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15 Dec 2014

How to Motivate Employees with Words

In leadership, how to motivate employees with words is critical.

How to motivate employees with words requires training, practice and planning.

In advertising we learn how to motivate consumers with words. In leadership we need to know how to motivate employees with words. We can learn much from advertising. Principles are the same. I use them in my series, Leveraging Relationships in Communications. We just apply more rigor to advertising than we do leadership when it comes to relationships.

“Advertising’s New Medium: Human Experience” (Harvard Business Review, March 2013 edition) by Jeffrey Rayport shows the contrast. In using words, he says advertising operates in four ways to establish:

  1. Keywords in the mind
  2. New habits
  3. Ways of thinking
  4. Emotional connections

Contrast this with how to motivate employees. Do we plan this with them? We don’t to the extent we do with advertising plans. Our keywords are critical to change. According to Rayport, we establish a “cognitive beachhead.” They become the anchors by which we produce change. A change management plan for an employee will begin with keywords.

Using keywords, we repeat and follow up to change habits. Many times we need to change thinking first. This includes how an employee sees himself. We often skip this. Resistance to change is often fear though. It’s fear of embarrassment. It’s fear of failure. Changing the habits of employees with low confidence is hard. We work on confidence first. We work on new habits second.

Once we introduce a new habit, we need to introduce a way of thinking about it. This can be as simple as explaining why the new habit is good. On a higher level, it will provide context. For instance, rather than saying, “The industry is changing,” saying why gives context.

Finally, we make emotional connections with our words. We look for the emotions that really motivate an employee and connect our words to them. Saying “good job” connects a good emotion to a habit. A compliment strategy will help us do even a better job of this.

Advertising shows us how to motivate employees with words. Its principles are relationship building ideas used on a mass scale. We just don’t plan our relationships as well as we do our advertising.


5 Responses

  1. Sounds to much like management or even worse, compared to leadership: change habits, change thinking, explaining how the new habit is good, …, culminating with “Do we plan this with them? We don’t to the extent…” Managers believe they can motivate employees; leaders know they can set the environment that will lead to intrinsic motivation. Nobody (“Drive” by Dan Pink) can really “motivate employees with words” – not to change habits!!!

    Leaders encourage dialogue, look for employee input, work with employees to optimize key words, habits, and connections!

    1. Mike Lehr

      John, words do matter. My experience, common sense and most of all the history of advertising, politics, religion, marketing and poetry demonstrate words do matter. You’re right that words alone are not the best alternative, but when combined with strategic relationship building and emotions, they are. All words have connotations. These are their emotional counterparts to their definitions. When we use words, we employ emotions. The problem is that most of us don’t realize that. Consequently, we sabotage our best intentions and efforts and then wonder, “What happened?”

      Good leaders practice what you mention. Words not only help us deliver information, they help us deliver emotions. If that were not the case, poetry would be worthless. It would not move us.

      1. As I’ve considered your reply to my comments, I truly see your points I think… But I think in some ways, we’re really saying sort of the same things. When you talk about words, you (I think) are often “setting the environment” – my words – as I believe a poem does if it is meaningful, spoken or read. And when you add in “strategic relationship building and emotions,” it’s not words alone.

        Would you agree that we CAN use emotions with our words – harder if in writing maybe? And would you agree that the inclusion of emotions also depends upon the receiver?

        1. Mike Lehr

          You’re right, John. These words don’t work if there is an environment of distrust or hypocrisy. The question is this: After establishing a good environment, what do we do next? Just as any ad campaign won’t work if people know something bad about a product, the same holds true with the kind of word campaign I describe. What I’ve seen is that very often we sabotage the work we’ve done to create a good environment, by saying the wrong things.

          For example, in a conference call to about a thousand employees, an executive was laying out the plan for the coming year. In the call, he said, “Another one of our goals is to upgrade the talent in our organization.” Now, even though he went on to say that this would include training for existing employees as well as better recruiting, those qualifications didn’t go far because employees were trying to digest the implication of what he said (“Management is out to replace us”).

          As another example, a business owner, in describing the future to his employees, mentioned that no one is irreplaceable. Even though his intent was to encourage and motivate long-tenured employees, everyone suddenly had anxiety that he was looking to let some go. He had never said anything like that before.

          In each case, a reasonably sound foundation existed but it was undercut by a few misused words. Unfortunately, negative points carry about ten times the weight of positive points. So, you’ve set yourself back by now having to emphasize the positive ten times before you can recoup the damage done by the negative. While I’ve stated extreme examples here, this happens constantly everyday in the workplace on a lesser level. They build and corrode what was once a good environment.

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