Fire Up Their Passion

Break their cycle of cynicism and turn those apathetic frowns upside down. Use this plan to reinvigorate your staff.

By Stever Robbins • Jul 5, 2005

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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

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

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

People get cynical and apathetic for good reason. Scandal afterscandal reveals golden parachutes, endless perks and upper managersmaking millions without linking pay and performance. Jim Collinssays in his book Good to Great that there's evenevidence that the worse the leader, the more he or she takeshome.

But let's assume you and your management team are preparedto be accountable, will accept a pay level the rank-and-fileconsider reasonable, and genuinely want to create a new companyculture.

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 theirbest interest, and back up your action with words, not the otherway around.

A good place to start is by making a visible sacrifice for thecompany'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. Increasetheir benefits, hire back some laid-off workers or boost salaries.The role model here is Aaron Feuerstein, CEO of Malden Mills, whoin 1995 kept 3,000 employees on the payroll after a fire leveledthe business. His belief was that his responsibilities extended toemployees and the community as well as to shareholders.

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

Some research indicates that people are most motivated whenchallenged to use their strengths to reach goals they think aredoable. (See Authentic Happiness by Marty Seligman.) Findemotionally important goals by asking, "What's importantabout the work you do?" When they answer, ask,"What's important about that? What will that do?" afew times. Their answers will reveal values and passions. If theyreply, "for the pay" and don't connect with anyfurther goals, they may have no job passion to awaken. Ifsomeone's never had job-related hopes, dreams or aspirations,he or she probably won't develop them mid-career. (Significantemotional and spiritual events might do it, but that's a bitbeyond the scope of this column. Business research suggestsit's easier to change skills than attitudes, so your best betmay be to start hiring people with a more engaged attitude.) Watchpeople's faces: If they become animated or talk with longing intheir voice, you've tapped into something real.

Now ask them to stay in that passion and describe their perfectjob. Have 'em go wild. If the past culture has been especiallyoppressive, you'll probably be amazed at how unwild theirdreams actually are. Things like "having a desk with threedrawers" may be a big deal. Ask them, "What one thing canI do to help you move closer to that dream?"

Listen very, very carefully to the answer; you're at acritical moment. They're telling you how you can send anemotional message, not just a verbal one. Whatever they say to do,just do it. Say, "I appreciate your sharing that. I'llkeep it in mind." Don't promise anything; they'velearned that promises get broken. Just quietly get it done. Thencheck back and ask about next steps. As soon as possible, have themsuggest what they can do to drive the change further.

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

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

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

Help the Change Take Root

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

As people take charge, they might charge right in someoneelse's face. Look out for turf battles, injured egos, feelingsof exclusion and other potential hot spots. When war looks likely,step in and help the participants negotiate a settlement. Get themtogether, help them find common goals (or remind them of theteam's common goals), and then give them the responsibility forworking out their differences. Be available as a resource, but getthem in the habit of behaving like mature adults. Once you'vetapped their motivation, it's up to you to help them grow towork 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 ItTakes a Lot More than Attitude to Lead a Stellar Organization,and has appeared on CNN-fn and in the Wall StreetJournal, Investors Business Daily and HarvardBusiness Review. Stever and his monthly newsletter can be foundat www.SteverRobbins.com/.

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins is a venture coach, helping entrepreneurs and early-stage companies develop the attitudes, skills and capabilities needed to succeed. He brings to bear skills as an entrepreneur, teacher and technologist in helping others create successful ventures.

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