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Motivating the Members of your MSP Team (Part 2): Overcoming the “Fear Factor”

We’ve all seen it (and perhaps even been it): smart people who don’t live up to their potential. It’s a problem that parents and teacher grapple with in regard to bright, talented children and unfortunately, age doesn’t always cure it; it’s also a common problem confronted by employers and managers who have taken pains to hire the best minds only to see them underperform after coming on board because they just don’t seem to be motivated to do the best they’re capable of doing.

Before you write that employee off as “just lazy” and demotivate him/her further with a scathing performance evaluation, take just a moment to step back and look honestly at company’s overall atmosphere, the management style and yes, at yourself and how your own attitude might be affecting that of your subordinates (especially if you seem to this same problem with multiple employees).

If writing that scathing eval would have been your natural response, chances are you tend to be a bit harsh when others don’t live up to your expectations. Do you think of the people you manage as “your workers” or as fellow team members? And when a newbie joins your team, do you give him/her enough time to learn the ropes and feel comfortable in the new position before passing immediate judgment on his/her competence?

No matter how intelligent and well-educated a person is, starting a new job is stressful and we all make mistakes before we learn the ins and outs of company-specific processes and how to navigate the dangerous realm of internal politics. How a new employee is treated by supervisors and co-workers during the first critical weeks can be the determining factor in whether that person becomes an enthusiastic, proactive partner in achieving the company’s goals or retreats into a cubicle to do the minimum requirement to get by and merely tolerating the work week as a necessary means to get to the weekend and two days away from the fray.

One of the biggest demotivators is fear. Humans have a natural instinctive reaction to fear: fight or flight. If the work environment fosters fear (of being fired, of being yelled at by the boss, or even just of looking stupid in front of unsupportive co-workers), some employees become hostile and belligerent. You’ve seen them – the people who hate their jobs and those they work with, take every opportunity to argue or make a snarky remark, and are generally unpleasant to work with.

More often, though, a fearful employee will choose flight. These folks try to run away from problems, become avoidant, sequester themselves behind their monitors or in their offices (if they’re lucky enough to have one). They “play it safe” by not speaking up in meetings – not even attending if they can get away with it – and doing everything exactly “by the book,” never taking initiative or going above and beyond. When they run into problems with their work, they may try hide them instead of solving them, afraid to ask anyone else for help. This, of course, usually results in the problems getting worse.

Sometimes employees consciously or subconsciously fail to do their best because of a fear of success. The employee might not want to have to deal with the offer of a promotion, because he/she doesn’t want to move out of the present comfort zone or doesn’t feel ready to handle added responsibility – but also doesn’t want to have to say “no” to a promotional opportunity for fear of appearing to be ungrateful or even out of fear that family members would get angry if he/she turned down the chance to move upward and make more money.

These are internal obstacles and you might be able to get more insight into the lack of motivation if you have a frank talk with the employee to explore the reasons for the lackluster performance. Sometimes, though, you (the boss) is the source of the employee’s fear. It is unlikely that employees will come out and tell you if that’s the case, so you’ll have to figure it out on your own.

If employees (or children) are made to feel afraid of the consequences if they make any mistakes, that fear may paralyze them to the point where they won’t take any chances. And of course, it’s impossible to do great things without taking chances. This risk aversion can originate in two different ways:

  • It might be ingrained from childhood, caused by overly critical parents, teachers and/or peers.
  • The employee might have begun this job (or a previous job) all hyped up and gung ho and full of new ideas, and been slapped down for it so many times he/she decided the best way to get along in the business world (or in this particular company) is to keep a low profile and just do what’s assigned.

Either way, these employees at some point have been demotivated. Now it’s up to you to reverse that process and motivate them to become the outstanding workers they have the potential to be. That’s actually easier to do in the second case than the first because it’s not had time to become such an integral part of their personalities.

Examine your style for interacting with the employee and if you’re generally more prone to criticize than to praise, or even if you tend to just stay silent and not offer either positive or negative reinforcement, maybe you need to make some changes.

Next time, we’ll talk about some specific examples of interactive methods that work best, and those that don’t work so well to motivate underperforming employees.