The Motivation Trap: John Hittler


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CEOs and team leaders of Fortune 500 companies and venture backed startups often complain that they have trouble keeping their teams motivated. What if it’s actually not the job of leaders to motivate their teams? What if team members were responsible for motivating themselves? What might change in our companies if teams lived up to this expectation?

In this episode, John Hittler, author of The Motivation Trap, proposes a more effective way to lead. A way that doesn’t involve motivating your employees. John is the cofounder of Evoking Genius, which is a business coaching firm in San Jose California.

By the end of this episode, you’ll know how to create high achieving teams who find enjoyment in their work and are ready to take initiative and work more autonomously. For every leader who is looking to produce great results for their team and for their company, this episode is for you.

Of course, I had to ask John about his last name. At the end of this interview, we talk about what it was like to grow up with the last name Hittler and it was surprisingly profound and moving. So stick around.

Get John’s new book The Motivation Trap on Amazon.

John Hittler: The place that struck me and it hit me several times, and it never dawned on me until I was working with a group out of New York, it was called high end sales group, like million dollar performers. And then they also have people that get started, that flush out really quickly, it’s financial services and it’s five in a hundred, make it to their 5th year and then the first 90 days, 50% are gone because you’re telling a 22 year old you need to go get people to turn over a million dollars of their assets and invest it with you. Nobody in their right mind is going to turn that over to a 22 year old.

What the managers and what the leaders of these groups do is they create this contests with an incentive, a trip, you get to make the such and such club, you know, the big hoo-ha club and it includes five days with all of the other guys that hit this mark and it’s in Turks and Caicos. It’s all expenses paid and it’s going to be great.

It dawned on me, I was working with a group of about a dozen of them, half of them were super high achievers. They were going to make this club in their sleep so it didn’t affect them one bit.

They just schedule it every year on their calendar because at their pace, they were in, they were shoe in. Okay, it would be like LeBron James booking his tickets to the all-star game next year. He doesn’t probably have to worry about “Gee, will I be selected or will the fans vote for me?” he’s in. The all star game trip doesn’t motivate him a bit.

Then the other end of the spectrum, they had this kids, you know, and the idea was, this will kick these kids into gear and they’ll really produce like crazy, but they simply weren’t experienced or competent enough.

What I found in working with them, because I worked on both ends of the spectrum, they weren’t actually resentful because they had no shot in hell of making this trip and they knew it.

So it was actually a disincentive for them.

I thought, this guy use this leaders of this company have used this approach, they started this agency in the 70s.

In the 70s, that’s what you did, you did incentive based carrot and stick stuff, and that worked. I looked at it and thought, the high end guys don’t pay attention because they’re a shoe in. The bottom end guys are resentful, there’s maybe one or two in the middle who might say, you know, “If I push a little harder, I could make the club this year,” and it’s a stretch.

They were doing a gross campaign to all of their agents that actually produced none of what they wanted.

The truth is, when I talk to the agents, I said, “If you could have a check for the value of the trip, would you prefer that or would you rather go to Turks and Caicos?” And they go, “The last thing I want to do is take five days off, leave my kids at home, have to get a nanny and a sitter to go to Turks and Caicos because I made this club, but it’s use it or lose it so I go. Mostly my wife and I go and we hire the sitter and it’s kind of a hassle. Quite frankly, I’d rather have a check for 3,500 bucks.”

What are these guys doing? That’s when it dawned on me that everybody is doing that at some level, they’re pushing and pushing. In a lot of ways, it was actually detrimental or counterproductive to what they’re trying to achieve.

The Motivation Trap

Charlie Hoehn: This definitely rings familiar to me but are there some other common examples that you see that people in the workplace or at school or whatever are dealing with motivation as a trap?

John Hittler: Yeah, I’ve got seven kids, I coached every one of their soccer teams, and this came up every year. There was one parent and there’s 15 kids in the team, you play 11.

There was one parent every year, every single year, who would pay their kid $5 let’s say, for every goal he scored. Of course, the kid thinks it’s a great idea, the dad thinks it’s a great idea because he’ll be the leading scorer in the league and everybody will notice him.

What it produced for everyone else was that kid wouldn’t pass the ball ever because the only incentive he got was if he scored.

If he assisted on a goal, which is team play, you got nothing for the dad. It actually affected everybody else’s enjoyment of the sport and skewed and screwed up the coaching because there was no way to coach a kid like that. You could never teach him to pass the ball because I’m competing with his dad’s voice and no fun at all.

This stuff happens at school it happens with youth soccer, it happens at work. Paying your kid for grades, does it make him any smarter? No, does it make them get good grades? Maybe. But if your kid can’t do calculus, paying them to get a good grade in calculus, it seems counterproductive and actually in some ways, cruel.

