Make it mutual
A wise and all-knowing leader that I was, I used to unilaterally assign goals to people. When no one was as excited as I was about reaching them, as was often the case, I was mystified. It finally dawned on me that employees get more fired up about their goals if they have a hand in shaping them. So, we sat down together, negotiated a bit, and arrived at something we both liked. But they walked away with their goals, not my goals. And that, to paraphrase Robert Frost, has made all the difference.
For too long, my philosophy toward employees was, “Shoot for the moon! Even if you come up short, you’re still up there among the stars.” What I was oblivious of was that this actually created a locomotive streaking toward a head-on collision with human nature. I assumed that people would just barrel along until they ran out of steam. But people don’t work that way. A goal that’s too far out of reach is a demotivate. Discouraged employees think, what’s the point of even trying? I could work 24/7 and still come up light-years short. That hopelessness is contagious, and team morale inevitably nose-dives.
The solution? Either scale back the goal or help your employee put it into perspective. Stretch goals don’t necessarily need to be hit to serve a purpose. Instead of focusing solely on the numerical target (doubling sales or slicing three months off time-to-market), shift some attention to the process you’re trying to stimulate. When people came up short, I told them not to worry—if they were following our system and working hard. Whatever the outcome, stretch goals help people realize they are infinitely capable of improvement.
When it comes to motivating employees, it’s not always your job to do the heavy lifting. Ask team members to name three ways they could improve their performance. (Vary the question to avoid stale responses.) As you get to know everyone’s strengths, capabilities, and mentality, it’s easier to inspire them. Remember, people do things for their reasons, not yours. Learn what they want, then help them get it.