“So, if not bonuses, how do I get my team motivated to perform, to get the results we are looking for?” Alicia asked.
“It’s NOT your job, as a Manager, to motivate your team, cajole, persuade, or manipulate,” I replied.
Alicia was almost startled. “I’m not? It seems like that’s what I spend half my time doing?”
“Do you remember the contract that Joe has with his team?”
Shaking her head, she protested, “Yes, but that’s just a logistics crew. They drive trucks.”
“What’s the contract?”
“Joe’s contract? He just tells the guys, that he expects them to do their best. That’s it.”
“Yes, that’s the contract,” I confirmed. “Each day, they are required to show up for work and do their best.“
“And what about you?” I repeated. “How much of your responsibility, as a Manager, have you abandoned, thinking a bonus will be an effective substitute?”
“What do you mean?” Alicia asked.
“I mean, setting the context for the work, making task assignments, making sure the system is appropriate for the work, adjusting the system for the work. How much of that goes out the window when you put a bonus system in place?”
Alicia was quiet. Finally she spoke. “I guess when we put the bonus system in place, we think it will do a lot of my job for me. The reality is, the bonus system may work against me.”
“Here is what I find,” I replied. “Companies put in bonus systems, because they don’t have managers who are capable of being managers. As their managers stumble around, ineffective, companies try to drive team behaviors with bonuses. What a mess.”
“It’s like I don’t trust them to do their best without a bonus, and they know it,” Alicia explained.
“It sets up this stupid game and now people have excuses for their behavior. I’m not going to do this or that, because I don’t get a bonus for it. And people are smart. If this is the game, they will figure out how to take advantage.”
“And what about you?” I asked.
Alicia sat up, looking innocent.
“And what about you?” I continued. “How much of your responsibility, as a Manager, have you abandoned, thinking a bonus will be an effective substitute?”
“Your bonus system creates mistrust?” I repeated.
“It’s weird. You think if you give someone a bonus, that it will make them work harder. Like they weren’t going to work hard in the first place. Do you remember that contract that Joe has with his crew. When he explained, it almost sounded silly.
My contract is simple, my team comes to work every day and does their best.
“But if I pay a bonus, it destroys that. If I pay a bonus, it’s like I am saying, ‘Come to work every day and do less than your best. And if you do your best, I will give you a bonus.'”
“And what else?” I asked.
“This is a tough one,” she started. “Our bonus system. I think our bonus system is causing some of the problems.”
“Well, we wanted to make sure we didn’t get into lawsuits based on construction defects, so we pay a bonus to our engineering manager when we have zero claims. It sounds noble, but that sets up someone to over-work against our operations manager, who is just trying to get the job done.
“To make matters worse, we diligently work the project schedules to avoid delay claims. Delay claims can do more than suck the profit out of a job. So we pay a bonus to our operations manager when we have zero delay claims.
“So, now I have two people on the same team who are working against each other.”
Alicia began with a blank stare, then a hint of something in her mind. “I think,” she replied, “the worst part about our bonus system is that it creates mistrust.”
The room emptied out, but Paula stopped. “I am curious,” she said. “What changed? I thought we were in for a big fight?”
“You know, in the beginning,” Alicia replied. “I was afraid that things would get out of control and create more of a problem. But, as the meeting continued, I finally realized that the very things that could blow this team apart were the same things that could weld it together.”
Alicia grinned. “I realized that I have to stop coddling people. This team doesn’t need coddling, they need leadership. And part of that leadership is that I am accountable for the results of the team.
“I am the one in position to know all of the changing circumstances reported by each team member. My authority is to select and deselect team members, make and change task assignments. Most importantly, I am the one accountable for those decisions.”
Alicia smiled. “Who, on this team should make the critical decisions about the Phoenix Project? Critical decisions based on the excellent engineering recommendations from Russ’ department, and based on the realities of production confronted by Corey and his team?”
The room was quiet.
“I thought I was using concensus to get buy-in,” she said. “But, you were already bought in. You come to this meeting with your fresh ideas and vigorously debate those ideas. There is a ton of commitment around this table. What you need is a decision.”
Paula raised her hand. “You know, this meeting has always been called the Project team meeting. Maybe it should be called the Division Manager’s Meeting?”
Alicia paused to collect her breath. “You are right. Each of you is accountable to attend this meeting and give your best advice, but I am accountable to my manager for the decision. Tomorrow morning, we will convene the Division Manager’s Meeting. We have a very important decision to make about the Phoenix Project. The meeting will last for 60 minutes, during which time I will listen to presentations, arguments and discussion about this decision. At the end of the meeting, I will make a decision as to the direction. Based on my decision, it will be up to each of you to carry on, giving it your best.
“As conditions change, we will meet each week to discuss new critical issues. I expect each of you to handle the details. We will only talk about difficult decisions.
“Thank you all for your attention and participation in this meeting. Let’s get back to work.”
All eyes settled on Alicia. “My role is to put the team together,” she started, “assign the leadership, make sure there is consensus and that the project stays on track. Until today, this has been the Project Team Meeting.”
Alicia stopped. “I attend these meetings as part of this team, because there are often conflicting priorities based on the specific agendas each of you have. At the end of the day, I am accountable for the Phoenix Project, resolving the priority conflicts based on the latest data each of you brings to the meeting.”
Again, she stopped and looked around the room. “As the Division Manager, I abdicated my responsibility, as a manager, to a watered down decision-making protocol called consensus, in an effort to appease everyone and get everyone to play nice?”
There was shifting in the chairs as this meeting was getting closer to the truth.
Russ made his point, that the contract called for certain technical specifications, and also declared his bias, that his bonus was based on the absence of litigation related to project specifications. So I turned to Corey.
“Corey, the team gets confused when they get conflicting direction from both you and Russ. Russ stated a good case that we have to stick to the specs. How do you respond?”
Corey’s face was terse. “It is my responsibility to make sure this project stays on track and on schedule. Sometimes we have to make a change to prevent delays. If we don’t make our schedule, we take it on the chin with a delay claim. By the way, I get a bonus at the end of the year when we have zero delay claims against us.”
I looked at both Russ and Corey, then at Alicia, then at the team.
“So, we have conflict here. This conflict was first described to me as a personality conflict,” I began. “But, this does not look like a personality conflict to me.” I looked straight at the team, one by one. “So, what is the problem, here?”
Joe explained it well. The contract with his crew was to do their best. If goals weren’t met, the accountability for the shortfall must go to their leaders. It is only the leader who is in a position to make the decisions that determine success or failure.
Alicia turned back to both Russ and Corey, the project leaders.
“So, Russ, you represent the engineering department, how do you respond?”
Russ had been quietly turning a brighter shade of red, and it wasn’t from embarrassment. “Look, it is my job to make sure that the technical requirements of the customer are met. If we make any material changes to the specifications and there is a component failure, we will take it on the chin in a lawsuit. By the way, I get a bonus at the end of every year that we are not involved in litigation.”