Influencer QA

Staying Motivated When the End is Near

The following article was first published on May 9, 2012.

Dear David,

I am part of a group of employees who work as internal consultants focused on motivating and improving others to reach excellence. We use several tools to accomplish this and are fairly well versed in VitalSmarts’ training programs.

Our issue is that our Government employer has let it slip that our program and positions will be cut next year. I’d like to find a way to influence my coworkers to not give up and stay motivated. One option I have considered is sending a friendly e-mail to our group with some motivating words. Another option is to point out that when employers look at resumes, they look for previous work accomplishments. This next year is a great opportunity for our team to strive for certain accomplishments that are resume-worthy.

Can you share some additional thoughts on motivating people who know their positions will soon be cut?

Wanting to Help

Dear Wanting to Help,

I’m very sorry you and your colleagues find yourselves in such an unfortunate position. Knowing your job is ending has to be extremely frustrating, disappointing, and stressful. Undoubtedly, it changes people’s priorities. The fact that you work in the public service adds a twist to your situation, but I will try to make my answer relevant to both private and public sector employees.

When humans feel threatened, we go into survival mode. We focus on the short-term and on our own security. You and your colleagues are doubtlessly trying to figure out how to survive, get other jobs, and take care of yourselves and your families. It’s easy to see how your customers could become a distant priority.

And yet, you want to do the right thing for yourselves, your families, and your customers. For some, the right thing might be to quickly find another job; for others, it might be to stay and double down on their efforts at work. Each of your colleagues will need to make his or her own decision.

Discretionary effort. My focus won’t be on how to get your colleagues to do the minimum to get by. The managers at your organization need to hold people accountable for doing their jobs. That hasn’t changed. I think your question focuses on discretionary effort—the extra effort employees often invest beyond what’s required. The question is, how do you influence yourself and your colleagues to continue to go above and beyond?

Emphasize choice. It’s easy to fall into the trap of telling people what they ought to do. Before we know it, we’re giving sermons and lectures to people who haven’t asked for our advice. Consider using the communication tool called Motivational Interviewing. The goal of this tool is to help other people explore the pluses and minuses of their choices—instead of telling them what you think they should do. Here is an example of this approach.

You: “On a scale from 1 to 10, how motivated are you to provide the best possible service to this customer?”

Your Colleague: “Not very motivated at all. I’d say about a 3.”

You: “But not a 1? Why would you say a 3 instead of something lower like a 2 or a 1?”

Your Colleague: “I can think of several reasons. I see myself as a professional who does what’s right. I enjoy this work and I’m good at it, and I realize that the individual customers I support didn’t make the decision to terminate us. I also need to keep this paycheck for as many months as I can, and I want to take advantage of the outplacement counseling and bonus our employer has promised us if we stay.”

Notice that your colleague is the one who is explaining the pluses of serving the customer. Of course, your colleague is still very much aware of the minuses as well, but you haven’t forced him or her into a debate. Again, I want to emphasize that your colleague’s reasoned decision—after weighing the pluses and minuses—might be to focus on finding a new job. Motivational interviewing, when done well, helps people analyze their options; it doesn’t push one option over another.

Mutual Purpose. The end of a contract and the end of employment would seem to sever the Mutual Purpose that used to exist between yourselves and your customer. The natural reaction is, “You don’t care about us, so why should we care about you?” Instead of rejecting the possibility of Mutual Purpose, I recommend looking for new common ground.

You and your colleagues have a new set of goals: landing on your feet financially, getting other jobs, and protecting your families from economic ruin. Recognize that these goals are legitimate and may need to be your first priority. And, obviously, they may conflict with serving your customer.

Some people will exaggerate this conflict. They’ll say, “You need to choose between yourself and your customer. If you choose yourself, then you need to quit your job. If you choose the customer, then you’re walking your family off the edge of a cliff.” Instead of exaggerating this conflict ask: “How can I help myself and my family, and provide quality service to my customer at the same time?”

Use personal and vicarious experience. Sharing motivational statements in an e-mail or a meeting won’t be convincing enough for your colleagues to bet their families’ financial security. They need to see examples of real people—colleagues and former colleagues—who’ve been in the same boat, have modeled a solution, and proven it works. These successful colleagues need to share their stories—in person if possible. They need to explain what they did and tell how it helped their customers, themselves, and their families. They also need to be prepared to answer skeptics’ questions.

Retention incentives. Some organizations (but rarely government agencies) will use incentives such as transfers, outplacement services, and retention bonuses to motivate employees to stay through the end of a contract. It doesn’t sound as if your employer was prepared with these options. If they did offer retention incentives, it might help to remind your colleagues of this motivating factor.

Take action. My final bit of advice is to ask yourself what you want long term and take immediate action to get there. Don’t wait to see what happens. Instead, take charge of your career. Recognize that you’ve been dealt a very bad hand, and that it will take a lot of extra effort on your part to get back to where you were. You may need to learn new skills or take a second job—maybe even a volunteer job that puts experience on your resume. Leverage your relationships with your customers. They may be a wonderful source for recommendations and opportunities.

