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

“How do I motivate my employees in uncertain times?” is a common question these days, but the answer is far from simple: it reveals dominant mental models that limit our perspectives. Challenging these models can provide a resilient response to uncertainty.

The question “How do I motivate my employees in uncertain times?” reflects at least three important models. The first is the belief that what motivates people is a clear and ambitious goal with a clear horizon. This is true, but it only works well in unambiguous situations where there is a direct link between the action and the result. This is the case in sales, for example, where a salesperson can be given a sales goal. For most employees, however, the impact of the action is much more diffuse and the result is usually collective. In addition to a specific goal, 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 that assumes employees are incapable of motivating themselves. Not only is this contrary to 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 once said when asked how he motivates his athletes before an international competition: “I’m not here to motivate them. If they’re not motivated, they won’t get on the plane.” In my experience, the last thing employees need is to be demotivated by stupid decisions! More generally, this mental model challenges 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, of course, subscribe to such a mental model, but nobody should think that it is universal and eternal. There are many other ways of thinking about this role. Not taking your employees for fragile little flowers and treating them like adults is a good first step in dealing with uncertainty.

Dear leader, show mem the way (Photo by Dima Pechurin on Unsplash)

The third mental model is that the absence of certainty is in itself demotivating. It is true that uncertainty is, in many ways, a legitimate source of anxiety. The fear of unemployment, of insecurity, of disease, or, these days, 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 control how we respond to it. The ability to control one’s immediate environment is one of the most basic needs. The real fear is to be completely at the mercy of that environment. This is what humans have struggled against since the beginning of time; it may even be 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. For example, Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus observed that teaching women in Bangladesh the basics of reading enables them to start a small business and changes their lives, despite the uncertainty that surrounds them, because they gain a measure of independence and control over their lives.

If we question the attitude of the manager towards his employees, we can imagine something far from the paternalistic model of the soul-feeder and the uncertainty-reducer. An attitude that could be expressed as follows: “I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. That’s the way it is. We can cry about it, or we can just realize that it won’t stop us from doing great things, moving forward through trial and error, and enjoying it all together. We stop thinking we can predict the future and instead ground ourselves in the real here and now. Because that’s how many of the great agents of change, whether industrial, economic, political, social, or artistic, have done it. Very few knew where they were going.

The famous watercolorist Joseph Zbukvic observed that he really broke through when he stopped worrying 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 and focus on the present, on what you can do now. Welcome to uncertainty!

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