Broken and Transformed: Moving beyond lifes difficult times

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The people who might respond to such inducements are already up and running. So how do you get these people to follow your lead? How do you get them energized and committed in such a way that they not only support your initiatives but carry them out? After 30 years of studying business organizations and advising executives, I have concluded that these are precisely the wrong questions to ask. Your job is to create the circumstances in which their inherent motivation—the natural commitment and drive that most people have—is freed and channeled toward achievable goals.

That approach requires an entirely different managerial mind-set. Achieving this shift in perspective is anything but easy. First, consider the problem facing Annette. Though the cases in this article are real, the names and identifying details have been changed. She is a senior designer at a large publishing and graphic design business, with dotted-line responsibility for Colin, a project team member. Always something of a maverick, Colin nonetheless has a good work history. But the team is feeling the heat because the company restructured it to reduce costs and speed turnaround times. After discussing the situation with Dave, Annette decides that she will be the one to talk to Colin because she has the better relationship with him.

When she meets with him and tries to get him to accept this line of reasoning, Colin agrees to do what Annette wants. In her opinion, Colin is in his comfort zone: He supports the other team members, even helps them to solve their problems, but he does so at the expense of fulfilling his own responsibilities. Annette wonders whether Colin has become a misfit in the new structure and will have to leave.

Perhaps she should give him a formal warning at his annual appraisal. Or maybe she should transfer him to a less demanding job, in effect demoting him. Paolo works in Eastern Europe as a country manager for an international property developer. George, a chartered accountant with an MBA, is a direct report whose job is to sell plots of land and develop strategic alliances with local companies. George is fairly new to this position, having previously worked in a back-office role overseeing customer accounts.

Although George is pleasant and enthusiastic, his performance is subpar and shows no signs of improvement. In fact, George has yet to sell a single parcel of land. In his dealings with potential partners, the garrulous George acts as though his bonhomie is all he needs to cut a deal. And the deals he does manage to make turn out to be ill considered and costly. Because of these issues, Paolo meets with George several times to try to get him to change his ways. George responds with encouraging smiles, plausible excuses, and a commitment to Paolo that things will change, but nothing does.

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In the final analysis, Paolo decides, George is slippery and lazy. Exasperated, Paolo decides to issue George an ultimatum: Improve your game or get out. But firing George would be an expensive option; people with his background and skills are difficult to find in this part of the world. Poor Paolo. He can almost smell the failure likely to result from a confrontation. Poor Annette. If only she could convince Colin to improve his attitude, she could hold on to a potentially valuable team member. These two cases share some qualities that often bedevil executives in their attempts to motivate problem people.

For instance, Annette and Paolo believe that they just need the right sales pitch to turn around Colin and George. But each of us has a unique profile of motivational drivers, values, and biases, and we have different ideas about what is reasonable. This frequent mismatch of perceptions leads to another common problem with managerial attempts at motivation: the futile and prolonged game of tag, with a manager repeatedly trying to slap some motivation onto the problem employee.

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Think of Colin avoiding his bosses. Think of George and his elusive promises. In trying to convert Colin and George into different kinds of people, they—like most managers dealing with problem employees—have set themselves an impossible goal. Change comes from within or not at all.

So if Annette and Paolo have approached their problems in the wrong way, what is the right way? I propose a relatively simple method I have seen work time and again. It involves shifting the responsibility for motivation from subject to object, from boss to subordinate. Crucially, it also involves a shift in perspective: The manager needs to look at the employee not as a problem to be solved but as a person to be understood.

With people we like, we try to understand how they feel. Such blinkered perceptions, common in everyday life, are particularly prevalent in the hierarchical setting of business. That knowledge would only unsettle us. Because of the effort it takes to decenter, particularly with difficult employees, the method I propose is demanding.

But it is no more difficult, and certainly it is more effective, than motivational techniques based on inspirational leadership. Although many problem employees display a marked lack of drive and commitment in their jobs, these qualities are usually alive and well in other areas of their lives. Certainly, not all people are going to feel the same passion for their work that they do for their hobbies or other outside interests.

Most workers have the potential to engage with their work in a way that furthers managerial goals. For example, impediments may appear suddenly because of new stresses at home or may accumulate incrementally over years, the product of frustrated dreams or broken promises at work. And chances are that the sentiments are mutual—which makes conventional pep talks about improving performance come across as insincere, at best. Instead of pushing solutions on people with the force of your argument, pull solutions out of them. To accomplish this, you may have to rethink what your problem employees can reasonably be motivated to do.

But the approach will help you get the best from them, whatever their abilities and skills. First, while this method is based on empathy, it is anything but soft.

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It demands that a manager take charge of a difficult situation and resolve it. In fact, the truly spongy method is what you are probably using now: either ignoring your problem employees or repeatedly and unsuccessfully trying to convince them that they should improve their performance.

Second, my method does require an investment of time, but it is an investment that should get you to a resolution of the problem sooner than other means would. Keep in mind that this approach is designed to create a resolution—not necessarily a solution—to the problem you face. But the three-step method I propose will put an end to the evasions, repetitions, and broken promises.

