By Kevin Herring

Cindy started out okay. She made it through her six-month probationary period well enough to be put on the regular payroll. But then she started slipping. Sometimes she “forgot” to do things that were on her personal check sheet she completed and sent to the next team. Other times she did not seem to pay attention to what she was doing and got way behind in her work.

Cindy’s boss tells me he hates being the bad guy, but when she first missed going through her check sheet, he had to let Cindy know that not completing it was unacceptable. He told her that if she kept forgetting, she could lose her job. Then when she started falling behind, he wrote her up and let her know she needed to turn her performance around, or else.

A Failed Approach
Every supervisor understands what Cindy’s boss is going through. It is the worst part of his or her job, too. Not only that, supervisors do not even hold out hope for Cindy considering how many Cindys in the past did not make it after the “or else” talk.

What is puzzling is that nobody likes the “or else” approach, but supervisors keep using it. Why? Why does it not work to motivate all the Cindys?

Despite the lousy odds for success, supervisors use the “or else” approach because it is quick and easy. All Cindy’s boss has to do is say, “This is what you did not do, and if you do not do it, here is the punishment.” It doesn’t take a lot of thought or preparation. The supervisor does not even have to go to a leadership class to learn how to do it. Supervisors have learned it from their bosses, so it is almost a reflex reaction.

Here is why it does not work. Remember Douglas McGregor, the “Theory X, Theory Y” guy? He explained that it does not matter how nasty or nice we are when we do it; giving orders and applying pressure with “or else”–the Theory X approach–does not work because it is irrelevant to the employee. It does not motivate someone unless he or she has consumed the last crumb of bread and the boss is holding the only food available to keep him or her alive. It is just the wrong approach.

Here is another catch. When we give the pitiful producer the standard he or she has to meet to keep a job, we tend to set the bar as low as possible because we are convinced the person cannot do any more than that. Even if the person does just enough to keep his or her job, his or her compliance level of output is never going to make either one of us happy.

Now let’s consider a Theory Y alternative to the “or else” approach. Instead of trying to hold Cindy accountable by telling her to do the job, or else, leave her with the accountability for her performance. Describe the high performance needed by the team and ask her: first, what she will commit to for the business; second, how she plans to do it; and third, what she needs to be able to get it done.

A New Approach and Its Possibilities
Obviously, for Cindy to answer the above questions, she has to understand what the team and business need from her and have the wherewithal to do it. Assuming she has that and everything else she needs to succeed, here are the possible results: One, she will refuse to commit to anything, or her commitment will be insufficient for what her team needs, and she will not be a fit for the organization. Two, she will commit to substantially contribute to team success, but fail to honor her commitment in which case she also will not be a fit. Three, Cindy will make an un-coerced commitment and energetically and passionately help the team achieve business-relevant objectives.

The Theory Y approach stands a better chance of prompting the third outcome partly because it puts the decision for Cindy’s commitment firmly in her hands. It gives her an intriguing choice that she probably did not see before. It also helps her thoughtfully consider whether she is willing to motivate herself enough to turn her performance around in a major way and help the team.

Of course, it would be unrealistic to expect that all the Cindys you run into will turn into outstanding performers when faced with this choice. But, if you use Theory Y to allow them to reconsider what they are willing to commit to, you might be surprised how many do.

Trying It on for Fit
Consider the performance conversations you have with low-performing employees. Do you send the message that you are responsible for their performance? Or do your employees see themselves as fully accountable for team success knowing you are there to provide support, not bail them out? Plan your conversations with low-performing employees so they understand that it is their responsibility to produce high value-adding results. Support them by making sure they have the resources and decision latitude they need, and respect their decisions to make and honor commitments for high performance, or not. Of course, respect the natural consequences that follow either decision and help them humanely transition to something more suitable if they choose the latter. Send an email and let me know what you learn from your experiences. I would love to hear from you!

KevinHerringAbout the Author
Kevin is president of Ascent Management Consulting and affiliated with Henning-Showkeir & Associates. He consults with support services staff groups, supporting them in becoming market-valued business contributors.

Kevin Herring has worked as a human resources (HR) and organizational development (OD) manager and consultant with organizations in manufacturing, mining, service, technology, utilities, education, and government.  He has managed HR, OD, and training departments for Baker Hughes, Inc., Magma Copper Company, BHP Copper, Inc., and Tucson Electric Power Company. The essence of Kevin’s work in transforming organizations is to satisfy personal needs and objectives for organizational success

Kevin earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in industrial/organizational psychology and Japanese from the University of Minnesota and a Master of Arts degree in organizational behavior from the University of Illinois.

Kevin resides in Tucson, Arizona, and serves on the State Government Committee for the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Tucson, as Professional and Leadership Development director for the Arizona State Society for Human Resource Management, and on the executive board for the Boy Scouts of America-Catalina Council. Kevin can be reached at