In a Downturn, Don’t De-Motivate

Question - How do you motivate employees?

Jim Collins: When we did the Good to Great research one of the questions we asked the executives in Good to Great was how did you motivate employees for sometimes the very, very difficult things that needed to be done in order to produce these really great results?  And again you’re talking to companies sometimes that were heading into very difficult times that then made a transition to become great.  They were average or mediocre and became great.  But they made a substantial change in performance.  How did they motivate people to do all the hard stuff that was needed to make that happen?

The answer is they didn’t.  Because what they understood is the critical question is not how do you motivate people.  The critical question is how do you find self motivated people?  And how do you get self motivated people in place, those people who always have that kind of chronic compulsive obsessive desperate need to perform?  That actually what you really want to do is almost hold them back because they’re almost unhealthy in their obsession.  They’re almost unhealthy in their drive.  They’re almost unhealthy in their intensity.  They don’t need to be motivated. 

The real critical thing is, question is not how to motivate people, but how to get the right people who are self motivated and self disciplined, and to create and environment where those people remain motivated, which is a very, very different question than how do you take an unmotivated person and make them motivated.  And the big mistake that people make is they behave in ways that de-motivate already previously motivated people. 


Question - How can you “de-motivate” people?

Jim Collins: In the How the Mighty Fall, which we recently just published, we’re looking at great enterprises that fell.  It’s very interesting because you kind of look at the down side of how a great enterprise unravels, self destructs, hits a wall, goes off the rails; enterprises that did not need to fall.  And you put a lens on the question of well, what happened to the dynamics inside those enterprises?  What were the cancers that grew up? 

Now in order to become great they had to have had very, very motivated people.  It didn’t happen by accident.  Right?  But then as you begin to head down the back side, what do we see about the leadership or management behaviors that might start to de-motivate people?  In there we put a table which is teams on the way down and teams on the way up.  And what’s very interesting are the internal dynamics of those teams.  One way that those who are leading companies an the way down where people have become de-motivated, previously motivated people, is number one, they would not have genuine dialog, debate, and violent disagreement.  It was more, “I know the answers”.  That’s one approach to it.  Or we have a lot of consensus, but no really argument and debate. 

And what we found is that what really motivated the best people was the best people getting around a table, bring data, evidence and logic and the leader leading in a Socratic model of asking question, after question, after question, in an attempt to really understand and to argue and debate about what needed to be done.  And we have brutal facts that we have to confront.  And then from that a decision would emerge, people would unify behind that decision, and click you’d get a turn on flywheel. 

How would you de-motivate people?  Well, you de-motivate people if you have the wrong people, because there’s nothing that the right people hate more then having to carry the weight of people who aren’t carrying their weight.  Second, if you fail to confront the most brutal facts, it’s very de-motivating to work in an environment where you can see all the brutal facts, but those in power are not confronting those brutal facts.  And you want them confronted because you want to be part of something great.  It’s very de-motivating to be part of an environment where you have your say, but your say is never really heard, is never really part of the argument, part of the discussion, part of the debate. 

And finally it’s very de-motivating to be part of an environment where nobody unifies behind a decision, where you get a lot of discussion, but then after the decision, everybody kind of goes their own ways.  And you think,

“What’s the point of being part of this enterprise?” 


Recorded on: August 12, 2009

Author Jim Collins thinks the best employees need no motivation; leaders trip up when they destroy that drive.

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