Nature of Slopes: Building Motivation

All of us have wished that we could encourage motivation by simply waving a magic wand and transforming our workforce.  How many times have you heard an employee say that a specific task is not his or her job, I don’t know why we have to do this, or it is not on my job description?

The reason why the wand does not work is captured in the nature of slopes.  In order to illustrate the nature of slopes, a short story from last summer might help.  For those of us who have sought to hike in the mountains and reach the top of even a small, well-kept hill in national park, you have probably found that going up is much harder than going down.

I took my family to Colorado last summer and hiking to the top of a small mountain was a much anticipated part of the adventure.  Our family spent several weeks looking at maps, talking about trails, and preparing our supplies.  On the day of the long awaited hike, the kids were very excited.   However, the initial excitement quickly faded as the path lead to higher elevations and each step took a little more effort than the last.  About half way to the top, the mood changed significantly and a rotating mantra of “we are never going to make it to the top of this mountain, I can’t take another step or I will die, why are you making us do this, and this is not fair” accompanied each slow and deliberate step.  The goal changed from we will make a quick hike to the top and spend the afternoon relaxing to taking five or six steps, sit on a stump or against a tree and talk about how close we were to the top and how nice lunch is going to taste.  At each stop, I offered a few words of encouragement before resuming the climb.  The stops slowed our progress considerably, but it gave everyone just enough encouragement that we made it to the top.  After eating lunch overlooking an amazing valley, we started down the mountain and I was very concerned we would continue our “step, complain, step” approach to “enjoying” the outdoors. The moods changed dramatically after we started to descend and the discussion changed from hoping to survive the “family death march” to what would we have for dinner and what are tomorrow’s activities.  The transformation was almost miraculous and it has been long enough now that I am actually thinking about trying it again.

What are some simple lessons for your organizations based on a day of fun in the woods?

  • Motivating the workforce requires considerable energy, commitment, and time;
  • Fellow climbers (workers) need much more encouragement when ascending than we might expect;
  • Not everyone climbs at the same rate or responds to the same encouragement;
  • It is much easier and quicker to roll down a hill than to climb it; and
  • Sometimes it takes longer to reach the top than we hoped.

The important thing to keep in mind about motivation in times of crisis is that the climb will be hard and requires small and incremental steps with a lot of encouragement.  When others may not be happy about having to climb, we have to tap into what makes them want to succeed.  Although it may seem easier to go down, eventually the climb has to be made and going on from where you are is easier than starting over.

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