One of the most perplexing questions in business is how to think about people. On the one hand, we realize that we need each other if our organizations are to achieve what the founders, current leaders, and employees—people all—wish to achieve.
We are reminded that there is no “I” in team, and that all great achievements come at the hands of people working together. We read company values statements that say, “People are our greatest asset.” A personal approach.
On the other hand, we are implored to “get the right people on the bus, and the wrong people off the bus.” It sounds so simple. We’re told to hire slow (to ensure we have the right people on the bus) but fire fast (when we decide someone shouldn’t be on the bus.) An impersonal approach.
Leaders’ persistent ambivalence about people—and subsequent impact on motivation—was writ large at a global manufacturing company recently. By any measure, the company has fallen on hard times. Even after several rounds of layoffs, it is still wrestling with the right formula for success. After another setback, the COO implored the employees to “take the [issue] personally” requiring some staff to return to working at company offices instead of home offices because the company needed “all hands on deck.”
That sounds reasonable. The COO wants the employees to really feel it. But, consider that those employees had survived years of deep and painful layoffs, so they most likely had been really feeling it for years. The question is whether that approach will engender deep commitment.
Leaders imploring employees to take it personally at one time but not at another time may seem insensitive and one-sided. Our research into employee motivation reveals employees have a need for warm and supportive relationships that are balanced, rooted in fairness, and free from ulterior motives. In other words, just like when we were in grade school, no one wants to feel used.
Where do you stand?
Where do you stand on the “it’s not personal, it’s just business” belief? What links do you see between your beliefs about business and your employees’ motivation?
Senior leaders—indeed, every leader—would do well to recognize the inherently personal, interconnected, and human dimensions of work and organizational life. When senior leaders implore employees to take it personally only when it suits them, they increase the likelihood that those employees will see the senior leaders—and the company—with the same kind of ambivalence. In that case, the negative cycle of “it’s not personal, it’s just business” continues—and never ends. We should be careful not to blame employees for that, though. After all, they learned it from their leaders.
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.