Motivating your people is hard. Sure, you’d like to increase their productivity to protect your margins, which can be tight on some projects. But what’s in it for them? Why would they choose to work harder, if only to make your business a little more profitable?
A little-known secret is that there’s a way to align your commercial interests with your people’s personal interests. But it takes strong leadership to create a culture in which everyone benefits from improved performance. This article will serve as your guided tour of three key steps that are most likely to yield results, from my experience as chief executive officer (CEO) of a multibillion-dollar industrial business.
1. Safety First
It starts with safety. It’s often said people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Working at heights and in confined spaces pose significant risks each day. Every employer says safety comes first, but few are found to mean it when their words are put to the test.
Safety is the beachhead where your credibility with your people is won or lost. If your people truly believe that you will choose to put their well-being ahead of your profits, you’ll get their attention. From there, you have something to work with. And, surprisingly, a safe business is a profitable business.
I’ve seen companies collapse when a fatality on a worksite caused them to lose a major client contract. I’ve seen companies pay lip service to safety by putting onerous (or worse, irrational) procedures in place. All this serves to do is breed cynicism in the workforce. When you get the chance to show that your actions match your words, don’t let it pass you by. The start of the journey is knowing and understanding that the only thing that truly keeps your people safe is the culture and behaviors each of them exhibits. Committing to bringing them up to that standard is your role as a leader, and one of the toughest challenges you’ll face — it’s the battle for their hearts and minds.
To get results, you must commit to building a team of managers and supervisors who take safety seriously and aren’t afraid to enforce the highest standards. Not everyone will rise to meet the standard, and that’s when you have to make tough decisions.
2. Company & Employee Values
With the foundation of a safe environment, the next challenge is to align your people to your company’s value proposition. You don’t have to create a noble purpose that transcends mere construction work to do this. You simply need to have a clear link between the things that drive value for your company and the things your people need to do to achieve that.
People are much more likely to offer their discretionary effort if they can see the contribution they’re making to the overall objectives. There’s nothing worse than someone feeling as though their efforts don’t make a difference.
If you can show people the difference their efforts make and provide reinforcement for a job well done, you’ll start to notice a spring in their step. Encouraging and rewarding improvements in performance and outcomes is critical to improving company culture and increasing productivity.
You’ll also start to recognize all the areas in which your team’s efforts are not contributing to the highest-value outcomes for your business. There will be a range of activities that suck your people’s time and effort but add virtually no value to the business. Identifying these things and eliminating them isn’t easy, but if you don’t know precisely what creates value for your business, it’s virtually impossible.
Finally, single-point accountability is key to high performance. This is about execution — we all know what needs to be done, so let’s get it done in the most efficient and effective way we can.
In most work crews, accountability for results is shared. No one is singularly answerable for specific outcomes. But shared accountability is no accountability — the only thing you know for sure is that there will be gaps and overlaps. When something goes wrong, you’ll hear the words, “Oh, sorry, I thought Greg was doing that.” Or, often, you’ll find more than one person working on the same problem. It spreads the load and feels safe to have someone else on the hook for the results in case something goes wrong.
This is like a cancer, slowly eating away at your team’s culture. Your people must be prepared to individually own the outcomes that you need them to achieve. This promotes a different energy, trumping the “all care, no responsibility” mindset that dominates teams with weak accountability structures.
The rule of thumb strong leaders live by is “one head to pat, one rump to kick.”
If this sounds a little brutal, that’s because it is. You’re asking people to take on personal risk (the risk of being fired for not doing the job right), with no reward for doing so. The thing that makes this work, for your people as well as your company, is empowerment. This is the flip side of the accountability coin, and they can’t be separated.
In my experience, the vast majority of people want to make a difference when they come to work. They want to be able to take pride in their work. They want to feel the deep satisfaction of a job well done and a challenge overcome. If you can give them this, it’s a greater gift than any pay rise they might think they deserve.
According to author Dan Pink, people are driven by three things: autonomy, mastery and purpose. If you can empower your people effectively, you’ll satisfy the first two of these drivers.
To do this, make sure you set the right goals: not too challenging, not too lax. Make sure people know what “good” looks like. Generally, people want to know three fairly basic things when they come to work each day:
- What are your expectations of me?
- How am I going against those expectations?
- What does my future hold?
Next, make sure every individual has the resources to successfully do what you’re asking them to do. There’s no point in setting unrealistic targets or trying to cut corners that can’t be cut. Instead, ensure the appropriate level of support is provided.
The next bit is the hardest — give your people the empowerment to make the decisions that affect them most. Too often, we think that telling people what to do will deliver the best outcomes. Although there are occasions when that holds true, it’s rarely the case.
If you give people more control of their environment, they’re much more likely to accept the single-point accountability that improves team performance. You’ll liberate their creativity and effort in a way that you never thought possible. So, try to push decision-making to the lowest level in a team that you sensibly can.
All of this takes strong leadership: to challenge your people when they choose not to meet the standard you’re setting; to have the discipline to not interfere when they make the odd mistake as they get comfortable with their new decision-making rights; to be available to help them solve problems and listen to their perspectives; to say “no” when people are working on things that don’t add value.
Your confidence will come from repeated success. Start by showing your people you care, and giving them more autonomy and control of their environment. You’ll be surprised how they respond. As their confidence grows, your company’s results improve. But if you don’t step out and take that risk to start with, you’ll never move from where you are today.