How Not to Inspire Your Workforce

08/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I did a radio show the other night on Sustainability and Profitability for Businesses,
and the interviewer asked what advice I had for small or mid-sized business owners that might help them during this crunch time. My advice was based on two real life examples of approaches that do not work well.

I have a friend who works for a Ford dealership and every day they are getting frantic memos about cutting costs. Fire this person, fire that person, sell off half of the printers, eliminate sick days and paid holidays. Since it's her job to execute all these orders, she is, of course, disheartened, drained, and afraid for her own future. The corporate culture is based on hierarchical top-down control which is alienating to the workforce, fear-provoking and causing the opposite reaction to what might actually help the company. Instead of engaging the brilliant creative potential of the workers there and capitalizing on the diversity of experience and wisdom in their midst, they are killing off their own natural resources by sending so many workers home with pink slips.

Every question should be framed in 3-4 ways to ensure a creative and enlivening response. What if corporate asked, instead of "How can we cut costs?", "how can engage our workforce in solving this problem?" or "what do we have to give to get more?" or " how can we follow Nature's lead and set up a waste is food? policy" or "what's the best way to spend $1000 to come up with a million dollar idea?"

There's a reason why 71% of the national workforce is not engaged in the workplace. No one's engaging their spirits, talking to their hearts, tapping into and applauding their creative genius. Everyone knows how good it feels to be seen and heard and recognized. Research shows that employees would more often prefer praise and recognition to monetary benefits. It's the human factor and that's what's being trampled and forsaken in this time of fiscal crisis.

Take a look at this email from a company owner to one of his sales force:

Hi Susan,

On the topic of new distribution/new customers; I'm very concerned about the
lack of new customer productivity in your large and important territory.

As of May 12 you had 2 new customers for the entire territory. That's one new customer for every 9 weeks of work since the start of the year. Most rep groups were averaging 1 every two weeks. It's simply not acceptable especially since we did a boat load of work providing leads and databases for the sales team.

We need people out pioneering their territories. If that's not something your group is willing to do then we are going to need to talk about it more.

I know Rich plans to address this with you so you had better be prepared with an explanation.

Thanks much.

Do you think this kind of approach fosters encouragement? commitment? exciteability and passion and loyalty? Just the opposite! In Susan, it provoked anger, stress, disenchantment, temptation to look for other work, bewilderment at lack of support for the successes she's had. This memo is so old-school, so non-visionary and so unimaginative that it's not surprising it deflates the spirit of the enterprising saleswoman. Where are the questions he might have asked? Where is the part where he acknowledges and thanks her? Where is the collaborative gesture, the creative invitation?

Business is not an Olympic sport, it's a mind/body/spirit enterprise that people bring their whole beings to, for the benefit of the company and the benefit of their selves. When business learns to address the whole human person--not like a virtuoso who's training to play at Carnegie Hall or an athlete who's in training for a Gold Medal--but a regular human being who longs for interaction, a sense of purpose, and a place to feel accomplished and recognized, then business might actually succeed in the ways that really matter.