Do Your Motivations Undermine Your Ability to Lead?

An employee walked into my office and asked me to read an email from our CEO he had printed out. He asked me what it meant.

I had not seen it yet so I read through it. I looked at him. He said, “Don’t you think we’re going to have another restructuring, if you read between the lines?” The purpose of the note was a little perplexing.

But it was the last paragraph that grabbed my attention. It was 1997 and I remember this particular line word for word.

“It’s times like these that we all have to fall back on what best motivates us – pleasing the customer and beating the competition.”

What works for you may not work for me

I wondered if something was wrong with me. That’s not what motivated me to come to work every day. I went down the hall, office to office. I asked people what motivated them at work. Not one named pleasing the customer or beating the competition.

I heard things like:

  • I have bills to pay, and this isn’t a bad way to do it
  • I like the people I work with
  • I like the sense of accomplishment

Along the way my boss overheard what I was doing. He said, “Just give me a heads-up before you call the CEO, okay?” He knew me well.

Implications of being disconnected

After my information-gathering adventure, my assessment was that the CEO’s comments described what motivated him, or other executives. He didn’t have a clue about what motivated the majority of employees.

What’s the problem with that? The problem is this person and his compatriots made decisions that affected my life and the lives of tens of thousands of other people. He had no idea what we were about or what was important to us. His obliviousness or lack of concern for the impact of his decisions on employees eroded his credibility with me.

Are all stakeholders created equal?

I know leaders need to dial in the needs of a number of stakeholders including the community, society, customers, shareholders and employees. I observe an employee's status as a stakeholder is often a low priority.

I understand that some believe there is no way to choose a decision that will be best for everyone, or do the least harm to various stakeholders. I disagree. I believe that is a failure in creativity and character.

What’s really at stake here?

For me, this was a turning point in my career. I now knew I would not be there long-term. I would part with my employer at some point because one of us would become disenchanted with the other and terminate our relationship.

I had many reasons that led me to leave my corporate career. What came to me “the day of the email” is that I could not trust this leader or others like him. He had alienated me. This compromised his ability to lead me.

I had to wonder what else he was oblivious to. What other factors was he not considering in business decisions because of sheer lack of awareness or interest?

I know this is not unusual. Certain leaders are disconnected from the human beings who happen to be employees. Thank goodness we all have the freedom and agency to make decisions in our favor if we feel we are not respected for what motivates us and what we contribute.