Keeping a workforce motivated is one of the holy grails of business leadership and management. Motivated employees are much more likely to produce quality work on-time and under-budget, are always looking for ways to improve, and collaborate with their co-workers to achieve breakthroughs. Unmotivated employees on the other hand, deliver poor quality work that’s often late and require extensive rework + cost overruns, don’t care to improve themselves or their company, and spend more time at office gossip, excessively “covering their behind”, and playing office politics. Unfortunately, as most people with a decade or more of professional experience know, the latter scenario is far and away more prevalent, while the former scenario is far too rare.
Developing a motivated workforce is a complex and difficult discipline that I will not attempt to comprehensively cover here. Rather I’ll focus on one thing that managers, executives, and leaders can do that in my experience, contributes greatly to employee motivation and organizational performance. That one thing is this: when assigning tasks, focus less on process, and more on objective, parameters, rationale, and guidance (“OPRG”).
The Objective + Parameters + Rationale + Guidance (OPRG) Approach
If a manager wants to ask an entry-level employee to do a simple task like send a package from New York to Los Angeles. There are at least two approaches a manager can take:
Process Approach: “take this package and this company credit card, go down to the post office on the intersection of 1st avenue and 2nd street, and send this to our Los Angeles office using standard mail service for $25 plus tax. It is 1pm in the afternoon right now, please have this done by 4pm today and give me back the credit card as well as post office receipt by 5pm today.”
OPRG Approach: “please ensure that Annie Banks from our Los Angeles office receives this package by the 20th of this month, which is 18 days from now (objective). You can use the company credit card to pay a delivery service of your choice. You know our annual office postal budget and how much we’re expected to use for the rest of the year, please select an appropriate service accordingly (parameters). Also, the reason Annie needs this by the 20th is that she needs about a week to process this package and complete a delivery for our #3 most important client ACME industrials by the first of next month (rationale). Finally, I know it may seem like you have a lot of time, but for packages like this, it generally takes 10 days to deliver, unless we spend a lot of money to get it there in 3-5 days, as such, please try to get this done within the next 5 days so everything arrives on-time – once you send it off, please: 1) hand me back the credit card and give e post office receipt, then email Annie with me in cc giving her the postal tracking code and expected arrival date/time (guidance).”
The Process approach simply asks the manager to convey a set of actionable instructions for the staff to execute. No explanation is given for why this task is important, nor how important. The manager is asking the task to be done immediately, seemingly either not caring about the employee’s existing workload, or seemingly overriding the importance of this task relative to others without explanation. Also, since there is a lot of specification (which post office to go to, when to send…etc.), there is very little room for error – if the post office has super long lines that day or the package was incorrectly prepared or addressed, the employee would likely be at a loss as to how to fix the situation.
The OPRG approach on the other hand, requires that the manager explain the objectives and rationale, allowing the employee to use his/her own discretion to achieve the objective – thus resulting in grater outcome resiliency. It also requires that the manager demonstrate trust by giving the employees a set of parameters to operate, within which he/she is free to use discretion, including considering other high importance deliverables when prioritizing this work. Finally, by giving guidance on things like expected delivery time, the manager is demonstrating: 1) experience and expertise – to earn the employee’s respect, 2) the ability to set people up for success – by giving tips to reduce chances of failure, and 3) broadening the employee’s company engagement (by having them email the package recipient directly – thereby growing the employee’s profile within the company.
If the entry-level employee in the above fictional example is a passionate, hard-working, high-potential individual, all else being equal (financial compensation, work commute, industry of choice…etc.) which environment does one think the employee will be more motivated over the long run? The one that treats staff like process components, or one that actively uses every opportunity, even on “small” matters like sending a package, to develop skills, develop a sense of responsibility, and educates employees on company and professional matters?
Why Do This?
Instilling an OPRG culture is hard, especially when trying to change an organization that is entrenched in a mostly process mindset. It requires sophisticated hiring to get people inclined to this kind of thinking in the first place, responsible but extensive informational transparency, management and leadership ranks that see their role as developing leaders and competent professionals, extensive cross-functional collaboration…etc.
My experience is that successful implementation of an OPRG culture is a highly motivated workforce because it is full of employees that CARE. They care about their work, they respect and care about their managers, they care about the company’s mission, and they care about making their company great.
There are countless management frameworks, software applications, incentive strategies, and consulting services all designed to motivate employees. My experience, however, is that most of these tools don’t create teams that care about being the best, that proactively want to self-improve, and creatively solve problems. These tools might bring incremental improvement to an unmotivated team, but a motivated team will run circles around the competition even without all these fancy tools. These tools are often temporary, genuine passion is forever.