News / Service Market

Going from Push to Pull: A Strategy for Employee Motivation

Jamie Gerdsen
Jamie Gerdsen

It was a seminar for business owners. You’ve undoubtedly been to one like it. Big cavernous room. Podium and display screen in front. Rows of tables with a pad of paper, pencil, water glass in place before each chair. Right now, the big room was empty. Everyone had filed out to the hallway to check messages or get coffee.

I’d just gotten a fresh cup when I got tangled in a conversation. A man with a neatly trimmed goatee, wearing a red polo shirt with his logo on the front, had just gotten off his Blackberry.

“I can’t believe it,” he said to a gray-haired man wearing a white long-sleeve button-down shirt with his logo on the pocket. “I’ve been pushing my guy to finish that job today. Now he’s telling me he’s got problems — maybe three more days’ work.”

A balding man in a blue V-necked golf pullover with this logo on the front, chuckled, “Guess you didn’t push him hard enough.”

Red polo’s eyes bugged out. “I can’t push my guys any harder. It’s all I do anymore.”

White button-down nodded his head knowingly. “Been in the business 32 years. Push. Push. Push. It’s always been that way.”

Blue golf pullover looked at me and shrugged. “Hey, what else can you do?”

“I don’t push,” I told him. “My people pull, and my business is thriving.” If I’d been a juggler, I might have caught all three jaws before they hit the floor.

White button-down recovered first. “Pull? Not push? How does that work?”

“Yeah,” red polo added, “share.”

Mindset and Compensation

My gaze went to each one. “OK, how many employees do you have?”

“Twenty-two,” red polo blurted out.

“Five,” blue golf pullover drawled.

“Thirty. Even,” white button-down finished.

“And you like these guys? They’ve been with you for a while?”

They all nodded.

I looked at blue golf pullover. “I think you can push five guys. Although I don’t recommend it. But as the number of employees gets larger, your ability to push them and make things happen diminishes. Think of it as pushing a rock uphill. The larger the rock, the harder you’re going to have to work. Pretty soon, you’re not going to be able to move it.” I glanced at each of them. “You all want to grow, don’t you?”

They all nodded again.

“Well, then you’ve got to stop pushing and get your employees to help you pull that rock up the hill. Think about growth in that way. The more people you have pulling, the faster that rock goes up the hill.”

“Get real, they’re not going to do that,” red polo groused. “You’re not talking real world.”

“I grant you making the switch from push to pull isn’t easy, but this is real world. I’ve done it. I know it works.”

White button-down leaned closer. “We’re listening.”

I nodded at red polo. “That job that’s going long? You’re paying your guys by the hour, aren’t you?

“Of course,” he said looking at the others as if to ask if there could be any other way.

“So there’s no incentive to finish that job?”

He grinned. “They get me off their back.”

I had to laugh. “Here’s the thing. You have to get your employees to want to finish that job on time on their own.”

“Never happen,” blue golf pullover said flatly.

“You’re right, it won’t unless you change two things — mindset and compensation. They’re intertwined, but let’s take compensation first. Your guys are compensated by the hour. They want to work their 40 — not too much more, not too much less — and that’s it. Since they’re compensated by the hour, there’s no incentive to finish a job. But what if they were compensated by the job, instead of the hour? Then they’d be incentivized to do more jobs during their 40 — or maybe even work more than 40 hours. That’s the shift from push to pull.”

White button-down was shaking his head. “Never mind compensation, you can’t change that mindset. It’s been that way forever.”

“But you can,” I countered. “Let’s go back to compensation. If you compensate them by the job, instead of by the hour, that mindset will change. Employee training would help with that. How much training do you give your people?”

From the faces, I could tell the answer was zero. “Compensation? Do you pay more than the minimum?” They all nodded yes, but their body language said no.
“Well, to make the change from push to pull, you — as owners — need to communicate a vision of how you see the workplace changing. And you need to tell your employees that you’re going to help them with training and increased compensation.”

“I don’t know that my people would buy in,” red polo admitted.

“Not all of them will. Some may need to leave the company because they don’t fit in anymore. The good news is that the employees that are left are the ones you’re going to be able to count on to help you pull that rock up the hill.”

“And you think if we do this, we’ll make more money, even paying them more?” Blue golf pullover asked.

“I do,” I told him. “I think of it as a migration from push to pull to profits.”

Red polo was all brash confidence. “I can make that switch, piece of cake.”

“Don’t be so sure. There’s one important thing that can wreck your best efforts,” I cautioned.

He gave me a quizzical look.

“You.”

“Me?” He said shocked.

Yes, and in my next column I’ll explain how and why as I continue to describe my “push > pull > profit” strategy.

Publication date: 6/18/2012

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