Years ago, I discovered that the joy of a fancy family vacation at an exotic location could be very quickly nullified by aggravation and frustration over the hesitation to pay $15 for a $2 toy at an amusement park or tourist trap. Over time, I decided that it was worth more to enjoy the whole vacation experience than to try in vain to save a few dollars on an overpriced souvenir and sour the mood for the rest of the trip. After all, I reasoned, a few extra bucks was a small price to pay to get the most out of the thousands of dollars we had already spent.
Shortly thereafter, I began to adopt the same philosophy in my leadership roles at work. I had witnessed countless examples of how the companies I worked for would spend enormous amounts of money allocating significant resources to installing projects or implementing new systems and then get stingy and shortchange people as soon it came to time to work on training and development. I vowed to make sure that I was not going to be guilty of the same thing if I could help it. Unfortunately, even though I had some victories, since I wasn’t always in full control of our resources, my quest often felt like an uphill battle. So, I decided to go for broke, as it were, and do whatever I could do to earn people’s trust and commitment for free! I decided that I would try to do whatever I could with what I had available, and, without spending a dime, see how putting our heads together and getting even more creative could set us up for success.
I always found that the response I got to the intrinsic rewards—none of which cost me anything to implement—went far beyond the response I got from trying to motivate people with money and other extrinsic rewards. Of course, pay and benefits are important because people go to work to put food on their table and they want to get compensated competitively, but this only really affects their decision to stay or seek a different opportunity. Paying well enough for your employees to live fairly comfortably is not a competitive advantage in the marketplace, rather it is the least people expect of their workplace.
Although compensation can be a serious dissatisfier if it is not considered to be fair and equitable, it is hardly ever a motivator. In other words, our experience of whether we are inspired and compelled to bring our best to work everyday is not driven by our paychecks. We don’t go home on payday, totally exhilarated because we got paid again, because that is our baseline expectation. Our experience in the workplace is shaped far more strongly by how we are treated and whether we feel like we belong and whether we feel that the work we do is important. We are intrinsically motivated when we know that we are growing, we are valued and appreciated, and that we are making a contribution that matters.
To that end, as leaders, there are a number of ways in which we can shape people’s experiences at work such that they are fulfilled and inspired, and we can engage in these practices to motivate others without spending a dime, so that resource shortages never become an excuse for declining morale.
Here are a few suggestions I’d like you to consider:
1. Be approachable – Even if you have an organization of thousands and can’t chit-chat with everyone every day, how you treat the few people you come across makes all the difference. It is easy to get wrapped up in your own world and not notice the people around you, but remember, just by virtue of you being a leader, they look up to you, and one small gesture of acknowledgment goes a long way. I worked with a CEO whom I would occasionally pass by in the hallways, and my experience was the same every time. This person always acted like a celebrity with a hundred things on their mind and trying to avoid the paparazzi! Don’t be like that. Look up, smile, make eye contact, and greet people.
2. Ask for people’s opinions – I mean specifically! It is not enough to say you have an open door policy or that people should let you know if they have any feedback for you. Everybody says those things. What sets you apart is whether you actually demonstrate good faith and follow through with specific inquiries, preferably beyond the immediate circle of people you normally work with, to ask for their opinion on specific topics.
3. Listen – Most people know you are busy and they don’t expect you to spend an hour listening to them, but they will really appreciate it when you give them your full attention during those few minutes when they are talking to you. For the duration of the conversation, pretend they are the boss, and act accordingly. Avoid looking around like you have a two second attention span, even if you do! Don’t pull out your phone or multi-task. Don’t zone out and be planning your next conversation or your response to what they are saying. Seek to understand not just what they are saying, but the message they are trying to convey that cannot be communicated through words.
4. Extend trust – We all want to be trusted, but often fail to realize that our unwillingness to extend trust to others often makes us less worthy of their trust. Share information, delegate responsibility and share the corresponding authority, assume positive intent and don’t design your policies based on the 2% who will abuse them, but rather the 98% who want to do good. There are many ways in which you can send a strong signal to the organization that you are trusting and trustworthy. Look for them and actively practice them.
5. Give your discretionary effort – I’m not talking about working harder and putting in more hours. I know plenty of leaders who do that in abundance, but are perceived to be doing so, at worst, only for their career advancement or, at best, to improve the results. What makes a real difference is when people see that you are willing to put in extra effort for them, even when there is nothing in it for you. Years ago, my wife and I coordinated a 13-week personal finance course four times for the people at the plant I was leading, at 7:30 am on Saturdays. That’s 52 Saturday mornings that we could have just relaxed, but instead we happily and enthusiastically went into the plant to facilitate a 2-hour course to help employees and their families get their finances in order. We didn’t do it to get accolades, but we indeed received them in the form of support, loyalty, respect, and many kind words of gratitude.
6. Lead by principles, not rules – Every workplace has to have some rules, whether they are mandated by external regulations or internal systems. We all understand that and most of us are fine with respecting and abiding by the rules. But none of us want to be treated simply like a number, as if the special circumstances in our lives don’t matter, especially when we know that our leaders could exercise a bit of flexibility if they really wanted to. Don’t be so concerned about doing the same thing in every situation and protecting consistency to the point that you become merely an unthinking administrator of predetermined rules without any regard as to how you can establish a two-way give and take relationship with employees. Aspire to lead not by the letter of the law, but by the spirit of the law, and use your discretion in cases where you see that following he literal rule would be counterproductive to success and fulfillment. It is easy to manage by rules alone, but it is not very effective. It is harder to apply principles and make good decisions but it’s worth it, and in the end, it earns respect and loyalty.
7. Do unto others as they would like to be done unto them – Tailor the way you communicate, how you recognize people, how you deliver feedback, etc. such that it makes the most impact for the person who is receiving your communication. Get to know enough about the people you work with to know what style works for them and what kind of recognition would truly make them feel special. If you have a standard routine for recognizing people on their anniversary and you always buy donuts and coffee or pizza, think about how you can adjust the celebration, at least slightly, to let the person know it wasn’t just some routine thing that happened, but something that someone put some thought into. We all know that those standard Christmas cards some companies send to their clients or employees mean nothing and end up in the trash without a second thought, but a card with a personal note does convey a special sentiment. One of my favorite things to do is to send out hand-written note to recognize, congratulate, or thank people for something specific.
8. Own up to your mistakes – Don’t worry about letting people know you’re not perfect. They already know. They just wish you would acknowledge it sometimes. Admit your mistakes and make a sincere attempt to right your wrongs, and others will become more authentic with you and with themselves in kind.
About the Author: Amir Ghannad is an international keynote speaker, author of The Transformative Leader, leadership consultant, culture transformation champion, and founder of The Ghannad Group. He has made it his life's work to guide leaders and equip them with the tools, skills, and the mindset necessary to create extraordinary workplace cultures that deliver breakthrough results. Download his free e-book, titled 5 Practical Steps to Make Your Culture Transformation Stick by clicking here.
As always, have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary!
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