Find a Better Source of Motivation Than Deadlines

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by David Shechtman

I get it. Some folks just sit idly by and wait to perform until the heat’s on. They will complacently lead or manage their organization without purpose or focus because there’s no short-term pain. When money is on the line, it’s all about getting results, whatever the long-term cost.

But not so fast. In my work coaching executives and sales professionals in a host of high-growth companies, I’ve seen this approach fail again and again. Why? Because it puts people in a panic, and we all know that panic doesn’t lead to good decision making. It leads to reasoning that sacrifices long-term sustainability for short-term survival.

What I’m seeing in many cases is that companies effectively say to their leaders: “Congratulations, you’ve been selected to lead this organization. Every day we’ll assume the worst about your capabilities, and once per month we’ll send a team of people to threaten your professional existence. Good luck, you’re going to need it.”

It’s the rare person that can withstand these pressures, let alone thrive.

The main challenge I see with this model is that it makes the attractiveness of leadership unappealing. In firm after firm I’m seeing struggles in finding people who want the role of executive. Being an executive often appears miserable — little sleep, endless meetings, grinding pressure. Sure, the money’s usually good, but at what price? It doesn’t seem worth it.

And it’s not much fun. What gives life to most of the people I work with is the thrill of creating something new and developing people to do things they never thought possible. They love to innovate and they love to help others. They don’t do enough of this because they live under constant threat.

Things start to shift to external matters, almost exclusively. How to hit this deadline? How to reorganize this unit? How to meet the number?

These are all worthy things, for the most part, but what gets lost is why they’re doing this work in the first place, the internal motivator.

Efforts begin focusing on how to survive their schedule, how to get through the day. Behavior is reactive and self-protective. How to get to the weekend? How to get to the next vacation?

It really can turn into a Faustian bargain. People can withstand and endure grueling circumstances to produce results. Humans are hardwired to survive.

But this modern economy is not driven by mindless automatons scurrying to avoid the unemployment rolls; rather, it’s about excited and engaged professionals disrupting the status quo by creating profound value.

This may sound Pollyannaish to some. Happy people do good work, so let’s all be happy. No, that’s not the case. Left to their own devices, most people will be mediocre. They need stimulation. But what sort of stimulation provides the best long-term results? Fear or inspiration?

The Faustian bargain often plays out because the executive’s panic will generate results, but these results come at a price. The results come because the executive “turns off” their inner self. They power through discomfort and disillusionment. Rather than connecting the dots between internal drive and external results, they get rid of one dot.

This harms future performance.

Most people I work with need to be reminded why they are doing what they’re doing. They need a reintroduction to their opportunity. They’ve lost sight of vision and purpose.

When I help bring their opportunity to create and help others to light, they shift their energy to excitement and enthusiasm. The context changes. They want to work hard not to avoid suffering but rather to carry out their life’s work. They start to fall back in love with their work.

Daniel Pink’s book Drive suggests that the carrot-and-stick approach to management not only doesn’t work, it’s often counterproductive. Pink’s review of the research suggests that people in the modern economy are driven by Purpose, Autonomy, and Mastery. When I ask my clients about “stick-driven” results, they slump. When I ask them about doing something that no one else has ever done, or becoming the best in the world at something, they come to life.

These topics are life-giving, and life-giving energy is sustainable.

Think about the people you lead. Why are they working for you? Is it sustainable?