We are often asked the million dollar question, “How do we motivate the front line workers?” This is a high value question because people are any organization’s greatest yet often worst utilized asset.
Understanding how to practically tap into people’s infinite creativity, energy and passion is the Philosopher’s Stone wrapped in a treasure map and dipped in gold.
This challenge was posed to me at a recent speaking event during the panel discussion. The question was, “How do we motivate the the grass roots to get involved in Lean?” This led to a lively discussion with answers offered from around the room. Clearly it is a hot topic here in China as in many places around the world. It is safe to say that nobody has yet cracked the code completely, and the answers I offered were not the sort quickly copied on Monday morning.
Daniel Pink writes and speaks about autonomy, mastery and purpose being chiefly responsible for motivation, particularly among professional workers. Borrowing from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs we can say that people whose basic needs are fulfilled don’t simply want more of those basic needs (safety, income) but instead want self-fulfillment. The argument that intrinsic motivation trumps extrinsic motivation is not at all a new one. But if we are talking about “grass roots” and the workplace as an ecosystem we need to consider various environmental factors that result in increased intrinsic motivation.
Building on the nature metaphor, we can say that grass roots motivation requires the right environmental factors, namely soil, sun and clouds.
Soil. Roots grow downwards because they are geotropic, moving in response to gravity. The soil is the medium which allows grass to stay in place and take root, offering the chance for the blades to grow upwards. The immediate physical and organizational environment in which people work is probably the most important factory in the successful motivation and engagement of people. If the workplace is unsafe, lacking fair and followed rules, or missing a functioning team structure this is like planting garden grass seeds in the shifting sands: they will not grow. It is a system issue. Safety is at the base of the hierarchy of needs pyramid. If raising problems or suggestions for improving them results in blame or punishment, motivation will suffer. If the workplace itself is not stable and safe people will be too worried to think creatively.
The team structure is similar to having fertile soil that promotes growth but also that a gardener is present to actively weed and care for the grass. A lean high performance team requires a span of control small enough for the team leader to function as a checker, trainer and coach, enabling the growth of each individual.
Clouds. The hydrotropic nature of plants causes them to move and grow towards or away from water. The clouds bring rain and also block the sun. Too much cloud presence is a bad thing, but the absence of clouds is also fatal for grasses. In this sense the clouds are much like middle managers. Their role is to provide cover from the hot sun at times and nurturing rain at other times. They should be nearly always visible. Managers should make sure the system is working well and that people are working effectively within it, just as clouds play a role in the flow of water from earth to sea to heaven and back. Middle management is often overlooked during the change management or implementation stages of a business transformation, and the important role of middle management in spurring grass roots motivation should not be underestimated.
Sun. Plants are phototropic, the shoots and leaves following the sunlight in their direction of growth. The sun is our source of free energy. Nearly all life as we know it depends on the sun. The leadership by example, strategic direction and encouragement of senior management can bring about some of the most powerful intrinsic motivation. It is certainly more powerful and effective long-term than leaders who blow like the icy north wind, chasing the clouds away and turning even the rain to snow.
When the sun is a distant rumor for much of the year as it is in Seattle, people either find ways to cope through other distractions and lesser stimulants, or they move away. The same can be said for organizations within which the senior leaders do not regularly shine their life-giving light upon the people.