Three Steps To Bringing Out The Best In Others

“If you don’t understand what makes people tick, they won’t tick.”
Robert Swan, explorer and environmentalist

If you’re in any kind of business at all, you want to motivate the very best in others. After all, you can’t make any money … or survive very long … if you’re paying people $20 an hour but they’re only giving back $10 worth of effort each and every hour.

So how do you motivate the very best in others? It’s the focus of my “Peak Performance” program, and it’s the focus of the entire second day of my “Journey to the Extraordinary” experience. But I’ll give you a sneak peek into some of the motivational strategies I teach in those programs.

=> 1. Go beyond “nurturing.”

Former ITT executive Harold Geneen talks about his problem with the recent trend that advocates “nurturing” employees. In his book, “The Synergy Myth and Other Ailments of Business Today,” he explains the difference between “baloney” and “reality.”

According to Geneen, his definition of “baloney” is “Managers should nurture workers and strive to make the workplace a caring environment.” On first glance, that sounds pretty harsh to me. Who wouldn’t want a more caring workplace?

However, as Geneen later explains, that’s simply the beginning of motivation. You have to go a lot further than that. You have to “inspire workers.” You have to “help them strive and get raises, bonuses, and other perks for working hard and showing initiative. My goal at ITT was always to make the people around me successful … You hold people to high standards for their own good. That’s much better than holding their hands.”

Good point. Go beyond nurturing to inspiring.

After I talked about that at an on-site program for Compuware, Theresa Dolbert, the Vice President of Human Resources, wrote, “Initially, I was a skeptic, but I became a believer in those things I formerly viewed as ‘fluff.’ Zimmerman’s strategies are very powerful.”

=> 2. Remember the “forgotten” employee.

All too often, busy managers tend to overlook their support staff. Even though they may not be as actively involved in designing and executing the business strategy as some other employees, these people are often the glue that holds a department together.

To motivate their best, show these “forgotten” employees that you take what they do seriously. You could even try this tactic. Give them a “budget” … say $100 a month … to use any way they see fit. They could order special office supplies, order lunch for the department, or anything else. It’s a simple way to show them that you appreciate their work and trust their judgment.

=> 3. Give extra attention to those who need it.

It’s kind of like gardening. When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce.

“Yet if we have problems with our friends or our family, we blame the other person, ” says Thich Nhat Hahn in his book “Peace In Every Step.” By contrast, “if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like the lettuce. Blaming has no positive effect at all … If you understand, and show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change.”

Hahn’s advice is solid. So when you come across that difficult person, that unlikable colleague, or demotivated team member, ask yourself if you’re spending more time and energy on blaming them or understanding them.

Hopefully you’re spending more time on the understanding part … because there is power in giving extra attention to those who need it. That’s why Elizabeth Silance Ballard wrote her fictional story in a 1976 issue of “Home Magazine.” Based on her own experience … and the experience of others … she coined a story to illustrate the difference teachers can make. She wrote about Teddy Stallard, a story that has now gone round the world several times. To paraphrase it…

“As she stood in front of her 5th grade class on the very first day of school, she told the children an untruth. Like most teachers, she looked at her students and said that she loved them all the same. However, that was impossible, because there in the front row, slumped in his seat, was a little boy named Teddy Stallard.

“Mrs. Thompson had watched Teddy the year before and noticed that he did not play well with the other children, that his clothes were messy and that he constantly needed a bath. In addition, Teddy could be unpleasant. It got to the point where Mrs. Thompson would actually take delight in marking his papers with a broad red pen, marking bold X’s and then putting a big fat ‘F’ at the top of his papers.

“At the school where Mrs. Thompson taught, she was required to review each child’s past records and she put Teddy’s off until last. However, when she reviewed his file, she was in for a surprise.

“Teddy’s first grade teacher wrote, ‘Teddy is a bright child with a ready laugh. He does his work neatly and has good manners … he is a joy to be around.’

“His second grade teacher wrote, ‘Teddy is an excellent student, well liked by his classmates, but he is troubled because his mother has a terminal illness and life at home must be a struggle.’

“His third grade teacher wrote, ‘His mother’s death has been hard on him. He tries to do his best, but his father doesn’t show much interest, and his home life will soon affect him if some steps aren’t taken.’

“Teddy’s fourth grade teacher wrote, ‘Teddy is withdrawn and doesn’t show much interest in school. He doesn’t have many friends and he sometimes sleeps in class.’

“By now, Mrs. Thompson realized the problem and she was ashamed of herself. She felt even worse when her students brought her Christmas presents, wrapped in beautiful ribbons and bright paper, except for Teddy’s. His present was clumsily wrapped in the heavy, brown paper that he got from a grocery bag. Mrs. Thompson took the pains to open it in the middle of the other presents. Some of the children started to laugh when she found a rhinestone bracelet with some of the stones missing, and a bottle that was one-quarter full of perfume. But she stifled the children’s laughter when she exclaimed how pretty the bracelet was, putting it on, and dabbing some of the perfume on her wrist.

“Teddy Stallard stayed after school that day just long enough to say, ‘Mrs. Thompson, today you smelled just like my Mom used to.

“After the children left, she cried for at least an hour. On that very day, she quit teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. Instead, she began to teach children. Mrs. Thompson paid particular attention to Teddy. As she worked with him, his mind seemed to come alive. The more she encouraged him, the faster he responded. By the end of the year, Teddy had become one of the smartest children in the class, and despite her lie that she would love all the children the same, Teddy became one of the ‘teacher’s pets.’

“A year later, she found a note under her door, from Teddy, telling her that she was the best teacher he ever had in his whole life.

“Six years went by before she got another note from Teddy. He then wrote that he had finished high school, third in his class, and she was still the best teacher he ever had in life.

“Four years after that, she got another letter, saying that while things had been tough at times, he’d stayed in school, had stuck with it, and would soon graduate from college with the highest of honors. He assured Mrs. Thompson that she was still the best and favorite teacher he had ever had in his whole life.

“Then four more years passed and yet another letter came. This time he explained that after he got his bachelor’s degree, he decided to go a little further. The letter explained that she was still the best and favorite teacher he ever had. But now his name was a little longer. The letter was signed, Theodore F. Stallard, M.D.

“The story does not end there. You see, there was yet another letter that spring. Teddy said he had met this girl and was going to be married. He explained that his father had died a couple of years ago, and he was wondering if Mrs. Thompson might agree to sit at the wedding in the place that was usually reserved for the mother of the groom. Of course, Mrs. Thompson did. And guess what? She wore that bracelet, the one with several rhinestones missing. Moreover, she made sure she was wearing the perfume Teddy remembered his mother wearing on their last Christmas together.

“They hugged each other, and Dr. Stallard whispered in Mrs. Thompson’s ear, ‘Thank you Mrs. Thompson for believing in me. Thank you so much for making me feel important and showing me that I could make a difference.

“Mrs Thompson, with tears in her eyes, whispered back. She said, ‘Teddy, you have it all wrong. You were the one who taught me that I could make a difference. I didn’t know how to teach until I met you.”

Hopefully you’ve had a Mrs. Thompson in your life. I know I did. My teacher’s name was Sally Webb, and even though it’s been 40 years since she was my teacher, we still stay in contact. In fact, we just had coffee a couple weeks ago.

And hopefully you are a Mrs. Thompson in somebody else’s life. You can make a difference. You can motivate the very best in others. You REALLY can.

Action:  Decide this day to be a Mrs. Thompson in the lives of at least two other people outside your immediately family.