How to Inspire Workers in Tough Times

Despite living through possibly the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, some offices may still be filled with truly motivated people—energetic, driven, ambitious, hard-working, competitive. These are just the sort of traits needed to turn a company around. But most CEOs these days are struggling to figure out how to deal with downsized workforces populated with employees who suffer from a long list of a very different variety of social characteristics. Among them: dread, apathy, passivity, carelessness, and possibly even resentment.

Jon Katzenbach, CEO of Katzenbach Partners, has built a career out of cracking the code to inspire people. The author of The Discipline of Teams and The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization, Katzenbach argues that the key to encouraging people has more to do with figuring out how to connect them emotionally to their work than throwing money or promotions at them.

Recently, Shell Refining improved the performance of its Port Arthur (Tex.) refinery by following Katzenbach's approach. It empowered top supervisors, called "pride builders" at the company, by asking them for their advice on how to improve the plant's performance as well as how to cultivate more supervisors like them.

So what is Katzenbach's secret? BusinessWeek's Emily Thornton recently talked to Katzenbach about how his philosophy can be applied during this recession. Below are edited excerpts from their conversation.

What do you believe is the best way to motivate people during this recession?

We see the same problems in turnaround situations. That's analogous to what happens during a recession. It's when companies have to restructure and do all sorts of painful things. If you don't also concentrate on the more positive aspects of motivation, you don't get nearly as far in terms of behavior change and performance gains.

Relying on mandating, making tough decisions, and telling people that this is the way life is and you have to get through it, is not the same thing as getting them motivated to do it. The motivation impetus for most employees is at least as much emotional as it is a rational process. So you have to do something to connect with the emotional side of the employee.

How do you suggest managers make positive connections with employees?

It helps if you're adept at using some of the informal aspects of the organization along with the formal. That's counterintuitive to many leaders in tough situations who tend to fall back on the formal elements that they can control. Thus they work down that axis by changing objectives, changing programs, changing incentives, changing structures, redesigning processes.

[Such tactics] may change the cost structure. But the more successful companies in turnaround situations give at least as much attention to getting people to feel good about what they have to do in their daily work, and that's more of an emotional challenge. To address the emotional challenge, you have to actively influence the informal interactions of the organization, rather than sitting back and watching it or even worse, undermining its positive influence. In my mind, managing in this different world will put a premium on actively influencing the informal elements in ways that complement and accelerate the formal efforts.

What do you mean by informal elements?

In every organization, there are communities of common interest that exist. For example, people who smoke gather together wherever they can smoke; people of different gender and ethnic backgrounds tend to form communities. You want to have a sense for what those are, and which of them might be influenced in ways that are helpful in influencing key behaviors .

We find a practical way to do that is to go right down to the front line and find what I call the master motivators who are already recognized for their unique ability to gain the emotional commitment of their people. The interesting thing about the master motivator is that they intuitively make better use of informal networks and communities of common interest than most good managers do.

No matter how crummy things are, there's a master motivator down there who is taking care of his people by focusing them on the work they have to do each and every day, and finding a way to make them feel good about it. If you can find a handful of those, they're very insightful about what can work under today's difficult conditions. Their whole focus is, 'I have 22 people working for me. I have to keep them feeling good about what we have to do here. That's what I do.' The stuff they do is very different from what good managers do.

It's much more focused on the work itself, and much more likely to make use of informal sources of pride in that work. Their "mental compass" is always centered on how do I make Charlie and Emma feel good about the work we have to do here—no matter how boring, routine or difficult it may be. Understanding what they do in this regard and how they do it is incredibly helpful when you're trying to extend the emotional connections that can mobilize critical behaviors during difficult times.

What do these supervisors do that managers don't?

These "master motivators" recognize that every person has a different definition of success. And that's not what most leadership systems do. The system assumes that every person's definition of success is to climb the promotion ladder and make more money. In contrast, the master motivator knows there are a lot of people whose definition of success is tied more to their family or their community or something else in their personal lives. They're very clear on the fact that everyone has a different definition of success.

The other thing master motivators do is find and capitalize on local sources of pride. And they use multiple sources of pride. They might use company values. They might use family reactions. They might use customer feedback. They might use peer interaction. They might use several different sources of pride in the work because what they're trying to do is find something that is local and meaningful to a worker emotionally as well as rationally—and connect them to it in an individual way.

It's that individual connection with a local source of pride that master motivators are really good at. When you look more closely at what they do, there are only three or four things that really matter to their people—and anybody could do those things if they recognized its value. As a result, you can spread those three or four actions rather rapidly if you find ways to make exposures to those people more common. It's like spreading a virus—and it actually spreads the behaviors more rapidly than relying on formal methods alone.

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