Don’t Live in a Half-Built House
And yet people live in them. These houses are not being built; they are half-built. This has nothing to do with the real estate crash. It’s not a consequence of poverty. Nor is it a design statement.
Their inhabitants simply aren’t motivated to finish them. You see, they’re fundamentalist Mormons who have been excommunicated by the mainstream Mormon church for their practice of polygamy. And their last known leader, Warren Jeffs had a penchant for predicting the end of the world on a rolling six months basis.
If you think the world is about to end, what’s the point of fixing your house?
When I described these houses to a senior leader of a large retail bank — we’ll call her Anne — her face contorted with recognition.
“That’s exactly what I’m doing!” she said.
“Living in an unfinished house?” I asked.
“Yes!” She told me she hadn’t done her usual quarterly all-hands call with her team.
“Why not?” I asked.
“What’s there to say?” Anne responded. “Nothing’s clear. I have no idea what to tell them. Will they be in their roles in two months? Will their priorities change? Will we even exist? There’s too much uncertainty.”
She knew it was a mistake not to do the all-hands call. And yet, she admitted to me, she hadn’t done many of her normal management routines. She regularly canceled meetings with her direct reports and even skipped their performance reviews and career development conversations.
Why have a career development conversation with someone when there’s a good chance they may not have a career with you at all? You’re super-busy, understaffed, stressed, and feeling vulnerable yourself.
On top of all that, the people who report to you aren’t pushing for conversations either. Sure they want some answers. But they’re lying low. Keeping their heads down, trying not to make a splash. Because if you happen to be working on that layoff plan when they come by, you might take notice and add their name to the list. So they try to look busy. And they take the long way to the bathroom to avoid your office.
Here’s the problem: When our future is uncertain, we have a hard time functioning in the present.
So what should you do?
David McClelland, a Harvard psychology professor, wrote the book on Human Motivation. It’s 688 pages long, but since the world might end in six months, I’ll give you the short version. Everyone is driven by three things:
- Achievement (the desire to compete against increasingly challenging goals)
- Affiliation (the desire to be liked/loved)
- Personalized (the desire for influence and respect for yourself)
- Socialized (the desire to empower others; to offer them influence and respect)
If people have the opportunity to achieve, affiliate and influence, they’ll be motivated and engaged. Even without a clear vision of the future.
So instead of worrying about what life is going to be like tomorrow, focus on these three things today.
Sit in your office for an hour and think, one by one, about each of your people (including yourself). Ask:
- Is this person working on something meaningful and challenging; something for which he has about a 50% chance of succeeding?
- Is this person relating to other people in the office; people she likes and to whom she feel close?
- Is this person being recognized for the work he is doing? Can he influence decisions and outcomes?
If the answer is yes, great. That person will be motivated. If not, then create those opportunities immediately.
Give people clear goals and the autonomy to achieve them. Make sure they are working on something they find challenging and interesting.
Give them opportunities to collaborate (and celebrate) with others. This is especially important because at times of uncertainty, people become more political. They start to suspect that their colleagues are trying to be noticed, take more credit, work on better projects. But as they work on projects collaboratively, their trust grows.
Also give them opportunities to offer their input on how things should be done. Reward their participation with public recognition.
Anne realized that even though she was a “leader” in the bank, she too was paralyzed by the uncertainty of the future. That was several weeks ago.
I met with her again recently and she told me she had held one-on-one meetings with each of her managers that week. In those meetings she made sure each person had some kind of challenging, meaningful project to work on. She also made sure each had at least one project on that involved collaboration with other people. She told me that the third motivation was harder because it felt fake to recognize people for something they had done when she didn’t feel they had been doing much. She did give them influence over how they were going to achieve their projects, and as they made headway, she was looking for opportunities to recognize them.
Doing this had a side benefit for Anne. She was considerably more energized when I last saw her. Following through on this plan tapped into her motivation. It was challenging (achievement), helped her connect to the people with whom she worked (affiliation) and enabled her to enable others (power).
So it’s time to choose. Do you want to live in a half-built house while you wait for the end of the world? As it turns out, some people have been living in those houses for years.
Or do you want to be like Anne and spend whatever time you have fixing your house, along with your colleagues?
The world may end in six months, but at least those six months can be filled with engaging work, connected community, and empowered action. Since you can’t do anything about the future, don’t try. But you can do something about the present. And who knows, that just might make for a better future.
Peter Bregman is CEO of Bregman Partners, a company that strengthens leadership in people and in organizations through programs (including the Bregman Leadership Intensive), coaching, and as a consultant to CEOs and their leadership teams. Best-selling author of 18 Minutes, his most recent book is Four Seconds. To receive an email when he posts, click here.