David: It’s a devil’s advocate question, but isn’t showing up to work and being offered something in exchange for your efforts enough? Shouldn’t getting a paycheck be meaningful enough?
Scott: I’ve been studying the art of creating meaning to motivate for almost two decades now. Ask a manager or leader, “What do you think fires up the troops? What sustains their motivation?” Invariably, they tell you it’s pay, perks, or promotions. The truth is, the data doesn’t support any of those.
The problem with perks is that they soon become expectations, and at that point, they have more power to let people down than to motivate them.
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The problem with promotions is that the impact you feel when you’re promoted doesn’t last very long. You look back, and the very thing you thought would make you happier, moving up that corporate ladder and getting more power, actually moves you farther away from the things that make you happiest of all. On average, 75 percent of people will say they’ve experienced some essence of this. It’s called the promotion paradox.
And the data simply does not support that pay [motivates people]. In fact, I just came across a study that showed that regardless of whether you make $30,000 or 3 million dollars a year, you’re equally likely to be satisfied or dissatisfied at your job. The truth is, 70 percent of us are more on a search for meaning at work than we are in life itself. Money ain’t going to fix that.
David: So how do we combat this?
Scott: Great question. A lot of my book, Make It Matter, is about getting at that conundrum. There are a couple of ways you can create meaning in your work to sustain motivation over time.
“70 percent of us are more on a search for meaning at work than we are in life itself. Money ain’t going to fix that.”
It starts by reframing the work you’re doing to help it matter even more to you. Some people will tell you, “Look, meaning is for doctors, for nurses and policemen whose jobs are inherently meaningful. [But] I’m just a…” fill in the blank.
I really disagree with that. I did a set of focus groups with parking lot attendants, and I found out that even [doing] something that seems incredibly boring and mind-numbing, a couple of them felt like, “My purpose is to take something menial, like being a parking lot attendant, and bring an unexpected smile and a bit of lilt to somebody’s step during the day.” They had reframed their work to make it matter more and have more purpose.
So one of the first things you could do to lift yourself out of that funk is think, “What is the possible purpose behind the work I am doing? What’s the ‘why’ behind my work assignments?” Then second, “What could I leave behind of tangible value? What do I want my legacy to be?” If you stop and think about the legacy [you] want to leave behind, and you compare it to the purpose that you have at that job, you could start to breathe more meaning into the work you do.
You could also recommit to learning and growing. If you look back on the times in your career when you were least satisfied, when you were the most discouraged and unfulfilled, there’s a darn good chance it was a time when you weren’t learning [or] growing.
What’s the first thing that always goes by the wayside when we’re busy at work? Training or learning or investing in yourself. If you could recommit to that, I have reams of data that show how meaningful that is to us as human beings and how fundamentally motivating that really is.
David: So what was your meaning when you were working at Procter & Gamble? A lot of people admire the company because it makes some amazing products, and people know it’s a great place to work. But the reality is, you’re selling soap. So what was your ‘why’ when you were at P&G?
Scott: I went to P&G in love with the numbers and the brands and selling more widgets than I did last year. [But] I discovered over time my true passion was helping others become the best versions of themselves.
David: As you go up and up in this organization, you have your ‘why,’ but you also have to help people find theirs. How did you do that from a leadership standpoint?
Scott: First it starts with caring enough to figure that out for all the people that work for you. What makes them tick and what’s their unique blueprint and what’s really most important to them. You can’t really fake it. You either really care or you don’t.
Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time trying to develop a unique set of questions to help individual people figure out, “What could my legacy be? What makes me tick?” One of the questions that people find most powerful is, “What would you try if you knew you wouldn’t fail?”
When I had that discussion with individual people, they gave me very interesting answers. You start to learn, “There really is more to this than just selling soap. This person is really passionate about X or Y.”
As you learn more about your people, you start to learn, “What are the kinds of things they would do for free? What are their core values and beliefs that are really important to them? What are [their] superpowers?” Those all belie clues [about] what they were put on this planet to do.
When you spend the time with people to figure out what their unique imprint on the business could be, you start to unlock what really motivates people, which is a work life that is meaningful to them individually.
David: When you look at a lot of great leaders, they found a way to better verbalize or better put to words what people were already feeling. And we’re talking about the same thing on an individual level. Your meaning for why you’re doing the work is totally different from each of your individual [employees], and the skilled leader figures that out, figures out how to play to it.
Scott: That’s right. You can’t just articulate your compelling vision, play it like a pied-piper and the lemmings will come. It has to be a vision that resonates with people’s individual identities. It has to be something that they can uniquely understand and commit to.
In the book I tell the story of a man named Mark Shapiro. At the time, he was the President of the Cleveland Indians, and he was featured in the movie Moneyball. He got Sporting News Executive of the Year a couple years in a row, and the secret sauce for him was [that] he didn’t just come out and articulate the Cleveland Indians mission and leave it at that. He really worked on mission fit. He would go around the organization, almost individual by individual, and help draw a link between his vision for the organization and how it would fit with each person’s unique personal identity and the unique role that they could play in delivering that vision.
