These Metaphors Don’t Work for Motivating Your Team

As a manager and leader, you know it’s your job to set the vision for your team, set them up to be able to execute, and then motivate them to do so. There are plenty of different ways to motivate employees, and giving them a rousing pep talk is often seen as one of the key tools in the executive bag of tricks.

However, it doesn’t always work.

This is particularly true when those pep talks are littered with metaphors from sports and combat—fields of endeavor that focus very much on winners and losers and the necessity to beat “the other guy.”

While executives tend to have a serious competitive streak, rank-and-file employees generally don’t have the same all-or-nothing approach to their jobs, and metaphors that emphasize beating the competition can therefore fall flat.

Consider sports metaphors—they’re just about everywhere in business.

Swing for the fences.

Skate to where the puck is going.

Get this project over the goal line.

However, for workers that aren’t sports fans or for those who simply don’t have the same competitive mindset that the boss does, those metaphors will fail to motivate. Worse, sports metaphors for a non-sports-oriented group of workers run the risk of being misunderstood, or even off putting.

A 2014 study showed that combat metaphors often backfire. While most employees are focused on doing a good job and being sufficiently rewarded, they often don’t see beating the competition into submission as all that important. So, declaring “thermonuclear war” on the competition is unlikely to spark those employees into action.

Simply put, these combative metaphors focused on winning don’t seem to be good for business.

The issue is one of where to put your focus. Another study showed that companies are better served when they don’t worry about the competition, and instead focus on the value they can bring for their customers. In this study, companies that approached growth as a race to beat the competition generally had smaller profits than those focused on fulfilling their value proposition.

These findings make sense when you consider that business leadership typically does have a different mindset—and different incentives—than other members of the team that report up to them. The General Patton approach is a thing of the past, and today’s leaders need to understand the employee mindset and act with empathy rather than fire and brimstone.

When it comes to growing your business, it’s a slam dunk.

Contact us at 215.441.4600 or Email if you have questions or would like to discuss how this topic may impact your business.

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