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Keys to Motivating Your Employees

By Dr. Chris Bart |

Four essential acts form the basis of strong leadership

Imagine you have just earned your first leadership assignment. You get to know your employees but after a while you come to the realization that the employees who report to you aren't doing what the company's new mission statement wants them to do: Amaze and delight each and every customer.

You try to get inventive and try to encourage them to change, but the results stay the same. Sound familiar? 

These challenges face everyone in a leadership role, regardless of whether they are a CEO, a department leader or an owner of a small enterprise. Great leaders must carry out the following four essential acts to capture the hearts and minds of their employees and, in so doing, get them to do what needs to be done. 

Essential Act 1:  Give direction

So obvious, yet so overlooked. Employees have a fundamental right to know where their organization is heading so that they can play a role in helping to make the achievement of that direction possible.

Indeed, when that direction is missing, workers will typically fill in the blanks with their own interpretations of where they think their firm is going and then let those interpretations drive their own well-intentioned behaviours. Their collective actions, however, usually result in high levels of confusion and chaos throughout the ranks as different individuals and groups work at cross purposes to one another.

Without clear direction a sense of malaise and lack of purpose will begin to set in. To avoid this situation, strong leaders often turn to their organization's mission statement for communicating direction. As the most popular management tool in the world, these statements have been much maligned over the years. But without them, it would be nearly impossible for leaders to create a sense of direction, collective understanding and unity of purpose among their troops, which helps defeat competitors. 

It is, however, extremely important to remember that simply writing a mission statement and then pasting it in the lobby does very little to create the kind of unified direction required to garner excellent results. In last month's article, we discussed how to build a mission statement that creates a true collective "sense of mission." Can this be a lot of work for a leader? Absolutely! But it can become the most powerful communication tool an organization ever creates.

Essential Act 2:  Practice open, frequent and focused communications

If employees do not know what exactly it is that they have to do when it comes to helping their organization achieve its purpose and vision, they cannot make effective contributions to it. They cannot get excited about it. And, by definition, they cannot feel good about themselves in terms of what they actually do.

It's important that leaders concentrate on the few high-priority messages that everyone needs to understand thoroughly – and remember – to create the organization's collective focus. Roger Smith, the failed CEO of General Motors, had this to say: "If I had an opportunity to do everything over again, I sure wish I'd done a better job of communicating with GM people...if people understand the 'why', they'll work at it.  Unfortunately for me, I never really managed to get that across."

The most underrated and underappreciated, yet very powerful, means of communication is by word-of-mouth. There is a straightforward reason for the powerfulness of word-of-mouth communications: Once a leader begins to speak about the organization's mission statement, a moment of truth is reached in the minds of listeners. It is at this point that stakeholders judge whether the leaders themselves believe and understand the mission.

Is there some magical frequency for determining the frequency of communication with employees? Not likely. Every situation is different. However, I have found that the extent to which a company's leadership team is able to regularly and routinely intersperse key words and phrases from its mission into their everyday conversations with the troops is a powerful demonstration that the mission is not a flavour-of-the-month program. When it comes to communication, all you can be sure of is, to paraphrase the late American author Jacqueline Susann: Once is not enough.

Essential Act 3: Lead by example

This act is as old as they come. According to the ancient warlord Sun Tsu: "One must lead with actions, not just words." Wise leaders must constantly look for ways to reinforce and reflect back to the organization through their own behaviour the priorities contained in the mission. This is why the legendary founder and CEO of Southwest Airlines routinely used to fly his airline while performing the duties of a "flight attendant." He wanted his crews to see firsthand what the boss meant by the company's stated mission of providing "the highest-quality customer service."

And he understood that employees are looking to their leaders for signals and cues in their actions as to what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.

Employees are also looking for leadership acts that inspire them.  Any resultant imitation becomes more than just flattery. It is how the organizational culture is developed and shaped. Make sure you are sending out the right messages in your behaviours and that they reinforce the organization's stated strategic direction. And if you aren't sure, try asking them for feedback about it.

Essential Act 4: Measure success and give rewards on the basis of the organization's mission, vision and values

It's a truism of business that you can't manage what you don't measure. And it's a truism of psychology that what gets rewarded gets done. But many organizations that claim to be "mission driven" don't measure their progress against the mission and fail to reward employees for helping to make the mission a reality. I know of one company that extolled its employees to deliver world-class customer service and then rewarded its customer complaints department on the basis of "ending the call within four minutes." Small wonder that a lot of customers found themselves hearing a dial tone halfway through their call!

Thus, the final step in making a mission statement part of your company's internal fabric is to make sure all company systems and processes align with the statement. This includes hiring, firing, promotions, bonuses and salary adjustments, just to name a few.

In next month's article, we'll discuss how smart leaders also understand that there is more to rewarding employees than money.
By following these four essential acts, you can dramatically improve the attitudes of your employees about coming to work. And they can help unlock and unleash the incredible potential that exists in almost every person who works for you.

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