Do Your Motivations Undermine Your Ability to Lead?

by  Mary C. Schaefer  |  Leadership Development
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.

What do you recommend to leaders to stay connected and make the most of their human resources?
Photo Credit: Pixabay/Public Domain Pictures

About The Author

Articles By mary-schaefer
Speaker, coach and trainer Mary Schaefer’s expertise is in creating work cultures where organizations and human beings can both thrive. She is a former HR manager. Find out more about how Mary helps managers empower themselves to make the most of their human resources with this special collection of articles selected for LCG readers:  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

John E. Smith  |  09 May 2016  |  Reply

Hi, Mary:)

First, thank you for always posting something that challenges us to reflect, think, and do better as leaders and as employees. I admire your willingness to wade into the messy stuff:)

It seems the CEO in your fascinating and all to familiar story suffers from the affliction of assumption. He assumes that what he values, everyone values.

This is not an isolated issue. Our personal motivations are based on our unique blend of experiences, values, and perceptions. We know these best because we are on the inside of the motivational machine. When we move to trying to understand the motivations that influence others, we have entered a much tougher and indistinct environment.

The real problem may be that understanding what moves another requires several things:

1) We have to let go of the idea that what we know is all we need to know.
2) We have to become proficient at continually asking intelligent and open-ended questions to learn more about what moves others.
3) We have to be willing to act on our new information, rather than fall back on our “gut”. This seems counter to what neuroscience is saying about the value of our intuition, but it really is not.

When you remove your old thinking and perceptions, make honest attempts to gather and absorb accurate information, and then decide, you are usually using an almost mystical blend of objectivity and subjectivity … way better than JUST trusting your instincts:)

Thanks as always for stimulating my thinking.


Mary C. Schaefer  |  09 May 2016  |  Reply

Thanks John for the always thoughtful response.

This one nailed it for me:
“We have to let go of the idea that what we know is all we need to know.”

I know the company I worked for was not unique, but I will speak from my experience. I would run into leaders and executives who wouldn’t acknowledge my presence. If they were put in a position where it would have been more awkward to not speak, they didn’t know what to say. COME ON. A leader who thinks they don’t have anything to learn from her or his employees is courting trouble.

I’ll quote Ray Croc again, “When you’re green, you’re growing. When you’re ripe, you’ll rot.”

It’s one of the reasons I won’t let go of advocating for a pro-human workplace. It starts with the individual, including a leader. People take their cues from you. And you can’t give what you don’t have (humanity, respect, dignity, thoughtfulness, I could go on…). Being human at work doesn’t mean a person has to overshare, but consider what it would mean to be more human at work. A good start is by reflecting on that list in your response. Sorry, tangent.

Thanks again, John.

Mary C. Schaefer  |  09 May 2016  |  Reply

Oh, and BTW John, I like “messy.”

Jane Anderson  |  10 May 2016  |  Reply

Between your article, Mary and your response, John, I can’t add anything more valuable that what has already been said. I will say this though. When I was a young stay at home mom, I was told the mom sets the tone for the home. When I went to work I realized that same precept applied to managers of people all the way up to the CEO. If they were not honorable, trusted, or thankful the trickle of those characteristics infected the whole team. There are no one size fits all reasons for why people stay in certain jobs or why some organizations flourish in spite of management – but I’m sure it’s because somewhere along the line a leader has stepped into their role and turned the tide for at least his or her area of influence.

Mary C. Schaefer  |  10 May 2016  |  Reply

Great connection to leading a family, Jane. We set the tone on so many fronts.

And yes, thank goodness for those leaders who have stepped in to influence her/his part of the organization positively, despite what is being modeled.

Thanks for commenting!

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