The three (wrong) reasons why you want to motivate your employees in uncertainty

We live in a world marked by uncertainty and punctuated by major surprises that call into question many of our beliefs. This questioning can be very anxiety-provoking as it seems that we can no longer rely on anything stable to move forward in life. This is particularly true in companies: the situation can go as far as a form of paralysis, caused by the feeling that whatever we undertake, an unforeseen event will call everything into question. This can lead to a loss of motivation. And yet, there is no reason why uncertainty should be demotivating.

“We would like you to help us motivate our employees in the face of uncertainty.” For the past few weeks, I’ve been receiving this type of request for a talk on a regular basis, and it reflects the times we live in. It is not surprising that the question is asked, but the answer is less simple than it seems. As is often the case, the way in which the question is posed reflects how we frame the issue we are considering, i.e. it reflects our mental models (deep-seated beliefs). Thus, “How to motivate our employees in the face of uncertainty” reflects at least three important models.

The first is to think that what motivates employees is a clear and ambitious goal with a clear horizon. This happens, but it only works well in unambiguous situations, where the action and its result are directly linked. This is the case in sales, for example, where a turnover target can be set for the salesperson. For most company employees, however, the impact of the action is much more diffuse and the result is generally collective. Apart from a specific objective, there are many other things that can motivate an employee: the pleasure of working with colleagues, the pleasure of the work itself (doing something creative or technically difficult), the desire to learn, the challenge of new or difficult situations, or the pride of contributing to a result, however small. In essence, and contrary to the well-known fable, you don’t need to have an idea of the cathedral to be motivated to cut stone. And so the difficulty of defining goals and clearing the horizon in the face of uncertainty need not be problematic in itself.

The second mental model is to think that it is up to the manager to motivate his employees. This is a paternalistic model, which assumes that they are incapable of motivating themselves. Not only is this contradicted by experience, but it places an unreasonable burden of responsibility on managers. The reality is that employees are very often capable of motivating themselves. As a sports coach said when asked how he motivates his athletes before the competition: “I’m not there to motivate them. If they’re not motivated, they don’t make the trip.” In my experience, I observe that what employees need most of all is not to be demotivated by nonsensical decisions! More generally, this mental model questions the very role of the manager. Two years ago, I attended a conference given by the CEO of a large French company, and he declared that the manager has a “burden of soul” (sic) whose role is to reduce uncertainty. One can naturally subscribe to such a mental model, but one should not think that it is universal and eternal. There are many other ways of conceiving this role. Not taking your employees for fragile little flowers and treating them as adults is a good first step in dealing with uncertainty. 

Uncertainty is not necessarily demotivating

The third mental model is the one according to which the absence of certainty is demotivating in itself. It is true that the uncertainty of tomorrow is legitimately anxiety-provoking in many ways. The fear of unemployment, of precariousness, of illness, or nowadays of war, can be real. But entrepreneurs have long shown that uncertainty is also a tremendous source of opportunity; that while we cannot necessarily control what happens to us, we can nevertheless control the way we respond to it. The ability to control one’s immediate environment is one of the most fundamental needs. The real anxiety is to be entirely subject to that environment. This is what humans have been fighting against since the dawn of time; it is even perhaps what distinguishes us from other animals. What entrepreneurs (in the broadest sense) show is that despite uncertainty, some form of control can be exercised, however small and limited. Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus observed, for example, that teaching the basics of reading to women in Bangladesh enables them to create a small business and changes their lives, despite the uncertainty that surrounds them, because they gain a degree of independence and control over their lives.

Faced with uncertainty, the manager’s posture

When we question the posture of the manager towards his collaborators, we can perfectly imagine something far from the paternalistic model of the soul-feeder and the uncertainty reducer. A posture that could be stated as follows: “I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. That’s just the way it is. We can cry about it, or we can just realize that it doesn’t stop us from doing great things, moving forward by trial and error and enjoying it all together.” We stop thinking we can predict the future and instead, we ground ourselves in the real here and now. Because that’s how many of the great actors of change, whether industrial, economic, political, social, or artistic, have done it. Very few knew where they wanted to go. The famous watercolorist Joseph Zbukvic observed that he really broke through when he stopped wondering too much about who would like his painting and in what direction he should go in the future. His advice to beginners? “Just paint”. So do the same: stop trying to predict the future, focus on the present, on what you can do now. Welcome to uncertainty!

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