How Not to Motivate Your Team

March 15, 2013
Eric Postal, MD

More Saturday coverage and longer days - for nothing? No thanks. Newsflash: People don't like working, but will do it if you properly motivate them.

In a private radiology practice with which I'm familiar, one of the employee-docs was recently approached by a partner. Having recently canned a couple of their most senior, and thus better-paid, associates (the small group does not take on new partners), the partner was informing the associate that he would be required to start covering a larger proportion of the Saturday office hours.

He had been working every fifth or sixth Saturday, but would now be doing every third. The partners themselves were not in the Saturday coverage pool at all. (They also granted themselves shorter days, much more ample vacation time, and far heftier wages.)

The punch line came when the partner told the associate his reward for this dramatic change: Nothing. Well, unless you count lip-service.

"We can't give you any more money. And we can't give you any more time off. But anything else you need, just let us know."

You might not be shocked to hear that the associate didn't wind up with "anything else," either.

Every now and then, the news contains headlines about recently completed research, demonstrating things that needed absolutely no research to prove. Stuff like "Diet and exercise yield weight loss" or "Beachfront properties likelier to suffer flood damage." Well, here's my contribution: People don't like working, but will do it if you properly motivate them.

Maybe the partner mentioned above is so far removed from reality that he's unaware of this. Maybe he thinks that things like paychecks and time off are not what make his employees continue showing up to the office, and that they won't care when he doesn't equally, or even fractionally, share their burden in common cause of keeping the business afloat.

He's probably not quite that much of a sociopath, though. More likely, he sized up the grim job market in radiology, and determined that the associate would stick around no matter how poorly treated. It's a bit of a gamble - the employee could surprise him, and succeed in finding a better gig elsewhere (happily, this particular associate did).

Part of the gamble is that, if the unmotivated employee bails out, some other radiologist will be desperate enough to sign on for the abuse.

I wonder whether the partner, and "leaders" like him, fully recognizes the losses being courted by taking this gamble. Suppose the employee, now far less motivated, sticks around for whatever reason. Think he's going to be as "rah, rah team" as he was before? Cranking through cases as efficiently as he can, being the go-to guy and showing his A-game?

Or perhaps he'll slow down a bit. Not enough to raise red flags, but enough to get back at the practice. He might indulge in a few more phone calls, or chats in the hallway. Check his Facebook and stocks a little more frequently. Show up late to work, call in sick, or otherwise become less reliable. Maybe when med-mal cases come up, he'll be a little more about looking out for himself and a little less concerned about hanging the practice out to dry. He might have a few unflattering things to say if prospective new hires ask him what he thinks of the place. When the job market improves, he probably won't be sticking around out of any sense of loyalty. He may go out of his way to make sure others know not to fall into the trap he just escaped.

Maybe such concerns don't motivate the partner in question. I know they'd be front and center in my game plan.