Motivating Your Team

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By Bill Kennedy - “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” In how many MBA classes, inspirational business speeches and management books has this speech by American President, John F. Kennedy been touted as the perfect motivational mission? (Example 1, example 2, example 3).

The latest to cross my desk is an article by Bill Catlette and Richard Hadden called “Motivation through Mission”. Their key concept is, “People don’t perform in an inspired manner without a big time commitment to a compelling cause.”

It’s hard to argue with that, but consider this example. Let’s say you’re the head of an accounting team and looking ahead to 2009. You have the monthly grind of accounting statements and management reporting ahead of you. In addition, there are the budgeting and audit cycles. You are midway through a computer implementation that has been delayed due to problems converting the history, and you have to change the whole General Ledger to the new International Financial Reporting Standards. What is the compelling cause you need to get your people to perform in an inspired manner?

Catlette and Hadden’s response is, “Whether your team competes on the global stage or a three-unit cube farm, they will move faster, get more done, have more fun, and make more money if all hands on deck share a common sense of purpose and direction. Make it your business to see that they get it . . . really get it.”

Forgive my cynicism, but I have seen this all before. I had a client in the insurance industry where all of the rooms had large motivational posters, but the staff plodded through their jobs like zombies. There was no shortage of messaging proclaiming the common purpose. The issue was that there was no buy in from the employees below manager level.

How do you get buy in? How do you motivate someone? The first thing you have to do is pay attention to the emotional conversation in the room. To borrow from Stephen Covey, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Start by abandoning the idea of motivating a whole team and focus on the individuals. Simply put, if you really care about each one of them, they will really care about you. If you pay attention to their agenda, they will pay attention to yours. If you are honest with them, they will eventually be honest with you. I say eventually because it may take them a while to trust you.

This conversation does not have to get too “touchy feely”. It can be limited to the job. You don’t have to take on someone’s personal problems, but you need to address their professional ones. The only way to find out what’s on their mind is to observe them and ask open ended questions. Notice when they come through for you and each other. Encourage them. Ask them what roadblocks they face.

Actually, just the feeling that someone notices and appreciates what you do can be enormously motivational. I was involved in a computer conversion where the old system was a card based “automatic” bookkeeping machine which belonged in the Smithsonian. We couldn’t convert the data. It had to be re-entered. The two women in the data entry department gamely took on this huge task and managed to convert a month’s worth of data every week until it was done. It being an Olympic year, I got some ribbon and those large chocolate coins in foil to make two gold medals, which we presented to them at a staff meeting. Afterwards, I worried that the whole thing had been a little hokey, but my boss said, “Look what they did with the ribbons.” Sure enough, both of them had pinned the medals up prominently in their workstations.

I have written before about being on a little team with big ambitions, and I have to agree with Catlette and Hadden that putting everything you’ve got behind an ambitious project (or a “Big Hairy Audacious Goal as another consultant calls it) energizes a team. Just make sure they feel like a team first.

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