“You never know when someone
May catch a dream from you.
You never know when a little word
Or something you may do
May open up the windows
Of a mind that seeks the light…
The way you live may not matter at all,
But you never know, it might.”

Helen was running out of ideas. She tried just about everything to get her two kids to help around the house. Her oldest, Tanya was 14 going on 21. At age 11, Justin seemed to be a noise covered in dirt. When they were younger, Helen could get them to do jobs around the house by enforcing strict rules or using threats and punishments. As the kids grew immune to that approach, Helen put down the stick and started to dangle rewarding carrots in front of them. At one point, she developed a “star system.” This involved putting a gold star beside the list on the fridge of each household chore they successfully completed. When they’d accumulated enough stars, they were rewarded with treats, cash bonuses, or special excursions. As the effectiveness of the rewards wore off, Helen had to get ever more creative with new incentive programs. But Tanya and Justin continued to lose interest in keeping the house neat and their chores completed. Lately, she found herself consistently nagging and yelling at them to get things done. They just didn’t seem to care.

Helen began to wonder if the answer to this problem was somehow hidden in the behavior changes she started to notice at work. Members of her work team seemed to need ever more and different recognition programs and financial incentives to keep them motivated. Whenever a new compensation plan or recognition program was introduced, the team’s energy level perked up and performance improved.

But soon interest would wane, energy would drop, and performance would slip again. Helen noticed that everyone seemed to become more and more interested in “what’s in it for me.” Pride of accomplishment, satisfied customers, teamwork, and a sense of making a real difference faded into the background. Are rewards and punishments two sides of the same coin she wondered? It seems to be a coin that decreases in value the more it’s used she thought.

Jack Welch has been widely called one of the most effective corporate leaders of his time. During his time as CEO of GE he transformed into one of the world’s largest, most profitable, and dynamic companies. World renowned for leadership development, Welch declares simply, “If you can’t energize others, you can’t be a leader.” He makes a vital point. The way too many so-called leaders energize others is often by leaving the room. Highly effective leaders energize others. That energy mobilizes people to action.

Helen’s questions and observations are on the right track. Far too many people try mobilizing and energizing by using different combinations of fear or greed. It’s the lazy way out. These are superficial approaches that usually create major long-term problems. In our organization consulting and leadership development work, we are often asked for the “how-to” of improving morale or motivation. But low motivation or morale are symptoms of much deeper problems.

The problem is rooted in combinations of Victimitis, inauthentic leadership, low levels of passion and commitment, lack of soul and meaning, weak energy levels, values misalignment, or fuzzy focus. The only person I can motivate is me. People should be paid fairly and profit or gain sharing programs are powerful ways to build partnerships and ownership. However, leading with incentives or punishments to “motivate” others is often seen as manipulative. This reduces the value of doing the task for its own reward or robs work of its meaning. The key is building high-energy environments or experiences that inspire and mobilize people to action. That’s tough work. There are no “cookie cutter” programs that can be dropped in to do it.

We are either part of the energy problem or part of its solution. There is no neutral zone. We are either net takers or net contributors of energy to others. We need to ask those we’re trying to lead or influence about our energy leadership. It is much less effective to force changes on others and overcome their resistance than to work collaboratively to build change partnerships.

There are many factors that mobilize and energize others. A key factor is appreciation, recognition, thanks, and celebration. These successful feelings are addictive. We all want to feel like winners making progress that’s being noticed. Our verbal communication skills also play a vital part in how effectively we can mobilize and energize others. Another key factor is participation and teamwork. Working together toward shared goals is very energizing.