Q. Dear Crucial Skills,
I am part of a group of employees who work as internal consultants focused on motivating and improving others to reach excellence. We use several tools to accomplish this and are fairly well versed in VitalSmarts’ training programs.
Our issue is that our Government employer has let it slip that our program and positions will be cut next year. I’d like to find a way to influence my coworkers to not give up and stay motivated. One option I have considered is sending a friendly e-mail to our group with some motivating words. Another option is to point out that when employers look at resumes, they look for previous work accomplishments. This next year is a great opportunity for our team to strive for certain accomplishments that are resume-worthy.
Can you share some additional thoughts on motivating people who know their positions will soon be cut?
Wanting to Help
A. Dear Wanting to Help,
I’m very sorry you and your colleagues find yourselves in such an unfortunate position. Knowing your job is ending has to be extremely frustrating, disappointing, and stressful. Undoubtedly, it changes people’s priorities. The fact that you work in the public service adds a twist to your situation, but I will try to make my answer relevant to both private and public sector employees.
When humans feel threatened, we go into survival mode. We focus on the short-term and on our own security. You and your colleagues are doubtlessly trying to figure out how to survive, get other jobs, and take care of yourselves and your families. It’s easy to see how your customers could become a distant priority.
And yet, you want to do the right thing for yourselves, your families, and your customers. For some, the right thing might be to quickly find another job; for others, it might be to stay and double down on their efforts at work. Each of your colleagues will need to make his or her own decision.
Discretionary effort. My focus won’t be on how to get your colleagues to do the minimum to get by. The managers at your organization need to hold people accountable for doing their jobs. That hasn’t changed. I think your question focuses on discretionary effort—the extra effort employees often invest beyond what’s required. The question is, how do you influence yourself and your colleagues to continue to go above and beyond?
Emphasize choice. It’s easy to fall into the trap of telling people what they ought to do. Before we know it, we’re giving sermons and lectures to people who haven’t asked for our advice. Consider using the communication tool called Motivational Interviewing. The goal of this tool is to help other people explore the pluses and minuses of their choices—instead of telling them what you think they should do. Here is an example of this approach.
You: “On a scale from 1 to 10, how motivated are you to provide the best possible service to this customer?”
Your Colleague: “Not very motivated at all. I’d say about a 3.”
You: “But not a 1? Why would you say a 3 instead of something lower like a 2 or a 1?”
Your Colleague: “I can think of several reasons. I see myself as a professional who does what’s right. I enjoy this work and I’m good at it, and I realize that the individual customers I support didn’t make the decision to terminate us. I also need to keep this paycheck for as many months as I can, and I want to take advantage of the outplacement counseling and bonus our employer has promised us if we stay.”
Notice that your colleague is the one who is explaining the pluses of serving the customer. Of course, your colleague is still very much aware of the minuses as well, but you haven’t forced him or her into a debate. Again, I want to emphasize that your colleague’s reasoned decision—after weighing the pluses and minuses—might be to focus on finding a new job. Motivational interviewing, when done well, helps people analyze their options; it doesn’t push one option over another.
Mutual Purpose. The end of a contract and the end of employment would seem to sever the Mutual Purposethat used to exist between yourselves and your customer. The natural reaction is, “You don’t care about us, so why should we care about you?” Instead of rejecting the possibility of Mutual Purpose, I recommend looking for new common ground.
You and your colleagues have a new set of goals: landing on your feet financially, getting other jobs, and protecting your families from economic ruin. Recognize that these goals are legitimate and may need to be your first priority. And, obviously, they may conflict with serving your customer.
Some people will exaggerate this conflict. They’ll say, “You need to choose between yourself and your customer. If you choose yourself, then you need to quit your job. If you choose the customer, then you’re walking your family off the edge of a cliff.” Instead of exaggerating this conflict ask: “How can I help myself and my family, and provide quality service to my customer at the same time?”
Use personal and vicarious experience. Sharing motivational statements in an e-mail or a meeting won’t be convincing enough for your colleagues to bet their families’ financial security. They need to see examples of real people—colleagues and former colleagues—who’ve been in the same boat, have modeled a solution, and proven it works. These successful colleagues need to share their stories—in person if possible. They need to explain what they did and tell how it helped their customers, themselves, and their families. They also need to be prepared to answer skeptics’ questions.
Retention incentives. Some organizations (but rarely government agencies) will use incentives such as transfers, outplacement services, and retention bonuses to motivate employees to stay through the end of a contract. It doesn’t sound as if your employer was prepared with these options. If they did offer retention incentives, it might help to remind your colleagues of this motivating factor.
Take action. My final bit of advice is to ask yourself what you want long term and take immediate action to get there. Don’t wait to see what happens. Instead, take charge of your career. Recognize that you’ve been dealt a very bad hand, and that it will take a lot of extra effort on your part to get back to where you were. You may need to learn new skills or take a second job—maybe even a volunteer job that puts experience on your resume. Leverage your relationships with your customers. They may be a wonderful source for recommendations and opportunities.
I’m sorry you and your colleagues are in this difficult position and wish you the best as you search for a solution that works for you and encourage your colleagues to do so as well.