Management Letter Featured

10:10am EDT July 22, 2002
H1>When all you need is a small piece of cloth

William Armstrong

Once, after a particularly brutal encounter with the enemy in which his outnumbered troops rallied to score a decisive victory, Napoleon commented about the nature of incentives. He observed that money alone could never adequately compensate the troops for the hardships of battle. The desire to fight on in bitter cold, facing hunger, fatigue and the ever-present threat of the loss of a limb or even death, could not be sustained with the mere promise of wages.

Early in his military career, he realized that people would actually risk their lives for a tiny piece of colored material they could pin to their uniforms. The motivational value of a ribbon that signified an achievement had more value to many of these men than their very lives.

I thought of this story while preparing a presentation for a team of upper-level managers faced with the prospect of initiating several major changes over the next few months. One of their concerns was determining what incentives would motivate their associates to put forth the extra effort necessary to successfully implement the changes, given the time constraints.

As often happens, management's first thoughts were of financial incentives. But after some discussion of Napoleon's observation, they were able to cobble together an innovative package of non-financial incentives that should result in a higher level of involvement in the change process.

Employee involvement was enhanced in part when they were included in the planning process and given regular updates as to the progress being made as a result of their input.

Needless to say, the package did not include combat ribbons or medals, but then none of the people were being asked to risk their lives.

We have been told for several decades by leading management gurus, including Herzberg, Drucker, Deming and even Tom Peters, that monetary incentives are not the only, or even the best, motivators. Maslow wrote that once people have met their physiological, security and safety needs, their attention turns to their social and self-actualization needs. You can meet such needs by creating an environment in which people are challenged and believe they are contributing to important results-and have some control over their destinies.

Organizations that have embraced a team-based working environment report higher levels of employee commitment. When teams have the responsibility for implementing their suggestions, the results have been even more significant. A study done some years ago concluded that real involvement could be achieved when the work environment includes:

  • a visual objective;

  • immediate feedback;

  • challenging, but attainable goals; and

  • work performed in a socially acceptable atmosphere.

The social atmosphere is created when the work is associated with a meaningful purpose.and everyone is working together to achieve that purpose.

However, "a small piece of cloth" will never motivate effectively in an organization whose greatest concern is over the size of the "parachutes."

William Armstrong is president of Armstrong/Associates, a Pittsburgh-based management consulting firm. The second edition of his book, Catalytic Management: Success by Design (McGraw-Hill), is now available at Barnes & Noble, Borders, and WaldenBooks stores. He is a member of the Pennsylvania Speakers Association, a chapter of the National Speakers Association.