can do that is very effective and yet requires them to do virtually nothing.  They like the sound of that so I continue … to tell them to listen better!!   That is it.  Be a better listener.  Yes, you have a lot on your mind and your instinct is to cut to the chase.  But think in terms of 3 minute blocks here.  Give someone your undivided attention for three minutes.  It won’t kill you.  Really listen.  When employees think you are truly listening to them and thinking about what they are saying, they feel more trusted, valued and motivated to keep their heads in the game.  Hard to do when an entry level employee wants to share their new idea with you?  Of course.  But it can either be a great teaching moment opportunity when you listen first and then summarize the good parts of their idea and identify the weak points (because you’ve probably been down that road before) or it can be an eye-opener when someone fresh looks at old problems from a new angle.  You never know where the next great idea might be coming from.

Oh and one other tip I like to use.  When you are listening and don’t really feel in the mood, imagine instead that you are listening to the World’s Foremost Expert on the topic.  For example, if Thomas Edison stopped by and wanted to tell you about electricity, wouldn’t you hang on his every word?  Imagine your employee is an expert in his own way and give him the same courtesy of truly listening.  It’s not hard work but it makes your people feel very good about the company and the boss they work for.  And if you can have that effect by DOING NOTHING, then think how well you can do when you actually put some muscle into your effort!

How NOT to motivate employees!

Sometimes the world seems full of wretched ideas being played out in real time.

Well, the good news is they make for superb examples of what NOT to do!

I was in a local bank branch the other day and noticed a white board on the wall behind the tellers’ area.  On the top, it said “WHO IS THE MOST SPIRITED TELLER?”  Five tellers had their names on the far left side of the board and a chart with 25 or so boxes was set up to the right of their names.  A certain number of the boxes were filled in indicating, I assume, some event of “Spiritedness” that the teller exhibited.  Apparently, it was a race to the finish and some of the tellers were clearly doing better than others.  Naturally, I assumed that the competition would result in some kind of reward for the winning teller.

When I first started creating bonus programs for my employees, I did a few things similar to this.  But I have to tell you, some of the flaws became obvious immediately.  So when I saw that white board at the bank, I had some instant reactions:

1) The contest must have been designed by a man.  Oh, what a sexist assumption, but I am sure it is true.  Guys love contests and competition.  Especially when it is all male oriented so that we can trash talk and give the losers a bad time.  That is half the fun, right?  Well, not really.  Usually the guys who love that competition are the ones who are already good at it.  They are likely to win or finish a close second.  Now for some guys, participating in a bowling tourney may sound like great competitive fun but ask those same jocks to enroll in a chess tournament and maybe the response will be cooler.  In the case of the bank, 60% of the participants were female and their joy of competition was probably not the same as the men.  I know, yes, just as some males would not enjoy the competition, there ARE some females who would love it, but, generally, they value cooperation over competition because of cultural issues and because, honestly, females always seem more mature than males.  We guys are just a bit too into sports and doing battle and enjoying the fray.

2) Posting the results for everyone to see is always flattering to the winner and embarrassing to the losers; especially to whoever finishes in last place.  Never, ever, put your employees in that position.  Posting results of a contest where one Company Department takes on the others is marginally acceptable since it isn’t too personal to one employee but advertising who the losers are is never a good idea in any case.  If many people or departments are competing, posting only the top 5 or 10 finishers is a fine way to reward and recognize individual performance without embarrassing those who finished in the lower rungs.

3) I never found out how someone earned a “spirited point” on the board, but my guess is that it was not an objective measurement.  It may have included some judgment call on the branch manager’s part.  Trust me, never create a bonus program where the result is based on subjective reasoning.  Always base the bonus on specific events, acts or things you can count.

4) I couldn’t resist so I gently needled my teller about the contest.  She rolled her eyes and shook her head.  She was not doing particularly well according to the board, but it was also clear that she had a low opinion of the contest in the first place.  What is important about that?  Well, it tells me that management created the contest without very much consultation with the tellers.  Here is my advice:  Don’t do that.  Ok, that was simplistic but, honestly, you need to get buy-in from the participants before you do it.  If a high percentage of the “players” are not happy with the format, then it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

5) I asked my teller what the prize was for winning.  Again, after the rolling of the eyes and a look of astonishment on her face, she said it was a $10 Starbuck’s card.  And then she added, “As if that is going to motivate us!”  OK, so now the unpopular contest that embarrasses over half the employees is trying to motivate them with a lame prize.  This bonus program was doomed from the start.

Building an effective bonus program is difficult to do … but not impossible.  It’s just that so many of the builders are starting from their own point of view and their own biases.  To the designer of this bonus program, it all seemed like a fun, harmless game.  But it was flawed on so many levels.  When you are designing bonus programs, you need a blueprint to follow.  It is a very achievable goal to design a quality bonus program when you know the steps.  I spent 25 years failing miserably as I tried to design good bonus programs for my employees, but finally (just as even a blind pig finds an acorn once in a while), I stumbled on the 8 steps that insure your bonus program will work every time.   It is possible when you have a guide to follow.  If you find yourself in the position of having to build a bonus program, contest or motivational exercise from scratch, be sure to think about the participants’ feelings first and get some feedback from them before launching.

Lets Talk

Sometimes I just get the urge to write.  More often I have the drive to read.

I’ll be adding some stories and articles for your perusal here occasionally and I’ll be very happy to read your remarks and comment back.  This blog should be a source of musings and various spurts of “thinking out loud” for everyone.  Jump into the fray and let’s hear what you’ve got.

The only goal is to help ourselves learn how to manage people better.  Got a great technique that has worked for you?  Let’s hear it!

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