At the very least, it will drive you to a moment of truth, a point at which you and the employee together can see a path to the goal you have set—or agree that no solution is possible. Have you been going round and round with someone, having the same fruitless conversations over and over? Discard your assumptions about the person and start afresh. Be a psychologist. Have you been contentedly clueless, neither knowing nor caring much about what makes an employee tick? You have to dig deeper to find out what drives that person—and what may be blocking those drivers.

Ask yourself what words this individual would use to describe those same behaviors. It may give you a fresh insight into the nature of the problem.

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Have you been proudly occupying a moral high ground in your perspective on this person? Decide now whether you really want to solve the problem or sit in judgment. Have you failed to search for any redeeming features in this person? Think hard. Because discovering even one positive characteristic in someone can color your relationship in entirely new ways and create a starting point for you to connect. Have you been dismissing out of hand how someone perceives you? Tom has been struggling to help Jack improve his performance. But with each warning, Jack, who is naturally shy, just seems to get quieter.

Until now, no one, including Tom, knew what he had been going through. A problem employee is taken through the usual appraisal routines and management discussions and then is dismissed—sometimes after years of unproductive performance. The first step thus requires that a manager work to understand where a problem employee is coming from: What drives that person? What blocks those drives? What might happen if the impediments are removed? Two other factors also figure in the equation: you, as the boss, and the context within which the problem is occurring. How well does Annette understand Colin?

What does Paolo really know about George? Clearly, these managers need more information. It can come from peers, subordinates, or previous bosses. Much of the data will come, however, from problem employees themselves. You need to have a series of informal conversations—at the water cooler, over lunch, at social events—that will give you insight into what your employees are really about.

What does the world look like from where the employee sits? How have his expectations and desires been molded by key past experiences? What passions govern his choices? What stifles these passions in the workplace? This may sound difficult, but in executive classes I teach, I find that people can learn these things about one another in a ten-minute interview, if they ask the right questions.

After all, we often have these conversations at dinner parties; we just rarely have them at work. What you discover will likely surprise you. A test of this would be asking problem employees to describe themselves. These informal conversations are the starting point in effectively motivating problem people. For example, Annette learns through some asking around that Colin, outside work, is building a house. No motivation problem there!

You will have to do some honest soul-searching. Your problem employee may be uncomfortable talking about his or her perception of you, but over time you may even be able to piece together a picture—probably unflattering—of how you are viewed. Even if that picture seems unfair and inaccurate, remember: If something is perceived as real, it is real in its consequences.

Others can provide additional information. What you learn may convince you that your relationship with the problem employee is dysfunctional beyond repair, at which point you should abandon the method and hand over the motivation task to someone else. More likely, though, the way you interact with a problem employee—for example, something as basic as the way you talk to that person—is simply a turn-off. What works fine with your other reports is hopelessly wrong for this individual.

Needless to say, that can be a chastening realization, and many managers find it hard to face. Finally, you need to analyze the context. Is something about the current situation bringing out the worst in the employee—and maybe in you? Quite possibly, your dislike has gotten in the way of getting to know the problem employee. Hans runs a division of a Swiss brokerage business. Luca is a member of a person back-office team there that, although it processes customer accounts, has little customer contact. How could it be that I was frustrated, one of my partners was enraged, and my other partner was a bit peeved?

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  • I would never use this word to describe how I was feeling, but then again, I had never been that calm in an unjust situation. Maybe he was on to something. Is it possible that the words we attach to our experience actually become our experience? Do words have a biochemical effect? For the next few weeks after that meeting, I began to notice the different language patterns of others and how they magnified or softened their emotions. Can a change in words lead to a change in state?

    It was time to test this theory. I created a day challenge for myself. First, I would have to identify my emotional habits. Then, I would consciously replace these with a new word to break my default pattern of thought and feeling. I got my first opportunity after a long series of connecting flights, all of which were late. I arrived at my hotel at 2 a. I waited another 10 minutes at the front desk while the clerk slowly searched for my name in the computer.

    The frustration compounded until it turned to anger. Just saying that word changed the tone of my voice and made the whole situation seem silly. The clerk looked at me in confusion before breaking into a big smile. I smiled back; my pattern was broken. As ridiculous and simple as it sounds, the replacement word broke my pattern of anger. The emotional volcano building inside of me instantly cooled. Could it really be this easy?

    Just by changing the words we habitually use to describe our emotions, could we change our feelings and the quality of our lives? Ten days turned into a month and I can tell you, beyond a shadow of a doubt, it was a life-transforming experience. We can be proactive in choosing our emotions—we can make experiences more pleasurable. This is how you create a choice instead of a habitual reaction.

    Transformational Vocabulary gives you the power to change your experiences in life by lowering the intensity of negative emotions to the point where they no longer control you.

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    It can also be used to take positive experiences and increase them to even greater heights of pleasure. How extraordinary will your life be when you consistently lower the intensity of negative emotions and intensify the positive ones? Start small. Note the negative words you use on a consistent basis and ask yourself how you can change them. Robbins has empowered more than 50 million people from countries through his audio, video and life training programs. He created the 1 personal and professional development program of all time, and more than 4 million people have attended his live seminars.

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