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Fire Up Their Passion

Break their cycle of cynicism and turn those apathetic frowns upside down. Use this plan to reinvigorate your staff.
July 5, 2005
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/78548

Editor's note: This article was originally published in Harvard Business School's Working Knowledge.

Q: I'm interested in motivating long-term employees who have fifteen-plus years with my company. This group has heard all the visions of transient managers who were unfortunately only furthering their own careers, and they've become apathetic to improving their own lot, space or environment. I'm keen to hear the latest thoughts on whether it's possible for these people to shift their thinking and practices.

A: Current wisdom says, "Hire for attitude and train for skills." That's because humans are stubborn and don't like change. Well, that's not exactly true: We like change when other people are changing to make our lives easier. That's why social change takes a generation--the old mindset has to die off to make room for the new. But all is not hopeless. When attitudes are just a reaction to the work environment, people can change. Fix the situation, show them it's fixed, and let the change begin!

People get cynical and apathetic for good reason. Scandal after scandal reveals golden parachutes, endless perks and upper managers making millions without linking pay and performance. Jim Collins says in his book Good to Great that there's even evidence that the worse the leader, the more he or she takes home.

But let's assume you and your management team are prepared to be accountable, will accept a pay level the rank-and-file consider reasonable, and genuinely want to create a new company culture.

Do as I Do

Start with action, not words; people want results, not promises. You'll have to start by delivering change that's in their best interest, and back up your action with words, not the other way around.

A good place to start is by making a visible sacrifice for the company's common good. You might consider cutting your own pay, bonus and raise--especially if you've had layoffs recently. Give it back to the people who made it: your employees. Increase their benefits, hire back some laid-off workers or boost salaries. The role model here is Aaron Feuerstein, CEO of Malden Mills, who in 1995 kept 3,000 employees on the payroll after a fire leveled the business. His belief was that his responsibilities extended to employees and the community as well as to shareholders.

Next, give everyone a sense that showing up for work could make their lives better. At first, they won't be able or willing to believe you. You'll have to combat their lack of emotion with added emotion. Find the emotional connection people have with the company.

Some research indicates that people are most motivated when challenged to use their strengths to reach goals they think are doable. (See Authentic Happiness by Marty Seligman.) Find emotionally important goals by asking, "What's important about the work you do?" When they answer, ask, "What's important about that? What will that do?" a few times. Their answers will reveal values and passions. If they reply, "for the pay" and don't connect with any further goals, they may have no job passion to awaken. If someone's never had job-related hopes, dreams or aspirations, he or she probably won't develop them mid-career. (Significant emotional and spiritual events might do it, but that's a bit beyond the scope of this column. Business research suggests it's easier to change skills than attitudes, so your best bet may be to start hiring people with a more engaged attitude.) Watch people's faces: If they become animated or talk with longing in their voice, you've tapped into something real.

Now ask them to stay in that passion and describe their perfect job. Have 'em go wild. If the past culture has been especially oppressive, you'll probably be amazed at how unwild their dreams actually are. Things like "having a desk with three drawers" may be a big deal. Ask them, "What one thing can I do to help you move closer to that dream?"

Listen very, very carefully to the answer; you're at a critical moment. They're telling you how you can send an emotional message, not just a verbal one. Whatever they say to do, just do it. Say, "I appreciate your sharing that. I'll keep it in mind." Don't promise anything; they've learned that promises get broken. Just quietly get it done. Then check back and ask about next steps. As soon as possible, have them suggest what they can do to drive the change further.

Beware the temptation of self-promotion! Don't crow about how responsive you're being. It's no big deal. Choose small things and take visible actions that people find meaningful. Actions are what people want, not words. They'll notice, and the word will spread that you're a leader who actually makes life better, rather than issues empty promises.

Once you've taken action and people have evidence that things can be different, it's time to encourage them to step up and do their part. Once they start going, your job is supporting them and helping them align their actions with the direction of the overall company.

This isn't an easy process. If people are truly happy in their work environment, don't expect them to embrace change. But if the apathy comes from bad leadership and unchanging drudgery, you can change that, and they'll get it once you start demonstrating that you're truly different.

Help the Change Take Root

Be vigilant! People will have trouble adapting to you. Even if they're psyched to take the reins, they may need help coping. I worked with a secretary who dreamed of becoming a project manager. When given her first project, she discovered she didn't know how to step up and lead. In meetings, she deferred to senior people out of sheer habit, even when the responsibility was hers as project manager. We worked to help her define her role and to acquire the project management skills to master the position. As a leader, you foster change that may push people into new territory. Be sensitive, and be prepared to intervene and help insure their success.

As people take charge, they might charge right in someone else's face. Look out for turf battles, injured egos, feelings of exclusion and other potential hot spots. When war looks likely, step in and help the participants negotiate a settlement. Get them together, help them find common goals (or remind them of the team's common goals), and then give them the responsibility for working out their differences. Be available as a resource, but get them in the habit of behaving like mature adults. Once you've tapped their motivation, it's up to you to help them grow to work as a strong team that produces solid, substantial results.


Stever Robbins is an authority on overwhelm in the workplace. A veteran of nine startups (can you say: overwhelm to the max?) over 25 years, Stever co-designed the "Foundations" segment of Harvard's MBA program. He is the author of It Takes a Lot More than Attitude to Lead a Stellar Organization, and has appeared on CNN-fn and in the Wall Street Journal, Investors Business Daily and Harvard Business Review. Stever and his monthly newsletter can be found at www.SteverRobbins.com/.