Motivate, Don’t Seduce
A new leader, meeting for the first time with the employees of a recently-acquired company, tells them with a warm smile, “Don’t worry, little will change. You are good people and I’m looking forward to working with each of you.” As we fast forward to one year later, in fact much has changed – 20% of the employees have been downsized and 25% had to move to a new location. As for the new leader and his staff – to quote one of the employees, “Our new leadership sure treats people differently. I remember the days when we didn’t have all this paperwork regarding performance appraisals.” At the same time, the leader quoted earlier says to some of his old colleagues, “I just don’t understand why the new employees don’t trust us.”
Through my personal experiences over the past 25 years in working with companies’ merger and acquisition change processes, I don’t believe the leadership of acquiring companies are blatantly dishonest. The problem is that many leaders are not careful with what they communicate and make promises they can’t keep. To put it another way, they think they are motivating the employees by saying things they believe the employees want to hear, when in fact they are “seducing” them! And the result of seduction in the long run is neither pleasant nor productive – and the long run can be a matter of days or weeks.
The motivation and trust problem that comes through “seduction” goes far beyond leadership in an acquiring company. One needs to look no farther than what we do as parents or with personal friends. And I say “we” because I know that as a father, I told my children on occasion something that I wanted them to do – and made “promises” of what I would do in return without thinking about “Can I really do them?”
If we go back to the earlier acquisition case, one may find the employees “seducing” management as well. For example, in a small work session between a manager and a group of employees, one hears the employees say, “We look forward to working with you and are pleased to hear that there will be a more rigid performance management process.” When in the following weeks the employees don’t demonstrate a good effort to make the new performance management process work (e.g., they don’t do something as simple as completing all the paperwork), management feels “seduced.”
Finally, let’s turn to a common manager-employee problem – the manager who “promises” to do something if the employee will do something. For example, a manager says, “If you will commit to work some overtime to get the project done, I will personally spend more time with you,” is in trouble when he or she doesn’t follow through with the promised personal help on the project – especially when the employee has worked diligently to complete the project, including putting in considerable overtime. The employee’s perspective is, “I’ve had to complete the project without the help that my manager promised me.” In the process of “motivating” (really “seducing”) the employee, the manager has violated the equity relationship principle. From the perspective of the employee (and any objective bystander) they have not given but have only taken! The more damaging outcome is that this results in diminishing “trust” of the manager by the employee, and most often a diminished work effort. And sadly, this kind of managerial behavior can eventually result in the loss of the quality employee – “Even though they pay me well here, I guess I’ll go find a place to work where people treat me fairly.” (Translated: treat me equitably.) *
Perhaps the real lesson here is an old one: “We should think before we speak.” Whether as the leader of an acquiring company, the manager of employees, or a parent, if we don’t do this, our alleged “motivation” (really “seduction”) could turn into a serious motivation problem!
*For more information on this subject, see: Huseman, R. and Hayes, M. (2002). GIVE TO GET LEADERSHIP: THE SECRET OF THE HIDDEN PAYCHECK. Equity Press.