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Motivating people

Jul 23, 2021

Several times these past few weeks, I've had clients with challenges related to motivating people. Although the contexts of each scenario are different, they share a common cause: an inability to answer the simple question, "why?"

In one instance, an associate had been with a small firm for about three years, and the firm's partners had invested a lot of time and energy into training that person to do the firm's specialized work. The partners even confided in me that they hoped that this associate would be able to rise to partner within a few more years.

The associate was well compensated—well in line with market salaries—and they had good benefits and a flexible work schedule. And while the firm tracks billable hours, it has been de-emphasizing hours targets in its compensation & bonus structure in favor of outcomes-based (rather than efforts-based) drivers. I think the firm culture is pretty good too (recognizing that such things are subjective): the partners are smart attorneys who truly care about their team members and invest time and money in getting the work-life balance right.

So why did the associate leave? Fortunately for the firm, they said exactly why. The associate admitted that they didn't especially care about the kinds of clients the firm typically worked for, nor did they connect with the problems the firm was helping those clients solve. It wasn't even the area of law; the associate took a lateral offer with another firm in the same practice area. It was that the firm didn't do work for a community she cared about.

With the other client of mine, the firm had recently hired an administrative person to help with the firm's "getting the work" pipeline and their "getting paid" pipeline (the bookends to the "doing the work" or delivery pipeline). Specifically, this person's job is to make sure that clients are maintaining the agreed-upon evergreen retainer balance month-to-month so that the firm (which bills hourly) knows that there is money in the client's trust account to draw from before they do the work for the client. The staffer is also charged with making sure the client makes their initial retainer deposit before the firm begins a new matter.

The new hire was given clear, well-written instructions on how to do these elements of the job. Yet last week they made a mistake, angering a client in the process. As I helped the firm's owner reflect on what went wrong, it was initially hard to pinpoint. It turned out that one of the instructions was open to interpretation, and the new hire made a false assumption about what to do. It was nonetheless a reasonable inference for them to draw given their lack of experience with this firm. The new hire followed the instructions as they understood them; hardly something you can blame a person for.

The firm owner's first instinct was to add more detail to the instructions to ensure that the same mistake didn't get repeated in the future. That isn't necessarily the wrong call. In fact, it is a good part of the Deming cycle of plan, do, study, adjust (the firm owner wanted to make an adjustment).

In this case, however, I suspected that something else was at play. I got a chance to talk with the new employee, and I asked them if they understood the instructions they were given. They said, "yes, I think so. They all make sense to me."

Then I asked if they understood WHY they needed to do that set of tasks in the first place. "Not really," was the reply, "the tasks themselves make sense but I'm not sure why we have to do them."

Turns out this person had never worked in a firm that uses evergreen retainers before. So we spent 5 minutes connecting the dots: We talked about the firm's mission and why their work is so beneficial to its clients. We agreed that it is important that the firm be appropriately compensated for that good work. Finally, I explained how evergreen retainers help ensure that there is a short turnaround time between the value delivered by the firm (in the form of work product) and the value returned by the client (in the form of money). Once the new person understood that connection, they quickly self-diagnosed what had gone wrong with that one client.

In short, the team member had good instructions on what to do, but because they didn't understand why they were doing those things there was a disconnect. As soon as we connected them to why the firm used evergreen retainers, what they were supposed to do made a whole lot more sense. My guess is that, going forward, they  won't really need the instructions at all.

Both of these examples re-emphasize for me, albeit in different ways, the importance of motivating people intrinsically and connecting them with their work. No amount of instruction, or compensation, or anything else can cover when a person doesn't engage with the work and feel empowered to deliver it.

Daniel Pink (describing the work of Dan Ariely) identifies people's intrinsic motivators as seeking autonomy, mastery, and purpose. W. Edwards Deming identified similar needs a few decades earlier when he observed that "one is born with intrinsic motivation, self esteem, dignity, cooperation, curiosity, joy in learning. These attributes are high at the beginning of life, but are gradually crushed by the forces of destruction." (Taken from Deming's book, The New Economics, 3rd ed). He goes on to define those destructive forces as merit systems, grades, incentive pay, numerical goals, and forced competition.

Deming continues, "These forces cause humiliation, fear, self-defense, competition for gold star, high grade, high rating on the job. They lead anyone to play to win, not for fun. They crush out the joy in learning, joy on the job, innovation. Extrinsic motivation (complete resignation to external pressures) gradually replaces intrinsic motivation, self-esteem, dignity."

Think about how well you articulate purpose in your practice—both at an overall organizational level and for individual roles within your org. What impact does your expression of purpose (of lack thereof) have on motivating your team? Are you channeling the forces of intrinsic motivation, or the forces of destruction in your own work? How about in the way you manage your team?

And if you don't believe Deming with respect to grading people and why it is a suboptimal way to run a business, check out his famous Red Bead Experiment in the video below.


H/T to Christopher Chapman of The Digestible Deming for reminding me of these important lessons this morning.

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