Motivation That Works

Charlie Hoehn: What are some of the precursors that are needed in order for motivation to actually work?

John Hittler: Yeah, the interesting piece that makes motivation work situationally, oddly enough is time. The thing is with motivation, it has a very short shelf life or half life.

If we’re doing a project and we need a last minute push, like we’ve got to get it done by Friday of this week, I can use incentive based or if you will, manipulative or bribery or carrot and stick and that works pretty well because it’s a short term finish line.

If I’ve got an eight month project that has to be completed and we have any progress and milestones and we’re going to hit challenges that we don’t even know what they are, trying to use motivation to get people to do that eventually doesn’t work.

The challenge and the motivation don’t line up at all.

I can’t be highly motivated when a crushing challenge comes on, I better be focused, I better be intentional, I better be rock solid on my purpose. Motivation won’t get me there.

Time is the odd outlier there. But it’s really short term for a completion, it works, that’s why you see so much motivation in sports because you’re playing today, rah-rah speeches can kind of work because I only have to keep you on target, on point and if you will, emotionally engaged at a high level for 45 minute or an hour.

It works much better when there’s a short window or short timeframe.

Who Needs The Motivation Trap

Charlie Hoehn: Got it. Who did you really write this book for? Who were you really wanting to get out of the motivation trap?

John Hittler: A team leader is simply a CEO of their team. They’re the ones I work with all the time and they’re frustrated. They say all the time, I cannot seem to keep my people motivated. When I hear that, I kind of cringe because it’s not your job to have your employee show up motivated. It’s just not.

They agreed to a deal to put their best effort and you’re engaging their talents and paying them. There’s an implicit contract that they will come ready to go and willing to do the work that even if they’re not in a great mood, they can still produce great results and not be in the best mood.

You’re not paying them to be super happy and friendly every day, you’re paying them to produce results. How do you get them to consistently produce results that they choose versus you push on them?

Motivation is a push game.

It’s, I’m going to try to push you or manipulate you or trick you in a way to get you to do stuff that you would otherwise not want to do. It’s not very sustainable, not over the long term because the game gets known too fast and everybody goes, here we go, we’re going to get beers after work if we stay light, it’s a bad deal.

I already have to work till 7:30 and then they’re willing to take us out for beers because we stayed till 7:30. I’d rather be home for dinner.

Why We Motivate

Charlie Hoehn: Yeah. This might seem like a naïve question but why do CEOs feel that they need to have their employees motivated?

John Hittler: My sense is, and it’s not scientifically researched, my sense is it’s a bottom up push. We have gotten to the point with our culture in business now where everybody has to be purpose driven, everybody has to look award winning culture, everybody has to be this playground with ping-pong tables and casual dress codes and what not.’

It’s kind of like, unless I make everybody happy, I’m not doing my job. Motivation ends up going into that bucket that if they’re highly motivated, they’ll enjoy the work experience more, and that’s part of the trap.

I suspect that the CEOs and the team leaders are falling for that, and once you fall for it, all you can do is make the incentives or the push greater. Because if I got you beers last week because you stayed late and got the project done, what do I have to do next time to get you stay late?

Something probably a little bit more, or the quality of going out with the team for beers has to be so darn good every time that people go, awesome, we get to go out for beers again as opposed to going home and having dinner with my family.

It’s probably a losing game—it’s certainly an unsustainable game.

As soon as the quality of the time with the team having beers isn’t so good, you’ll go, not interested in beers with the team afterwards for having to stay late, I’m just not.

It’s a bad risk but I think it falls into this trap if you will, of I have to make my workplace so attractive and so fun and so award winning and we have to post it on social media and tell people how great we are of a place to work that people get caught up in that.

I think CEOs buy into that a bit too much as opposed to having it more intrinsically or internally generated by the employees where they go, something like, “I’m capable of doing the best work of my life here and that’s why I work here.”

That’s different.

I bring that ethic to it and I partner with my employer to make that happen as opposed to my employer is in charge and responsible for me being happy and engaged at work all the time. The CEOs are taking it on like it’s their responsibility unilaterally to make the workplace fun and exciting and keep everybody “motivated.”

Not Quite a Raging Fire

Charlie Hoehn: Let’s talk about the ‘pilot light that rarely goes out’, as you call it in your book. What is that?

John Hittler: Yeah, you think of cooking, you cook stew with basically a little more than a pilot light or a simmer. It cooks really evenly and well over time. That pilot light equals a strong purpose.

