Employees Will Give You Their Best for Free…But Not for Nothing!

For the past fifteen years I have greeted business leaders clamoring for more leadership and accountability in their organizations with this challenge, “What are you willing to give up? The question is almost always met with silence and then a question, “What exactly do you mean by give up? Then the fun begins.

I have been adamant for some time that employees want to give their employers the best they have to offer and employers behaviors and practices often serve to constrain this from happening. Many employees are not going to give their best for conventional rewards and they certainly are not going to give it for nothing, but they will give it for free. I know this without data to back it up, I just get it in my bones and I bet you do too.

“Thankfully, there are those writers who do like data and they often do the research to make the connection between “hunch” and reality. Every so often a new voice bursts on the management/leadership development scene with an unconventional take on familiar themes and they can back it up with facts and then many of us shout “I knew it!” No author may be as “right now” in this regard as Daniel Pink, author of ‘Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

This is not going to be my review of Drive, there are already plenty in circulation, in fact if you are interested I’ll send you right to one written by Andrew O’Connell that appeared in Harvard Business Review earlier this year. Better yet, if you’d like a pretty compelling synopsis of the book by the author himself I recommend setting aside ten minutes or so to watch the video animate created by RSA.org. I am betting that after you watch this piece you’ll buy the book if you haven’t already.

Without the benefit of the research presented in ‘Drive’ my company stumbled on some of Daniel Pink’s fundamental new truth through direct experience back in the mid-1990s while working with our local independent telephone company. (You may recall the 1990s as a time when telephone companies were still relevant!) During that period we were working with this company to bring about a shift in thinking, a transition from seeing the world though the eyes of a regulated utility to seeing the world through the eyes of a player in a competitive marketplace for telephonic services; a tall order at the very least.

Among the many changes that the telephone company was working to bring about at that time was to turn Customer Service from a pure expense center into another of the company’s revenue generating locations. The idea; pretty simple really, since the company could count on a regular inflow of contacts from customers with issues or questions why not address each of these contacts as also a sales opportunity. Calling features were in vogue then, Call Waiting, Three Way Calling etc. and each was available, for a price.

To motivate the customer service representatives who would be involved in making this change the company put in place a financial incentive program knowing full well that the employees would jump at the chance for additional income…they didn’t, and management was confused and perhaps not surprisingly they were angered as well. “Everyone” knew this was a great idea, why couldn’t these employees just buy in and get with the program and “hey, don’t forget the money”, the money was a good thing.

We came on the scene about three months after this program had been put in place and the situation was getting very tense. The managers who had first proposed this program had gone on record promising their seniors a big payback and it was not showing up. Knowing that their idea was sound the managers determined that if they could not entice desired behavior with incentive they might as well initiate some negative consequences for not “playing ball.” And so they did and suddenly the union representing the service reps got very involved and then no one was having any fun.

When asked if we had any possible remedy to offer the first of our questions set the stage for a dramatic shift in perspective. We asked, “What made you think that people who had been basically performing the same or similar functions for on average twenty years were suddenly going to care about making more money?” The answer was pretty simple and understandable. The managers assumed that the customer service reps were motivated by the same things that motivated them. Within a short period of time we were able to determine that time off, an afternoon to spend on family issues, a simple recognition luncheon, a book of car wash coupons, or just the time to spend with a customer without worrying about who was next in the queue, all these were more meaningful to the service reps than a chance to make more money. All of these motivators were virtually free but they did mean management would have to change their behaviors, and they did.

It is now fifteen years later. Daniel Pink tells us that autonomy, mastery and purpose are the motivators that matter to much of the current workforce in the conceptual age. You might think this would be good news for many employers. Not necessarily so. Providing these incentives means management will need to give up control of employees’ time and direction to some degree. For many employers they would still rather let go of money than they would control.

  • Where are you struggling to gain employees’ ‘buy in’ but you have failed to offer them any freedom? What are you prepared to give up?
  • Can you envision your role without any supervisory or directive aspect? What could you do with the time freed up?



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