I’m frequently struck by the similarity between trying to motivate employees and trying to motivate my kids.
It’s not that employees are childish. But as my kids grow, I am reminded over and over again that I’m dealing with other human beings who, though they still can’t put their pants on properly, are determined to deal with the world as they see it.
When my daughter was two my wife and I decided it was time to get her a “big girl” bed and start training her to go to sleep without getting out of it. We said prayers with her, read her stories, sang her songs, and every night as we tried to leave she would wake up and throw a fit as soon as we started to shut the door. It was exasperating.
One night, it was my turn. I had gotten her almost to sleep but it was late and I was in a hurry to finish some work I had left undone. Sure that I was going to have another 10-minute fit on my hands, I told her that I loved her and that I was going to put her in bed and she needed to stay there. She looked up at me and said “Door open.”
Einstein never had a more meaningful Eureka moment. “You want me to leave the door open?” I asked.
“If I leave the door open, will you stay in bed?”
“Okay, I’m going to leave the door open. But if you get out of bed, I’ll close it.”
And in less than 10 seconds that was it. She stayed in bed that night and every night since.
As business leaders, we’re often stuck trying to get our employees to do things that would be good for our customers, good for our business, and good for our employees. They don’t often kick and scream like my daughter did, but they are often just as stubbornly resistant to change.
So we resort to carrots and sticks, company “culture”, “new and exciting” initiatives, and sometimes just plain threats. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. But they almost always guarantee frustration for both sides.
What we don’t do nearly often enough is ask our employees what they need to get the job done.
My wife and I were right; it was time for our daughter to learn to stay in bed. But our idea for how to do it was nothing like what it actually took. When we finally got my daughter’s input, we succeeded. We succeeded because we finally aligned our vision with her needs and she was happy to do it.