I’m sorry you and your colleagues are in this difficult position and wish you the best as you search for a solution that works for you and encourage your colleagues to do so as well.


Kerrying On

The Bombs Bursting in Error

If you’ve ever watched Pawn Stars, then you’ll appreciate where this story is going. With each new episode, Rick Harrison (co-owner of the Gold and Silver Pawn Shop) along with a few family members and colleagues, haggle with customers over how much a Civil War wooden leg is worth—or it might be a Picasso print. Either way, the show doesn’t really hit its stride until Rick and crew barter for a blunderbuss, pistol, rifle, cannon, or some other ancient explosive device. Then the real fun begins. After they’ve purchased an antique firearm, the pawn team gleefully piles into an SUV and hotfoots it to a nearby shooting range where they test the worthiness of their recent purchase by firing it at cans and boxes filled with gunpowder.

With each new explosion, the pawn stars leap with joy. The day they touched off a mortar that shot a bowling ball several hundred yards, the entire team fell to the ground in a paroxysm of laughter. Their joy was so contagious, it took all I could muster to keep from running out and buying a bowling-ball mortar of my own.

I mention this because here in America, we’re about to enter a period of patriotic devotion manifested by the time-honored tradition of blowing things up—the Fourth of July. Similar to Rick’s crew, which is drawn to cannons like moths to a flame, many of us will be drawn to roadside firework stands. There we’ll purchase large bags filled with colorful pyrotechnics sporting names such as “The Punisher,” “Nuclear Sunrise,” and “Red, White, and Boom.” We’ll buy these celebratory explosives because the skill of blowing things up provides humans a genetic advantage that has been passed on by their prehistoric predecessors and it simply won’t be denied. Plus, admit it, we’re comforted by the knowledge that a panel of experts examined the fireworks and deemed them to be legal (and presumably safe) for use in our neighborhood.

But what is it about the ability to blow something to smithereens that inclines us to abandon basic common sense? Don’t get me wrong, I love fireworks shows. I attend them regularly. I love fireworks. I buy them regularly. As a kid I made rockets and bombs. If I could get permission to do so today, I’d shoot flaming bowling balls at abandoned greenhouses filled with gunpowder. And like Rick, I’d fall over in a fit of joy with each shattering explosion.

But now I have children and grandchildren, so let’s get serious. There isn’t a twelve-year-old kid in the country who can’t transform legal fireworks into weapons of destruction. Twist this, bend that, (and now for the real secret) wrap seven layers of duct tape around this part and voilà—what was once an innocent, sparkling pinwheel now has the potential to earn you the nickname of “Lefty.” I’ve heard friends’ stories of bottle-rocket races (humans run, rockets follow) and activities so bizarre and dangerous I don’t dare mention them.

Even when you don’t grossly abuse fireworks, they present a serious risk. I, of all people, know this. On July the fourth, 1960, my friend Ed Biery’s parents dropped the two of us off at the Lummi Indian Reservation where all manner of fireworks were legally sold and detonated. I started the day by casually lighting and throwing firecrackers at rocks and pieces of beach wood until I grew bored (roughly four minutes). Next, Ed brought out the sacred Revell plastic model planes and boats he had built, treasured, and protected since he was old enough to hold a pair of tweezers—the same plastic models he had meticulously glued together and fastidiously painted for several hundred hours. Now, at age fourteen, the two of us callously blew up his masterpieces—like mad bombers on a rampage.

At one point during the destructive frenzy, I lit a firecracker and forgot to throw it. Silly me. Eventually the firework reminded me that I hadn’t released it by exploding in my hand. My right index finger and thumb throbbed for two days. They still throb when I think about that painful explosion.

But this setback didn’t stop the insanity. The escalation continued until Ed and I placed a three-shot aerial bomb on a log. The first shot flew an explosive fifty feet in the air where it detonated with a frightening roar. It also knocked the remaining firework to the ground. The second “aerial” shot (now aimed at my head) zipped past my right ear and landed under a passing police car, which took the full force of the explosion. Two officers leaped out of the vehicle and headed our way until the third and final shot ricocheted off a log and landed next to me and Ed. It lay a few feet away from us on a patch of seaweed for what felt like a week—the fuse spitting and hissing like a snake. Suddenly it detonated with a force so concussive it knocked the two of us off our feet.

The police officers quickly scanned the beach, concluded that we weren’t attacking them (after all, we had nearly blown ourselves up), and chastised us for using sloppy ordinance-handling techniques. What else could they say? The fireworks were legal. The damage was temporary. And we’d been extremely lucky.

This year, as Independence Day approaches, I wish you the best of holidays. Go ahead and be independent. Refuse to give in to British domination. Don’t listen to One Direction, Adele, or Mumford and Sons. Refuse to pay excessive taxes on tea. Go nuts. Just don’t become independent from all vestiges of reason and logic. Try establishing ground rules before the first fuse is lit. Start with Mutual Purpose. “I know we all want to have a safe experience, so why don’t we set up some rules to ensure our safety?” Ask others what they want to avoid and then jointly create guidelines. Better to set expectations before people act unsafely than to deal with infractions after they occur and others become defensive. As I tell my children, when you or your neighbor comes up with a crazy firework idea, ask yourself: “What would Dad do?” Then don’t do it anyway. And finally, to all you blunderbuss and cannon lovers out there—stop referring to your left eye, hand, and foot as “spares.” That’s just asking for trouble.