So it wasn’t just vision for the masses, it was vision tailored on a one-to-one basis. Not every leader can do that, because some leaders have thousands in their organization. It’s more the philosophy and the principle of investing in the grassroots, understanding the troops and what’s important to them, and making sure [your] vision connects with that.
“What would you try if you knew you wouldn’t fail?”
David: Inevitably, not everyone is going to resonate with the mission of the organization or be able to find their way to derive purpose and meaning out of the job. So what do you do with those people who, when you ask them, “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?” and they say, “I’d go start a bakery downtown”?
Scott: There may come a time when you realize [that] you can’t get to [where] you’re really happy based on where you are. But what the data tells me and what I’ve seen through personal experience a lot more is [that] people give up too fast on the job that they’re in. So if the vision isn’t doing it for you, there are a lot of other avenues to create meaning.
We’ve talked about trying to identify your legacy, trying to recharge your batteries on learning and growing. A couple of other suggestions: finding ways to ask for autonomy is incredibly important to people and their sense of meaning. Figuring out a way to have more influence in what you’re doing, and if you’re a leader, to grant that as fast as you can. And to do it in an intelligent way, because we can engage in autonomy in a very unintelligent fashion, and make it feel more like we’re dumping rather than efficiently delegating.
Trying your absolute best to be free from corrosive behaviors if you’re a leader [is also important]. I consult so many companies in how to build a strong sense of meaning in the organization, and then I find out that there’s like two or three leaders [because of whom] all the help is going right out the back door. Their corrosive behaviors are eroding everything that they were trying to develop.
So be alert to the corrosive behaviors that we engage in, things like killing feelings of ownership for people that work for us. I’ve been guilty of this before, where I’ll move someone off a project and reassign them to something else, for a very good business reason, but not realizing the person wanted to see that through.
David: This is really interesting to me, because you started talking about corrosive behaviors, and then you said, “I’m even guilty of it.” We often don’t know what our own negatives are. What advice do you have for that leadership challenge, figuring out where you suck at dealing with your people.
Scott: It’s about the mindset, right? You have to [be] willing to ask your people what’s not working for them, how you can get better. The managers and leaders that really stick with you aren’t necessarily the ones that have all the answers all the time. They’re the ones that are vulnerable, and the ones that say, “I want you to be happy and fulfilled, [so] help me get better, help me understand the things that I’m simply not doing right.”
“Opportunities lie in the shadow of our strengths.”
David: I’ll often come out of a meeting and look to the person I know has a different perspective from me, and I’ll ask them to describe what just happened. They might say how I behaved, and it’s like, “That’s not how I intended! I didn’t intend to be mean to that person,” but they perceived it that way. That’s potentially something I was blind to. Now, sometimes it’s a misinterpretation, but swallowing your ego and saying how you interpret the world is not the way the world actually is is a huge realization, right? Because then you can learn, “The filters I see the world with blind me to certain things. Now I’m aware of it, and I can work on it.”
Scott: You get to that even quicker if you really invest in the relationships with the people that work for you. And the data’s super clear on this: the number one reason any one person will leave a corporation is a poor relationship with their manager. [And the] number one reason a relationship is poor with their manager is a lack of trust. So if you could really invest in a trusting relationship with those that work for you and the people that you work for, you get to those blind spots much quicker. Because you have that bedrock of trust, and you feel okay bringing it up.
David: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Scott: I used to struggle with giving people that work for me accurate, useful feedback that would make a difference in their lives. But one of my first bosses gave me wonderful advice: most often, our opportunities lie in the shadow of our strengths. So, for example, you might have someone that is a stunning visionary, and in the shadow of that strength, they’re terrible at follow-through and execution. You might have somebody who’s a fantastic collaborator, [but] they’re so eager to get everybody’s opinion heard they don’t make a decision fast enough.
I found that about 80 percent of the time, that’s the place to start. You figure out what they’re good at, and look in the shadow of that, and it helps you pinpoint what they may need to work on. I’ve always found that to be powerful advice.
David: That is really solid. In your view, what makes someone a leader?
Scott: I believe it’s four things. I believe it’s people that have a passion for potential. Their own potential, the potential of the business they’re running, and the potential of people that work for them, and they’ll do anything to advance all of those. I believe it’s people that are approachable, and they care about you as a human being. I believe leaders possess the framing finesse to help you understand why the vision of a company is important, and why it should matter to you. And I believe that great leaders create an atmosphere of relaxed intensity. I was often accused of being a very relaxed guy. I love to joke around, but don’t kid yourself; when push comes to shove, I want to win as much as anybody. But we’re going to do it in a way that’s fun and creative, and puts people first. To me, that’s what leadership is all about.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to the full version, click here.