When people are aligned to a vision and a purpose, that weathers the storm when you have a budget cut. Or when your biggest client goes to another company or your most talented teammate gets recruited away or whatever else might happen.

If you’re aligned to a strong sense of this is where we’re going and this is what I really love to do because it aligns with my sense of how the world should work, that’s a pilot light that’s very difficult to extinguish, especially in light of challenges.

The odd thing is that when you have big successes as well, the pilot light tends not to go to a raging fire. It tends to stay centered and balanced and you say, “Of course we succeeded, what’s next?”

There can be a sense of celebration and the flame can be both more visible and hotter for a little bit, but people don’t get too bent out of shape. And part of the difference between that and something like motivations.

Motivation is hot and cold.

It’s much more of an emotionally unstable ride. The pilot light equals purpose if you will. Everybody’s aligned to the purpose, it’s also a self-selection model.

If I don’t’ like your purpose as a company, I go, “Gosh, this guys are – they stand for cannibalism and hatred. I don’t think I really want to work there,” and people opt out. Just never come to work for you.

Leadership Qualities

Charlie Hoehn: You talk about in your book, inspiration and leadership and using directives. Talk to me about these qualities and how leaders can best use them?

John Hittler: Sure, we see it all the time, go to CocaCola’s website and you can look up the core values or go to Amazon and look up their core values. You’ll see a mix of attributes and directives. We’re all about being smart, you know, be smart in your decision making, okay, well, as supposed to like I’m going to be dumb in my decision making.

But when you give a directive, it’s a command.

The reasons directives work so well, there’s two ways the brain engages most effectively. One is with a penetrating question where you don’t have a readymade response. Literally what people say is, “I never thought of that,” or “That’s a really interesting question.” Because I hadn’t thought of it ,so it engages your brain because you’re not on auto pilot.

The other way is with a directive. When I was a kid, my first and only job for a paycheck, I worked at a gas station where they used to have full service and the guy that owned it taught us to stop saying, “Would you like me to check your oil?”

Because it was mostly housewives that pulled in to fill up the tank, he knew they didn’t know anything about cars and I grew up in Detroit so their husbands all worked in the auto industry and the women didn’t do anything about the cars because the husband handled the car.

He told us, “Don’t ask them, tell them, pop the hood and I’ll check your oil.” When somebody tells you to pop the hood, you’ve already popped the hood before you thought about if and said, wait a minute, I checked the oil last week, it should be fine because it’s a directive in your brain just for a second, follows it. What we would do is we would, I lasted a week. We would sell them a quart of oil every time they came in for gas, some of them must have had eight or 10 quarts, it was completely unethical and unreasonable but it sold a ton of overpriced oil to late model cars that didn’t need it.

But your brain goes much better with a directive.

We’ll go into companies and they’ll say, “One of our big values is honesty.” The first thing I’ll ask them, I was going to say, “Can we prove that?” They go, “Sure, how do you want to do that?” I say, “Come on up here and we’ll dispel that myth in about 30 seconds,” and we do in a fun way.

When we say we’re all about honesty, that’s an aspirational direction, but it’s impossible to achieve because we edit, “Yes, I could tell you the truth but I don’t tell you the whole truth because it’s scalable in our culture.”

Is that dishonesty? Well, no, it’s withholding. They get into all these arguments about, well, are we honest or not? When you do a directive, you’re telling people what to do at all times.

The short version of that, instead of honesty, we’ll say, “Well what if instead of honesty, you gave the directive, something like tell the truth at all times.”

When you have a directive like that or three or four as a set of them for your employees they know exactly what to do.

So if they screw up, they already know because they know the CEO has given them implicit and explicit permission to tell the truth at all times regardless of the outcome. And if you made a gigantic mistake and you tell the customer, “You know, I want to be clear with you this is our mistake and I realize it did you damage.” Then you could get on with an apology and how do I make it work instead of covering your three non-disclosures or half-truths with five because you are just going to dig a hole deeper because you are trying to be honest and you go, “It’s really hard to be honest at all times.”

It’s just very, very hard to do and all you have to do is look at your driver’s license height and weight to prove that theory. We are not generally speaking honest at all times. It just doesn’t work, it’s not scalable but we could tell the truth at all times regardless of the outcome. So a directive engages the brain much more effectively than do aspirational or aesthetic core values.

So directives are a great way to do it because employees can then self-manage. They can say, “What should I do here?” Well one of the things, one of the rules, tell the truth at all times regardless of the outcome. What if you dated internally and that is a violation of the company culture?

Rather than hide it, you come forward and you say, “You know what? I knew it and I did it and I want to let you know I realized it was wrong and I won’t do it again.”

