Autonomy or Accountability? 5 Ways to Use Honey Instead of Vinegar to Motivate Employees

Golden Honey Bear, textLast week I met with a group of sales managers for a national retailer that is doing very well.  Turnover is low.  Same-store sales have been outpacing their peer group for five years.  Quarterly and annual financials have been excellent.

The question they were asking was, “How do we keep our people motivated?”  I asked why they think they have an employee motivation problem.  They explained that while same-store and company-wide performance has been terrific, it is slowing, and some employees are becoming less enthusiastic.   Those employees are becoming more frustrated when they do not delight a customer and earn a sale.

“What do you currently do when an employee gets upset that they did not fully satisfy a customer?” I asked.  One regional sales manager explained that they talk with the employee about things the employee could have been done better.  After all, I was told, “the employees need to be accountable for the results.”

The most important detail here is that the employee in that example works in a successful store, and is already disappointed to have not delighted a customer.  The sales associates—often in their late teens and early twenties, and highly skilled—take great personal pride in delighting customers.  The managers said they work hard to make the in-store experience fun for their child customers and their parents.  So, the motivational question here is: What are the best ways to help a salesperson (or any employee) who is already eager to delight a customer do it better in the future after they fail to meet a high standard held by both their organization and themselves?

First, let me say that the accountability approach is the last appeal you want to make.  No matter how skillfully we parse it, and no matter how sweetly we explain the situation, the accountability discussion is a thinly veiled form of control.  It says very clearly: You are responsible for this and I need you to really get that. Do you understand?  I have met very few employees who walk away from accountability discussions feeling good about themselves, their managers, and the company.  Instead, try using a less controlling, autonomy-supportive approach.

Here are some methods you might consider.  Research shows these approaches are much more likely to stimulate positive motivational responses than emphasizing accountability.

  1. Take the employee’s perspective.  Listen carefully to the employee’s experience so you understand it deeply.  In this case, recognize that the employee is already disappointed and desires to do a great job.
  2. Encourage initiative and choice.  Help the employee discover several new options for future action.  Be careful not to tell them everything they need to do.  Encouraging initiative means listening and guiding first and foremost, not pushing your formula.
  3. Help the employee take on more challenge—but not too much.  One or two more challenging steps at a time will generally work well.
  4. Provide a logical rationale for any direct requests you have.  They need to make their new actions their own.  The more you push the less likely they will experience optimal motivation. 
  5. Minimize use of pressuring language and controlling tone of voice.  Dialing down fear, concern, and pressure is vital to tapping into the employee’s natural desire to improve, grow, and perform at high levels.

All of the above approaches have been shown to result in positive behavioral responses because they help people feel validated, safe, and free from unnecessary controls.  They are like honey to accountability’s vinegar.  After all, which would you prefer?  Honey or vinegar?

About the author:

The Motivation Guy  (also known as Dr. David Facer)  is one of the principal authors—together with Susan Fowler and Drea Zigarmi—of The Ken Blanchard Companies’ new Optimal Motivation process and workshop.

4 thoughts on “Autonomy or Accountability? 5 Ways to Use Honey Instead of Vinegar to Motivate Employees

  1. The key thing I took from this is how to motivate people who are already motivated. A good problem to have and not one that is often addressed. I like the advice of passive suggestion and guided exploration. Let those that are motivated motivate themselves. A leader provides the helping hand. Thanks.

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