The simple answer to the age-old conundrum of how to motivate depends on the organization’s culture, the leadership style of management and current circumstances, including the economic environment. Since early childhood, we were taught that our actions have consequences. Do something good that exceeds expectations and get something good in return. Run afoul of what’s acceptable and be penalized. This positive/negative balancing act sets the tone for our lives from cradle to grave.
Does your company have a “take no prisoners” mentality when it comes to competition and winning? If so, the organization probably focuses more on the stick to motivate, paying albeit meaningful rewards for significant achievements that exceed goals. In this environment, it’s expected that winning is the norm and that missteps will receive high visibility. Typically, younger companies drive results this way because of the scarcity of money, the pressures on time, and the realization that mediocrity and too many misses can prove lethal.
In established organizations, a lighter collegial style is more common, as is the frequent use of the carrot. As an example, telephone call centers are noted for celebrating just about everything. A rep receives a relatively unremarkable compliment from a customer and bells go off and high fives fly. Everyone in this type of facility expects to be named Bugs Bunny for a day and to get a carrot on a regular basis. When infractions occur, the supervisor will have a chitchat with the offender, though the talk will likely be punctuated with an abundance of “warm fuzzies.”
Many type-A personalities wouldn’t be productive nor enjoy a purely “carrot patch” workplace. Go-getters tend to get a high from the pressure always on them to produce. They covet the rush of the thrills and chills of getting the tough job done. Many do their best when they are under the gun, fearing that if they slip and fall they may not get up again. “F of F,” or fear of failure, is their hot button, as perverse as it may sound. Sure, the carrot does motivate, too, but it’s the challenge of the chase, having someone with a stick on their tail that pushes them into overdrive. Can a company thrive with only type-A employees? Absolutely not, because it’s probable that this would create a constant state of anarchy.
Every business needs plenty of the Steady Eddies who can be counted on to consistently do the job day in and day out. This type thrives on predictability and the gratification of periodic attaboys. If the boss was to approach him or her with a stick to make a point, it would scare the bejesus out of him or her.
In between the top and bottom rungs of your corporate ladder, there are dozens of iterations of what it takes to get people to do their best. The skill is in figuring out what size fits each individual category. Creating the appropriate environment for your type of business will set the tone as to how people will respond. A utopia for overachievers could become a living hell for those who prefer a setting in which they can do their jobs where the only excitement is watching paint dry and grass grow. It takes a variety of all types to build an organization, and when all are carefully mixed together in the proper proportions, the team will jell, and that’s what gives a company its unique personality that works.
As people grow and mature, what worked in the past may have to change and the formula may need to be reconfigured to fit a company’s evolving needs. Also, when economic circumstances outside of your personnel’s control deteriorate, smart companies know it’s time to lighten up a bit and use more carrots, primarily because the stick can’t change the reality of a negative business environment. Much like beating that dead horse, it won’t do any good, and it will harm a company in the long run, as employees won’t forget how they were treated when the chips were down.
To most effectively craft your company’s motivation techniques, you must listen to what your employees are saying and then translate their words into what they really mean.
Learning when and with whom to dangle the carrot, use the stick, or add thrills and chills to the work environment will help drive your company’s sustained success.
Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988, starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money. During a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. In 2010, Feuer launched another retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first of its kind chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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