You might still get fired but you are absolutely going to get fired if you tried to hide it. So directives are a good way or a better way to do that.

Success with The Motivation Trap

Charlie Hoehn: Here’s the thing. I know that you work with companies that you have to be under NDA and so you probably can’t reveal any specific information but what I am really curious about is some of the transformations that you’ve helped these leaders and these companies go through that you’re really proud of. So maybe you could share a couple of your favorite success stories.

John Hittler: Sure. So I can’t mention names but there is Fortune 10 software company outside of Seattle, you probably can’t figure out who that is. We used to come in quarterly because they employed an old GE trick which was the worst team of 50 teams gets cut.

They literally get disbanded. It doesn’t mean everybody loses their job but some will and the rest have to make a pitch and try to join onto another team.

So every two months into every quarter we would get this 911 from a team leader, that said, “Hey I heard you rescued a team last quarter and moved them from 50th place to 37th place like in 30 days. How did you do that?”

And I said, “It doesn’t matter, you don’t have time to discuss it. Are you in 50th place?” And they said, “No, we are on 49th and we don’t want to be in 50th. Can you get here tomorrow?” And we would rush in there and we would play this silly game of getting them off the bottom.

I can tell you the thing we ended up doing mostly with teams that were dysfunctional or not performing, we would go back and start to build safety into the team. People say, “Oh we’ve got to get trust-trust-trust. We’ve got to get trust in our team, we don’t trust each other and that’s why we don’t perform.”

And they try to teach trust like me teaching you or you teaching me to have faith or how to fall in love. You go, “What is the three step approach? What is the best three step approach for falling in love?”

And you go, “Is there a process? I don’t know.”

Trust is the same way.

It’s incredibly difficult to teach but it shows up when things are safe.

Safety is super easy to teach and when your workplace is safe, like I don’t have to worry about you stealing my idea and taking credit for it, oh then I might actually share it. And these teams were dysfunctional usually because they suffered from horrifically poor trust and didn’t want to talk trust ever again because that was their learning theme in the last three years because they’re so bad at it. And they didn’t realize they never established trust. They just talked about it a lot.

So we do a lot of work with dysfunctional teams there, and we do them at Fortune 1000 companies. We did it at small entrepreneurial companies with a lot of great success. We could take a team and in 30 days we could have their results go way up simply because they started trusting and what that look like was they started talking to each other again.

Because when you don’t trust the guy working next to you, you don’t talk to him and you are in a collaborative creative environment in a software company and you are not talking to your coworkers, you are going to suck. You are going to absolutely suck. So we go in and re-establish that.

Speed was the trick.

I can tell you the secret weapon for us was we weren’t trying to get three years’ work out of it. My partners and I didn’t like that. We were bored after 90 days. So we wanted to go in and work for 90 to 180 days, maybe, and a lot of coaches wanted to go in and say, “These guys have huge budgets. I could probably get three years’ worth of coaching work out of them and that would be great for my cash flow.”

Not very fun. We want to get in, have the success, have them be autonomous and have them refer us and then we get to go into another mess. That was way more fun because you are playing in the sandbox as oppose to babysitting.

About That Name…

Charlie Hoehn: Yeah, right that’s awesome. I love it. Well John I’ve got a couple more questions for you. The first one is can you tell our listeners where they can connect with you or potentially follow you?

John Hittler: Yeah, it’s a great blessing in my life that I have a controversial last name so I Google really well.

Charlie Hoehn: I can’t believe I’ve been such a poor interviewer. I didn’t even ask about that. So let’s digress for a second here, what are some of the stories do you usually tell around your last name?

John Hittler: Well you know it’s where three grandparents, three of the four were Irish and the fourth was this guy, he’s from Alsace-Lorraine, disputed territory between Germany and France with the last name Hittler.

It is our last name, always had two Ts. The bad guy—that wasn’t his real name.

None of that makes any difference when you were in fourth grade and four bullies come up to beat the crap out of you. So it is a tremendous blessing now because we are 75 years after World War II.

I hope no one ever forgets what happened but people aren’t as visceral in their reaction. When I was growing up ironically, this is God’s sense of humor, my parents bought a new house, they used to call it good family living which was code for white suburbs and so we lived in Detroit and the riots hit in Detroit and everybody said, “Get the heck out of Detroit.”

Everybody moved to the suburbs. We did too.

The problem was it was the advent of non-discrimination house in housing. So it was no longer allowable to say, “You know if you were thinking of buying lot number 42 there is a Chinese buyer on the left and there is an African-American buyer on the right.” You used to be able to say that a long time ago.

My parents buy a five bedroom house. We have nine kids.

