Did you ever catch the scene in Crimson Tide in which Denzel Washington, playing a charismatic naval officer, delivers “the big speech” to a young radio operator to inspire him to get the sub’s radio running so the crew can save the world? It’s a wonderfully dramatic moment—and exactly the wrong way to motivate people in real life.
Charisma has precious little to do with leadership, argue Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler in Crucial Confrontations: Tools for resolving broken promises, violated expectations, and bad behavior. In real life, telling a radio operator that the fate of the world hinges on his ability to fix the radio would likely lead him to collapse under the pressure.
The authors also warn against two other popular motivational methods. One, as it applies in the business world, is using your power to force employees to do what you wish. That destroys trust and mutual respect by showing that you believe staff have bad motives and that you only care about your goals, not theirs. The other method is using special perks to motivate employees to do what should be a routine part of their jobs. That undermines the principles that an employee should get satisfaction from doing the job itself and that special rewards should be reserved for special performance.
Leadership, contend Patterson et al., isn’t about charisma, power or perks: “Everyday acts of motivation are almost always subtle, rarely elicit awe and never make the papers.” The key is to get your staff to see the natural consequences of their problematic behaviour. They suggest several ways to “make the invisible visible.”
- Spell out the long-term pain resulting from bad behaviour: Make the negative consequences seem less distant. You might, for example, say: “I’m sure it’s a hassle to double-check appointments when you enter them on my calendar, but our current error rate is so high that the assistants of the other senior executives are calling me to ask for confirmation. I worry that your reputation here will be hurt if we can’t solve this.”
- Link their behaviour with their core values: Nagging people for not doing what you want them to only gets their backs up. A good leader will instead explain how the course you’re proposing will yield a result that fits their values. Say your spouse continued to gorge on bad food even after two heart-bypass operations. Rather than directly attacking his or her failure to eat smart, you might appeal to the spouse’s love of your children by saying that if they keep eating junk they probably won’t be around to watch the kids grow up.
- Introduce the hidden victims: People can be so wrapped up in their own jobs they have little sense of how their actions affect others. A leader might point out: “Here’s what your failure to comply is doing to other employees, to the customer, to the shareowners and so on.”
- Hold up a mirror: When it comes to understanding how we come across to other people, we all live on the wrong side of our eyeballs. You need to help your staff see what it looks like from the other side by, for instance, cautioning: “It’s starting to look like you don’t care about the team’s results.”