Why should I care?


Maybe it’s a senior-level engineer who seems burned out. Maybe it’s a disaffected young dreamer, railing against the corporate machine. Or maybe it’s an “80-percenter”, content to live out their days in the cube farm, while the other 20% deliver. If you’ve been in any type of leadership role, you’ve no doubt been challenged to “light a fire” in an underperforming team member. I have an idea that just may help you…


You’ve been there, right? Where you seem to try everything, but you still can’t seem to get through to them. It’s so common, it’s become acceptable to just give up. We’ve been conditioned to believe that there is a certain (large) percentage of the workforce who is not going to be productive. “They can’t all be rockstars, right?”


It’s about caring

What we’re seeing, time and again, is a fundamental disconnect between the mission and the people. We’re getting blinded by spreadsheets and deadlines, distracted from our call as leaders. It’s back-to-basics time. Time to circle back to the fundamentals.

Two simple, powerful truths are at play here, and when we accept these two tenets as fact, we move beyond attempting to “light a fire”, and focus on “kindling flames”.

  1. Everyone cares about something, and
  2. No one can force another to care about anything. 

Performance, then, is an outcome of internal motivation. No amount of coaching will lead to maximum productivity when there is no passion. Certainly people can “push” themselves, but that’s not sustainable.

It’s time to stop trying to find a trick that will motivate people to do work they don’t care about. It’s time to find the value in the work they do care about, and free them up to do it. Here’s what works for me:

  • Be what you want to see. Everyone gravitates toward their calling, and you need to do the same. Be honest with yourself: Is leadership your passion? If you don’t care about poor performance, a poor performer won’t either. Lead by example, and do what you care about.
  • See what your people see. You’re reading this and leading people because you care about it. Why are your people doing what they do (or not doing what they don’t)? One simple behavior will simultaneously show people you care and uncover what they care about: Listen.
  • Make your “show” match your “tell”. As in all interactions, you need to be clear, transparent, and consistent. Your people need to trust that you care. Demonstrate by letting them drive their work, even on something trivial at first. You have nothing to lose (performance is suffering already, right?) and you may be surprised with the results.
  • Focus together on the big picture. Explain (and be sure you understand) there will be growing pains. We are looking for a way to do what we love, but sometimes you have to “grin and bear it”. Just beware the patterns and hold each other accountable. Commit to caring for each other enough to keep communication open, and be honest if it looks like either of you is backsliding.
  • Stay focused on the goal together. As performance improves, you may find that you’ve got a happy person who can’t help your team accomplish its mission. That’s okay. Now that you have established trust, you can work together to explore other projects, teams, departments, locations, companies, industries that might work. This doesn’t mean “manage them out”. It means life is too short to be miserable.

Sometimes we all need to remember the fundamentals. I hope this helps you as much as it does me. If you feel like you’re trying too hard to motivate people, maybe you are. It’s time to stop “trying” and start “caring”. I’ve seen it work. Have you?


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