To Move or to Motivate

... that is the question.

If you have an employee that appears to have reached the end of their usefulness or the limits of their abilities (and really, isn't that the same thing?), you have a choice: Do you replace them, or do you try to coach them beyond their existing limitations?

If there is a large labor pool available, as is the case at the time of this writing, the current trend is to 'trade up'. It sometimes takes less effort to find someone with a higher readiness/ability quotient than it does to grow an existing employee. I would argue that that's part of why the labor pool is currently as large as it is: Many people without jobs simply don't have the willingness, readiness or the ability to get to the next rung.

Increasingly, as the education level of American high school and college graduates declines, we find ourselves off-shoring jobs simply because overseas employees have higher skill levels. (English grammar is my pet peeve. How many cover letters and resumes have you read lately that were misspelled, had poor punctuation, and sentence structure that made you cringe?) There is no sign that this downward trend is going to change, at least any time soon and, as a responsible manager, part of your job is to find the best person you can for each position.


If an employee has been with you any length of time, they have acquired knowledge. Often, and especially in key roles where no one else performs the same task, this knowledge exists nowhere else in your organization. Moving that employee out means starting from scratch, and usually at some expense. Have you ever felt like a given issue or project comes up over and over again, yet never seems to get resolved? Brain drain is likely the culprit - some key cog that had the knowledge necessary to resolve that issue or complete that project is no longer part of the organization, and you are taking two steps back for every step forward as a result.

Is that good corporate stewardship? If not, how do you solve the puzzle - especially when you have so little time to perform your own tasks, let alone mentor someone that may or may not take that next, vital step?

It helps to understand where that employee's limitations come from in the first place. It could be simply a matter of training, something you don't even have to do yourself. But as often as not, there is a deeper root that stands squarely in the employee's way - one that has dogged them their entire life. And to help them climb out of that box, you need to understand the Lifeboat Scenario.

Much smarter people than me have discovered that our reactions to potentially lethal situations (and if losing one's job over and over in this economy isn't lethal, what is?), we each fall into one of three camps. The scenario is a lifeboat that has sprung a leak and is going down fast, and the passengers self-divide as follows:

  • 30% panic, flail wildly, and either die quickly or accidentally find a way to live
  • 50% do nothing, and drown
  • 20% take stock, rationally determine a course of action, and live, often rescuing others on the way

It's easy to see where this behavior came from, and even why it makes sense from a survival of the species perspective: If a leopard attacks a tribe of early hominids, the ones who panic either draw the leopard's attention and die instantly (leaving the rest to live another day), or accidentally escape and eventually reproduce. The ones who do nothing either die (easy pickings), or fail to draw the leopard's attention (and live to reproduce). The ones who are rational think to pick up a good, heavy stick or a rock, and may succeed in driving the leopard away (resulting in minimal losses, leaving more potential reproduction partners).

In essence, the lifeboat scenario is nature throwing dice, in the hope that at least one of the three strategies works. But in modern humans, this genetic predisposition often gets in the way of our rational minds, resulting in a box that is difficult to escape.

It takes time and effort to assess willingness, readiness, and ability. But if at least one of those two traits exist in the employee, in the long run, it is less costly (in terms of time and money) to invest in driving the lower trait to the next rung, growing the employee and preventing yet another loss/hiring/backtrack cycle.

For more information about readiness, I suggest this article:

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