If you enjoyed this story, you’ll love Kerry’s new book, The Gray Fedora—a collection of stories from Kerrying On. The book is now available on

BS Guys

Got an Awkward Conversation?

Everyone has an awkward conversation they are avoiding. Perhaps you have a co-worker who smells bad, a boss who’s impossible, or a regular, well-paying customer with outrageous demands. Sometimes the situation is temporary, or we don’t deal with it very often, so we don’t address it. Sometimes we bottle up our feelings in situations we deal with regularly—and do so for extended periods of time. Instead of finding a way to deal with an awkward situation in a healthy way, we endure years of pain and torment.

In the hit 90’s sitcom Seinfeld, Elaine, along with Jerry, George, and Kramer, lock away their darkest secrets in the vault (“I’m putting it in the vault! I’m locking the vault!”), a place where their confidences—too awkward or damaging to tell—were supposed to go to die. Sometimes we do the exact same thing.

So, why do we do this? Because we focus on the immediate risks involved in speaking up, but completely ignore the certain and ongoing costs of not speaking up.

We recently conducted a study of 1,409 participants asking about their “vault” (this study is the latest subject of our new BS Guys video). Fifty-six percent of respondents stated they have been safeguarding toxic secrets or workplace grievances for more than a year! Keeping these secrets “in the vault” creates problems that are decidedly non-comedic and can be costly to an organization.

We asked people to imagine that we just handed them a “magical free pass” that would allow them to say anything they wanted to one person at work—with immunity from any consequences. Then we asked them what they thought would happen if they could actually follow through and hold that conversation. These were the surprising results:

• 66% believed their organization would be helped
• 57% believed everyone who interacts with this person would be helped
• 43% believed the person themself would be helped
• 39% believed a huge emotional burden would be lifted

We were amazed at the things employees have bottled-up for years, and were dying to tell a colleague, and yet were too scared or worried to discuss. For example, one school principal longed to tell her aging school media specialist:

“You need to retire. You’re overpaid, unhealthy, and out of touch—you can’t move well enough to even answer your phone. Oh, and you have a serious problem with hoarding.”

In spite of the enduring and substantial cost to the school, the principal, the students—and likely even to this employee—the principal’s concerns have stayed locked in “the vault” for more than a year.

People’s suppressed concerns ran the gamut, from terrifying to disgusting to heartbreaking. Common examples included:

• Speaking truth to those in power (50%): “You are the worst boss I’ve ever had. I used to fantasize you’d get into a car wreck on the way to work. My heart goes out to anyone who has to report to you.”
• Criticizing a peer’s performance (31%): “Your fake, sugar-sweet ‘kindness’ tinged with sarcasm and bullying to everyone, as well as your lying and backbiting, has made me not trust you or believe a word you say.”
• Talking about the elephant in the room (2%): “Your hygiene and habits are repulsive and offensive. No one wants to hear or smell your bodily functions. Stop leaving food garbage at your desk and using the bathroom sink to wash up like a squirrel at a birdbath.”

The most surprising finding of this study is how much pain we are willing to endure and for how long—for years and years in many cases—rather than open the vault. We are so intimidated by the initial conflict that could arise, we risk losing the incredible payoff of resolving the awkward issue.

This study uncovered another problem—these secrets are not truly locked away. When it comes to frustrations, if you don’t talk it out with the person and resolve it, you’ll act it out in unhealthy ways. Consider all the people who hate their managers. More than half of the respondents stated that they had either shared their resentments with others or have hinted about it to their boss.

So how do we open up the vault? Here are some tips to help you have “serenity now and avoid insanity later” as you follow through with that awkward conversation you’re avoiding:

Assume people can change. More than half of respondents haven’t spoken up because they don’t believe the person could or would change. But people do change all the time. Ask yourself, “If I were in the other person’s shoes, and I had a true friend who knew what I know, would I want them to tell me?” Most of us say “Yes!” because we care and have confidence we can change. Do the person the favor of letting them try to change.

Determine what you really want. Many of people’s grievances sound like, “You are a jerk!” These are accusations, rather than aspirations. Before speaking up, ask yourself what you want to accomplish—not just for yourself, but for the other person and for your working relationship. Use this long-term, inclusive goal to make the conversation constructive rather than destructive.

Approach as a friend, not a foe. We live in a low-accountability culture, where speaking up is often seen as an attack. Avoid this misconception by explaining your positive motives up front. For example, “I’d like to discuss a concern. My goal is to support you and to help us achieve the metrics you’ve set for our team . . . ”

Stick to the facts. Concerns that have been in the vault for months or years grow big and hairy. Specific incidents and facts are hidden beneath layers of conclusions. Avoid broad conclusions such as, “you don’t care” or “you’re incompetent.” Instead, focus on specific incidents, events, and actions such as, “The last three staffing decisions were made without input from the managers in the affected areas.”

I hope these tips help you have the courage to step up to the awkward conversation locked away in your vault.