It ends up being a 90% Jewish neighborhood. So you don’t sell your house. So we grew up little league, cub scouts, everything was the Hittler family right in the middle of a Jewish neighborhood, which meant literally twice a week kids, more than you and your buddies and always two years older and 20 pounds heavier than you came to beat the crap out of you.

And you learn an awful lot about life at 10 when four guys against you and your best friend and you’re in third grade and they’re in fifth grade and do you fight? Do you run, do you negotiate? Do you try to use humor? How do you use your wits not to get the crap beaten out of you every day?

I wouldn’t trade it for anything now, but at the time, I didn’t appreciate it a lot

And then the other great blessing, I begged our parents to change our name when we were kids and they were stubborn Irish. So they said, “No, it builds character.” Well they didn’t have to get chased down in the neighborhood every day. Now I wouldn’t change it for all the money in the world because I am super – you know people say, “Do you have a card?”

“No, don’t bother with the card, just Google me.” You are not going to have any problem finding me on Google. You might find some of my siblings but there’s not too many people that are going to go by that name. So it’s super, super easy what a great advantage in this digital age because if your name is Bill Davis they go, “Oh there’s 40,000 Bill Davis’ which one are you?” it’s really, really hard to find and for me not so much. The long answer is yeah, I Google well.

Everything has blessings and downsides to them. Some of that that stuff was incredibly – paid off hugely as an adult but as a kid you don’t recognize it. When you are getting the snot kicked out of you because every once in a while that happened, you were just outnumbered and you’re going to take a licking that day, well you don’t appreciate it at all.

Take your worst tragedy as long as you don’t dwell on it too much and you don’t ask yourself the question, how is this the best thing that ever happened to me? And of course the initial answer is, “Are you kidding me? It is the worst thing that ever happened to me.”

When you sit with it long enough, you go, “Yeah but you know what? I learned this about friendship or learned this about the dynamics of conflict. I learned what I stand for and what I don’t.”

People kid me and tease me and all that stuff, super tolerant and actually welcoming that but if you get to a hard boundary with me, watch out. And I have very wide and generous boundaries but when you get to that point, you just go, “You do not want to be around me if you violate,” and it takes a lot to violate that but usually it is violating humanity and you violate humanity like you are mean spirited and purposefully trying to hurt people.

Watch out, even if I am not that connected to it. I just step in, I am like a human shield and people go, “Why do you do that?” And it’s maybe even just a reaction but you just go, “Yeah, you learn all of that as a kid, tremendously valuable.” Because a lot of people don’t know what they do if they were forced to stand up for something. You go, “I know exactly what I’d do,” and I don’t know the circumstances but gee, if it gets to the point where humanity is being violated and that is the word I use that is a pretty wide boundary, you know?

So I am going to step in and it’s going to be swift and it is going to be clean and clear and people are going to get knocked out. Not physically but they’re going to deal with someone who knows how to handle that situation. And there is not very many people that are willing to do that because they are trying to be nice or tolerant or whatnot. They walk out and you just go, “Yeah it is time for you to stand up.”

Listener Challenge

Charlie Hoehn: John, the final question I have for you is to give our listeners a challenge, just very briefly what is the one thing they can do from your book this week that can have a positive impact?

John Hittler: That’s a terrific assignment. I’ll do it in a coaching methodology. I’ll offer a filter that they can walk around with, so they can ask themselves, in the end motivation or leadership on the other end or purpose or service are power versus force. I’ll define force really quickly. Force is an exercising dominance necessary to produce an action. So I have to be as dominant as I need to whether I have to write a huge check instead of a medium sized check. Or whether I have to fight versus reason with you but it is me imposing or pushing my will on you in a necessary amount to get what I want.

Power is an action that generates no counter. So rather than focus on purpose because it is harder to recognize, ask yourself, “Is what I’m doing here an exercise in force?” Because for most of us, we don’t want to be pushing or dominating or especially we don’t want to do it in such a way that we have to use and exercise unnecessary dominance. Which might be a lot of dominance, and then we become someone we don’t want.

Here’s the assignment or here’s the challenge. Ask yourself when you are doing something that’s challenging, “Am I exercising force here or not?”

Don’t worry about power.

If you are exercising force and the answer is no – yes I am, simply consider what else might I do versus essentially more dominance or more push. Your life will be way more enjoyable when you get out of the force game and when you get into the power game and motivation is all force.

And a lot of the tools in the book are moving you towards power which is just a much more effective. It’s more effective but it is a more fun way to play. So ask yourself, are you exercising force here? It is an easy question to ask. It is a harder one to answer.

Get John’s new book The Motivation Trap on Amazon.

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