““Men can be stimulated by hope or driven by fear, but the hope and the fear must be vivid and immediate if they are to be effective without producing weariness.”” – Bertrand Russell

In his book “Motivation,” Saul Gellerman makes an interesting point about the way groups of people perform.

He says that in any work environment, workers tend to perform in accordance with a bell-shaped curve. A few lead the pack, a few lag behind, and most crowd into the comfortable middle. Most motivational programs focus on the standouts – either those at the top or those at the bottom. But the secret to business productivity, he says, is to concentrate on the middle.

The people at the top are self-motivated. All they need is direction. The people at the bottom are programmed to lag behind. They experience a certain comfort level in doing less than others do (though, generally, it is only slightly less). If you can move the great mass of people in the middle forward, the laggards will follow.

“If you want to improve the overall group’s performance, this is the only group that deserves your attention,” Gellerman says. So How Do You Motivate The Middle?

That’s what I’ve been thinking about: How can you get a large group of people who have engrained habits to perform better as a whole?

It’s a daunting challenge.

Gellerman recommends spending time and energy on new employees. He contends that if you improve your new employees, the entire group will also improve. “Most organizations and managers,” he says, “leave the development of most employees motivation to chance, by letting them sink or swim during their first few months on a new job. But what would happen if we concentrated all available resources on coaching all employees during their first few critical months on a new assignment? We’d still get a bell-shaped performance distribution. But it would be a lopsided bell, a lot narrower and shifted heavily toward the high side.”

Maybe. But I’m not convinced. It may be that the relatively few well-trained employees could influence the larger group, but it seems more logical to expect the larger group to influence (negatively, in this case) the few.

I’m not opposed to a good orientation and training program. I’m entirely for it. But I don’t believe you can change the behavior of a large group with one. To accomplish that task, I think you need to look for examples where the turnaround numbers are impressive – and there are no more impressive numbers than those in New York City.

Until relatively recently, New York was a dangerous dump. Sure, there have always been wonderful things about it, but at least during my lifetime, it has been dirty and noisy and unsafe – especially at night. I have always loved this city, but I used to wonder what it was like it its halcyon days.

Well, guess what? New York is once again the greatest city in the world. It’s clean and safe and full of new businesses, restaurants, theaters, etc. The parks are clean. You can walk almost anywhere you want – even in Harlem and Central Park – without having to worry about being hit up for money every two minutes .

How did New York get cleaned up? Yes, Mayor Giuliani did it. How did he change the standards of one of the world’s busiest and most congested cities? By using two primary techniques:

1. He used computer technology to allocate police resources where they are most needed.

2. He busted people for petty crimes.

The former policy set a higher standard of performance for the police themselves. The latter policy pissed off a lot of people (who think bums, loiterers, and panhandlers should be left alone), but it reduced crime – dramatically.

New York not only got rid of its petty street crime by busting bums and chasing loiterers but also drastically reduced its worst crimes – murder, rape, and armed robbery. And they were reduced not only in the nice neighborhoods but also in the ghettos. (It can be argued that Giuliani is responsible for the current renaissance in Harlem.)

So where does that take us in terms of employee performance? How do you apply this lesson to the performance of a group of employees? (I’m thinking out loud, so bear with me.)

The trick may be to set gradually higher standards for relatively unimportant things that nevertheless relate directly to job performance – such as how long your employees have for breaks, whether they are allowed to make personal calls on company time, and so on. You could expect them to get to work at least 15 minutes early. You could require them to address one another formally. And you might want to establish a dress code (though, in my experience, a dress code doesn’t seem to make a difference).

The point is not to be Draconian but to let people know that in your organization a high level of performance is considered normal.

The achievers will welcome such a message. But for everybody else, it may take some getting used to. Gellerman says that the people in the middle of the bell curve, and the laggers too, have other priorities. They may place the highest value not on success but on such “survival motives” as security, dependency, and conformity.

We will talk more about how to motivate such personalities in a future ETR message. For the purposes of this discussion, it is enough to say that when you raise your standards, it’s important to make every effort to let the middling masses feel good about them.

Let them know that they are not going to be hurt by these new standards, that their jobs are not in jeopardy, and that they will continue to be valued for the work they do.

Remember, most of these people don’t feel a need to perform better and never will. They are looking to you for protection and security. If you can convince them that they will get even more protection, security, and attention by performing at a slightly higher level (especially in regard to the less-critical issues, such as phone protocols, office manners, punctuality, etc.), you may get their cooperation.

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