Motivating High Performance

Michael G. Winston

Published 9/18/2015

We live in an increasingly competitive and complex global business environment demanding new strategies and sharper skills. The pace has never been so grueling; the stakes never so high. This environment taxes the best leaders and companies.

The race is on: Are you fit to win?

Change can be disruptive, pervasive and fast. Successful leaders will not only understand the changes affecting them, but seize them, master them and use them to achieve higher performance.

In a world of passing fads, the implications of the battle-tested “balance of consequences” theories remain impressive and noteworthy.  The way to leverage this principle is to place a premium on exemplary performance in all dimensions—quality, productivity, service, sales and value. Then set performance standards with people and hold them accountable to measurable performance objectives and standards.  Finally, give them the space, pace and place to excel, and they will strive for excellence. 

The following are truisms of life:

  • People will do that for which they are rewarded.
  • What gets rewarded, gets repeated.
  • People will not do that which gets punished.
  • What gets punished gets extinguished (lessened or eliminated).

Rewards and punishment are not the only way to modify behavior, but they work.  The reward system signals to every member of the organization what management values and recognizes.

This is true in all organizations- large and small, public and private, educational, government or commercial.  Be sure to use the most potent types of recognition to reward innovative leaders and exemplary performance. Others will watch to see if these are promoted and rewarded—or punished?

Be certain that highly principled behavior is rewarded.

This seems axiomatic. Of course we reward integrity, honesty, and transparency. Don’t we? Apparently not. Many of the companies that caused the economy to crater in 2008 with shoddy loans and exotic investment products, both of which vaporized in value, rewarded going along with the flow, even if the flow was in the general direction of fraud, deceit, and duplicity. Further, they punished those who refused to engage in fraud, deceit, or corruption.   

In testimony on one lawsuit against Bank of America and Countrywide, officers revealed that they were ordered to fire experienced fraud investigators and quality assurance people and hire inexperienced people who could not detect fraud and quality issues. This enabled fraud on a huge scale in plain sight.

Further, in June of 2013, six former Bank of America employees and one contractor issued sworn statements in which they accused the bank of lying to homeowners, fraudulently denying loan modifications and paying bonuses to staff who pushed people into foreclosure. One of the whistleblowers commented, “We were told to lie to customers.” Employees that pushed ten or more homeowners per month into foreclosure would receive a $500 bonus, and the Bank also “gave employees gift cards to retail stores like Target or Bed Bath and Beyond as rewards for placing accounts into foreclosure.” Did Bank of America reward its employees for defrauding customers?

The only way to change this pattern is to change the balance of consequences. It helps if the desired behavior is consistent with high- integrity performance.

Many examples exist of bias going the wrong way. In 2008, candidate Obama hailed whistleblowing as "acts of courage and patriotism," which "should be encouraged rather than stifled as they have been during the Bush administration." Yet, for the past many years and still continuing, it is said that President Obama is “waging a war on whistleblowers.”  As posted on March 8, 2015, it was reported in USA Today, “he has also prosecuted more whistleblowers than all other presidents combined.

Indeed, Obama has sentenced whistleblowers to 25 times the jail time of all prior U.S. presidents combined.

The article continues its reportage stating, “In reality, Obama – even more than Bush or other presidents – is protecting criminal activity by prosecuting and harassing whistleblowers. Another article states that “Obama not going after architects of financial services fraud. Instead, he is going after their victims. The author, Joe Nocera, states, “It seemed incredible to me that with all the fraud that took place during the housing bubble, the Justice Department was focusing not on the banks that had issued the fraudulent loans, but rather on those who had taken out the loans, which invariably went sour when housing prices fell.”

Unbelievable but true.  We must ensure public and private companies, universities, and institutions choose wisely and honorably. Be certain to reward “the right stuff.”

Michael G. Winston, author of World-Class Performance, has been named "The Whistleblower Who Conquered Countrywide," and "Wall Street's Greatest Enemy: The Man Who Knows Too Much."  Before becoming one of the United States' highest profile whistle-blowers connected to the financial industry meltdown, Michael G. Winston spent more than 30 years working as a business leader, change agent, and organization strategist for some of America's most prestigious corporations including Lockheed, McDonnell Douglas, Motorola, Merrill Lynch, and Countrywide Financial.