Innovation, Leadership, Organizational Culture, Relationships

How to Motivate and Get Buy-In from your Employees

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A few years ago, I worked with a very innovative Dean and President of an independent law school in New York City. He had an exciting vision of a dramatic cultural and organizational transformation and re-branding that would ensure a unique and differentiated experience for students and their parents. I was surprised that his senior team, all strategic-minded and creative people, was less than enthusiastic about the project. 

The Dean saw it as another manifestation of the inadequacy of his senior team. If he could only be surrounded by aggressive and forward thinking innovators like himself!…Team members, however, saw it as more of the same; one more time-consuming exercise in futility; one more item on their full plate; one more “big idea” that had nothing to do with their own concerns and aspirations and would not give them new tools or abilities to improve their own work and objectives.

Does this ring any bells for you? Have you ever been disappointed in your team’s or members’ complacency in the face of opportunity? Their stubborn resistance to change? What do you do to turn this around?

Last week I watched a television show called The Profit. It is one of the several shark-tankish concepts of wealthy business people selecting the right entrepreneurs to invest in. In this series, an investor named Marcus Lemonis selects failing businesses to invest in. He goes one step further, however, and shows us how he helps these often skeptical and unwilling owners to turn their business around through a tough love approach.

In the episode I watched, Lemonis invests in a Chicago-based catering business. He discovers that the business is failing because they are only focusing on one sector and because the micro-managing owner has effectively demotivated and demoralized staff. 

To address the first problem, Lemonis wants the business to diversify by adding a food truck line to their portfolio. The owner buys and customizes the first two food trucks and Lemonis breaks the exciting news to the employees. He is surprised to encounter cynicism, suspicion and even hostility from these employees. They never knew these plans were being made, they complain. No one included them in the planning or shared information as plans developed. They had enough on their plate with the current business—working hard without being appreciated or trusted since their boss constantly overrode their decisions and discounted their ideas. Most were on the verge of quitting. Of what possible benefit might a new business line be to them?

Lemonis didn’t try to shame them or excite them with a vision of a future in which they did not feel they had a voice or defined role. He asked them, instead, to explain how they were being currently paid. It was by the hour. He then explained that, in addition to this pay, they would also receive a share in the success of the food truck business. If the business was not successful, nothing would change in their current compensation. It there was a profit, they would receive additional compensation. It was that simple. And so was the immediate buy-in by all employees.

The new business was no longer an add-on, imposed top down, but an opportunity for them to improve their own present and future. They were no longer passive cogs in an impersonal system but co-owners and co-creators. 

In the storyline this was just the first of a series of transformations brought about by helping the owner delegate and trust his employees with responsibilities that harnessed their talents and motivations to the company’s goals. By changing the systems of incentives and rewards, employees became partners in the company’s success and in no time, profits soared, and the company was restored to health. 

The turnaround, however, started with the moment when the employees were given an opportunity to participate in the company’s success and be rewarded on the basis of the outcomes they helped bring about, rather than the performance of “assigned tasks.” From that moment on, the company’s future was no longer an abstraction because it was linked to their own future. So simple and yet so radical for ensconced systems of incentives and rewards, the view of employees as tools of implementation (and of members as instruments of consumption—mere users of products a company or association produces).

What if you considered specific ways individuals could benefit from the success of a new strategy, initiative or other change you want to introduce? Why should people support them? How would their own lives, work experience and aspiration be advanced through them? Abstract visions of the future or well-meaning promises and expressions of appreciation become reality only when they connect to specific ways individuals can benefit from  them immediately—whether these are opportunities for additional income, concrete new skills they can market, a share in profits or decision-making.