How do you address the de-motivators in your organization?

January 11, 2013 Affective Leadership  No comments

How do you address the de-motivators in your organization?  Do you confront the “whiners”, oppose the “insulters”, and discourage the “agitators”?  Not unless you want things to get worse.  Direct assaults on complex social issues are counterproductive.  Bad Behaviors continue because they are rewarded.    If we want to change the culture we need an “Attention Intervention”.  Instead of pushing against what is wrong we create a pull toward what is right.

We ALWAYS move in the direction of our currently dominant thoughts.   We become like what we think about most.


How do you help people focus on ideas that are help-full?  We have all had life changing epiphanies drowned by the realities of too much to do, too little time and ultimately too tired to care.  It is true that it is easy for even the most poignant lessons to be “out of mind” when they are “out of sight”.  But nobody wants to be surrounded by reminders of their imperfections, so we replace them with humorous “toons” of our “inner-perfections”. Each of the Bee characters is designed to illustrate a core ideas encouraging game-changing conversations.

In any change process people generally fall into three categories.  Vineet Nayar in his book Employees First: Customers Second describes them as “lost souls”, “fence sitters” and “transformers”.  The largest of these categories by far are the fence sitters.  They are the people who smile politely, nod their heads in agreement and then sit back and wait to see what happens.  They have been conditioned to believe that it is safer to pretend to be in the game than it is to step up to the plate.   In fact many have actually played this role for so long they begin to believe in the captivity they have created for themselves.

This is not unlike the immense power of an 8000 lb circus elephant that is absolutely restrained by a small piece of twine and a stick that they place in the ground themselves.   They are conditioned to believe in their powerlessness in the same way we condition ourselves.

Baby elephant manacled to a treeWhen an elephant is a baby, a manacle is placed around one leg attached to a huge chain that is wrapped around the base of a large tree.  Over and over again the youngster strains against his bondage but to no avail.

Gradually over time as the elephant grows the chain becomes smaller and smaller.  As a young adult this powerful pachyderm could easily snap the chain and escape but he is no longer confined by links of steel but by links of learning.Adult elephant trapped by conditioning

Freeing ourselves and others from these learned limitations does not happen through edict but by inquiry.  Technical problems can be resolved without changes to the social structure, but that is only 20% of the work say authors Richard Pascale and social change pioneers Jerry and Monique Sterns  in The Power of Positive Deviance. Changing cultural norms or behaviors in a complex social system requires that the community must want to discover the solutions for themselves.  Leaders of social change must learn to take a back seat and allow team members to reveal the wisdom within their own ranks.  In every situation there are “outliers”, people who with the same resources just do better.   Often these are not those at the top of the hierarchical structure but those closest to the problem who, through the impetus of necessity, have found simple solutions to often very complex and seemingly intractable problems.

The solution that struck closest to home for me in this book resulted in a 30-62% reduction in an infection that kills 20,000 people each year.  Where is the best place to catch this infection…at your local hospital.  MRSA, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus is present in two-thirds of hospitals, and was most likely the largest contributing factor to my father-in-law’s death two years ago.  He contracted the infection while visiting a friend in the VA Hospital, and experienced the excruciating onset while staying with us on the 4th of July.

The solution came as an insight from an orderly at the VA Medical Center in Pittsburgh.  Listening to a patient report how reassuring it was each time he heard the squish of the disinfectant dispenser, the orderly thought “what if we put the dispensers in front of the patients?”  By putting the solution “in sight” they created both an awareness and social support system for encouraging proper hand sanitizing.  The solution was not sexy or technical and it didn’t come from the ivory tower of innovation, but from listening to the insight of an orderly resulting in the solution to an infection that has increased 32-fold between 1976 and 2004.

Think about this from a leadership perspective.   I am sure there are mountains of manuals describing just exactly the process that every member of the hospital team should use in washing and disinfecting their hands.  At the same time there is the “social pressure” to keep up and do more that unlike the manuals or placards is ever present.  Only by encouraging team members to discover the wisdom within their own positive deviants was there enough change in the social construct to support lasting behavioral transformation.


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