Companies won’t get big by making their workers feel small
First published in The Sunday Times on 10th September 2017.
The most impressive entrepreneurs I’ve known have all been maestros of motivation. They don’t just know how to stay highly committed themselves; they are experts at motivating others. They understand, to misquote Archimedes, that with a motivated team you can move the world.
I don’t believe there is a true science to motivation; it is an art. But there are plenty of tactics that the finest leaders employ to generate enthusiasm and bring out the best in their staff. The best bosses don’t just talk to their colleagues, they consult, and accept feedback.
Most successful businesses develop a powerful culture, which employees embrace. They believe in the mission of the organisation — its purpose, its products and services, its heritage. Such companies obtain a commitment from their people thanks to a compelling esprit de corps.
The military places enormous emphasis on morale, comradeship, duty and discipline because it knows that such factors are paramount if troops are to be asked to risk making the ultimate sacrifice in battle. The stakes are dramatically lower in business, but nevertheless the same issues are in operation in motivating a workforce.
A key factor in obtaining great performance from staff is confidence that the business is making progress — growing, beating the competition and winning more customers. Workers need to take pride in their employer; far too many hate their company and despise the bosses. Perhaps they feel no emotional connection with the business — possibly they feel under-appreciated.
I think it is very difficult to motivate staff in huge organisations. I like the concept of “Dunbar’s number”, the work of an anthropologist who said that in order to maintain a cohesive and stable working group, no more than 150 should work together. This is the rough limit on the number of people with whom one can maintain social relationships — and an idea practised by the company that makes Gore-Tex.
Companies with motivated staff are generally fun places to work; there is laughter and a positive atmosphere. The leadership team must possess a real sense of humour and not take themselves too seriously. They should welcome constructive challenge, and be first-class listeners.
Companies that run on fear and sycophancy — and many do — rarely develop outstanding talent, because the exceptional managers leave.
Lots of founders never scale up their businesses because they are unable to delegate. They micro-manage everything, and demotivate their deputies — who want to take on genuine responsibilities. Such companies are inevitably limited in their expansion possibilities, and typically fail to reach their true potential.
Similarly, organisations mired in bureaucracy and office politics are places where discontent festers and which never fire on all cylinders.
Clear and open communications, fair policies and simple objectives all help to minimise unnecessary officialdom and power games.
Motivated teams enjoy aligned interests. When companies suffer from an acute “them and us” culture, the workforce is unlikely to be nearly as productive as a passionate one. A collaborative, friendly atmosphere in the factory, office or shop will deliver better results. That takes a chief executive who leads from the front, shares credit and recognises achievements across the ranks.
Incentives and rewards matter, but few people work just for the money. They also want to feel satisfaction in their job, enjoy the company of their fellow workers, and know there is a career path ahead of them. Such non-financial aspects can be harder to offer and measure, but they make a significant difference in terms of recruiting and retaining talent.
Entrepreneurs who build top-rated companies embody an authenticity that intelligent employees detect. Fake corporate culture is widespread; staff might go through the motions by supporting it, but in reality they know it is a sham. We have all sat through bogus presentations full of phony values, spurious vision statements and so forth.
The British are a sceptical lot, and tend to prefer honesty, self-deprecation and understatement over hype — especially from the commercial sector. And in my experience, inspirational business leaders have not learnt how to motivate their people by reading textbooks. Instead they have watched how others do it, followed their own instincts and honed their understanding of human emotions in order to engage and excite their staff.
Hiring the right people, instilling the correct culture, allowing managers to take charge, enabling staff to learn, making work meaningful — these are the types of strategies employed by the most enlightened entrepreneurs to motivate their teams.