It’s Lazy to Focus on “Working Harder”

You’ve heard it before.  You may have said it yourself – to yourself or to others.  You probably even believed it when you heard it or said it.  And you may have thought it would motivate people toward better results.

“We’ve just got to work harder.”

In today’s world with tighter budgets and higher expectations, it’s said in most every situation and circumstance.  The direct response campaign gift total didn’t meet budget expectations?  Work harder.  The special event didn’t offer “special” gift amounts?  Work harder.  It may not always be uttered so directly, but the message is clear and rather universally understood:

“We have to work harder and achieve better results.”

Unfortunately, some leaders send the “work harder” message so regularly it would appear that they believe it to be a motivator.   It’s not.  And worse yet, it is tremendously unhelpful and just about the laziest message a leader can communicate to others.

Of course “working hard” is important to success, especially sustained success.  Most will agree that it is the right approach to take in just about every situation.  Everyone should give their best.  Everyone should try their hardest.  Everyone should stretch to reach their far edge of promise.  Your best effort should be a given.  It’s just the right way to approach life and work.

But, by focusing on the effort – encouraging people to “work harder,” or even to “work smarter” – leaders commit two fundamental miscues:

First, sending the simplistic “work harder” message communicates that you believe the work effort offered previously was sub par.  For most folks, the knee-jerk response to a “work harder” message is with frustration:  “I already am working harder!”  Most people do not engage productively when they feel attacked.  So, it is common for people to disengage when a leader suggests they aren’t working hard already.

Second, and, most importantly, focusing on the effort is lazy leadership and sidesteps the more complex work of determining how best to encourage those in your care toward greater results.  The “working harder” message is lazy because what motivates exceptional effort is almost never the effort itself, but rather the mission or goal which demands the extra effort.  Take the quote attributed to Muhammad Ali about training for boxing matches:

“I hated every minute of training.  But, I said, ‘Don’t quit.  Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.'”

If Muhammad Ali had focused on the effort he had to provide during his training sessions, he probably wouldn’t have long continued his punishing training activities.  Instead, he motivated himself by focusing on becoming a champion – a goal so attractive and compelling to him, that it made persisting through the pain and exhaustion possible.

As a leader you can lazily (and ineffectively) communicate to the team that everyone needs to “work harder,” to get better results.  Or, you can do the more complex work to better understand what motivates each member of the team, remind them of the importance of your mission, and point out their unique and important role in fulfilling a compelling vision.

In other words, you can suffer now, or live the rest of your life as a champion.



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