What’s the best way to keep employees motivated?

I’ve been thinking about this ever since I first set up my business in 1992. As far as I’m concerned, the most important function of a leader should be to create an environment where everyone does their job with enthusiasm. Ordering people around and dishing out penalties and rewards has never inspired anybody. People must be self-motivated.

But that doesn’t mean a leader can’t help them get there.

I discovered the secret to inspiring self-motivation through the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO), an organization for executives and entrepreneurs from around the world. The YPO’s most popular program is something called the forum.

Each forum consists of around 10 business leaders who get together to share the challenges and problems they face, provide each other with suggestions for dealing with those problems, and, hopefully, grow as a result. As a member of the YPO, I took part in four three-day YPO forum retreats every year (one per quarter) which brought together eight leaders from Asia and Australia.

The forums have four clear principles:

  1. Emotion trumps logic. Showing empathy (even non-verbally) is all-important.
  2. Avoid making judgments. Personal criticism is an absolute no-no. Focus on the feelings of the other people and withhold judgment.
  3. Never impose your opinions on others. Never say, “You should do such-and-such.” Say something more roundabout like, “When I was in a similar situation, I did such-and-such.” In this way, you can offer suggestions while leaving it entirely up to the other person whether or not to take your advice.
  4. Observe the confidentiality rule. An environment where secrets are 100% safe makes people far more comfortable about sharing their anxieties and problems.

Running my company on a day-to-day basis, I apply these principles to interactions with my staff. For instance, when something’s gone wrong, I don’t blame the person and give them a hard time for screwing things up. My starting point is to think about how they must be feeling and to make an effort to empathize and encourage.

I also never order anyone to do anything. I try to take a Socratic approach, asking my employees what they think we should do, sharing my own experiences, and volunteering the occasional indirect suggestion: “Well, if it were me, I’d probably do this.” Via this combination of questions and suggestions, I try to find a balance between what the individual wants to do and the overall vector of the company.

I actually use the same method at home with my five sons, being sensitive to their personalities, discussing things with them in complete confidence, and using questions and suggestions to get them to reach their own conclusions. Whatever they end up deciding to do, they are acting very much on their own volition.

I believe so strongly in the forum method, that I apply it at GLOBIS. Every year, we assemble the whole graduating class of MBAs and talk them through the forum’s four principles. I then encourage the students to divide themselves up into diverse groups and meet once a quarter once they’re out in the real world. (Obviously, not all of them do it, but around 30 percent do.)

There’s no great benefit in freshly minted graduates getting together just to socialize over a meal or drinks. In normal social situations, people tend to skirt around difficult or uncomfortable topics. But when you apply the forum principles, the environment changes radically. The graduates know that they are in a safe space. That means they’re happy to share their experiences and accept helpful pointers from their friends.

This is not therapy; it’s an extremely effective approach to building empathetic leaders. The forum method is at once a safety net and a network that leverages the trust students have for one another to foster self-motivation and objective empowerment, resulting in passion about their work.

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