They say that some people are born under a lucky star and others are thwarted by fate. What would happen if each person could really influence his or her own destiny, both personally and professionally, more than people usually recognize? Ignacio Álvarez de Mon, a professor of organizational behavior at the IE Business School and author of It Depends on You, explains the dynamics of relationships between bosses and their employees. Motivation and teamwork are some of the keys to becoming a leader in every facet of our lives.


Universia-Knowledge at Wharton: People talk a lot about motivation, but who is responsible for making workers happy on the job?


Ignacio Álvarez de Mon: Without doubt, the person who is first and foremost responsible for motivation is the worker himself. We must not delegate the task of being motivated to anyone else. Failure to take responsibility for our own motivation is both frustrating and not very intelligent. It is frustrating because, if we don’t depend on ourselves for motivation, there’s a greater likelihood that we won’t achieve it. It is not very intelligent, moreover, because it is absurd to leave the management of something so important in the hands of other people.


Nevertheless, do bosses, executives and managers have some responsibility for motivating their workers? Yes. In that sense, the first thing we should ask of any manager is that he or she does not de-motivate — that is to say, does not destroy the intrinsic sources of motivation that employees have within themselves. In many cases, the boss’s absence on a workday is a cause for celebration among immediate co-workers, and there’s a good reason why they perform better on those days than on others.


When we set out to make our workday a realm in which we develop our strongest talents – rather than a place where we are at the disposition of the will and caprice of someone who has more power than we do – we are more profitable for our company and for ourselves. It’s regrettable that even today many good professionals play ridiculous games in which their presence [in the office] is more important than [workers’] productivity; in which dominating the office takes precedence over working efficiently; in which submission to the person in command takes priority over the transparent and sincere exchange of ideas among professionals.


As bosses, our big goal, beyond not de-motivating people, should be to establish working conditions that enable each professional to perform as well as he or she is capable of performing. How to do that? There are some formulas that are easy to identify but extremely hard to apply:


·         A work environment in which trust and transparency reign, in which there is no fear to share ideas, and where no one is considered correct by virtue of decree.


·         Working conditions (salary, overall compensation, professional career expectations, etc.) that are based on meritocracy and which recognize and give priority to the real contributions made to the business (by shareholders, customers, workers, etc.)


·         A responsible team member who is ready to commit himself or herself to every commitment that employees make to themselves: delegating and giving opportunities [to workers] to develop themselves in significant ways, and permitting people to follow the road where they grow the most.


UKnowledge at Wharton: What measures do you have to take when your company is not motivated? Can you provide an example of some bad situations, and how they were resolved?


I.A.M.: From my viewpoint, companies themselves are neither motivated nor de-motivated; it’s their personnel who either motivate themselves or de-motivate themselves. Although this may appear obvious, in reality it’s not. When we talk about companies and not about people, or about institutions rather than individuals, we fail to focus on where the differences stand out: In the personal realm of responsibility and influence that exists within each of us.


If there are some de-motivated people, the first step is to identify who they are and what the causes [of their problem] are. If de-motivation is a general phenomenon that affects a broad community of workers, two very appropriate approaches for dealing with that are   surveys of the working climate, and processes for 360-degree feedback. Both sorts of initiatives have in common a basic philosophy that should be inspiring: First, sharing valuable information so that it reaches workers below; then, understanding the factors that are causing some people to become de-motivated. And then, if we want to put it in a positive way, knowing what [kinds of changes] would make these people more motivated; that is a key insight whenever you address the future performance of those workers in your organization.


Clearly, the most common causes of de-motivation include compensation packages and real expectations regarding professional careers. But another factor is essential to these approaches: the style of management. Many very prestigious studies have demonstrated, again and again, the extremely close relationships between managerial style, labor climate, motivation, performance, and bottom-line results. In other words, a boss who does well by his or her people makes them more motivated. They produce more and, ultimately, contribute more to the bottom line of the business.


In my personal experience, I have been able to show that sharing information is useful for any worker, manager or non-manager, especially when it comes to sharing more personal information with those people who view themselves as more affected by a particular action. Most workers welcome finding out what they are doing well, and what they are not doing so well. In that sense, communication is a highly valued ally of motivation.


UKnowledge at Wharton: What does a manager expect of a worker, and vice versa?


I.A.M.: We can’t talk about a single sort of manager or about a single type of worker. In order to respond accurately to this question, we’d have to ask each manager and each worker. It is clear, however, that there is a direct relationship between one and the other; it depends on [exactly] what managers and workers anticipate and what they want from each other. For example, a manager who has little tendency to delegate will find that few workers under his or her influence will readily take the initiative and assume added responsibilities. The two sides of the coin are mutually dependent. So the best way to predict the style of any manager responsible for leading a team is to analyze the attitudes and behavior of the members of that manager’s team. On the other hand, a manager who is ready to promote the development of talent will foster systems for measuring and recognizing performance, and for providing incentives that enable each team member to contribute and produce.


Managers and workers should function in a working relationship governed by rules that are clear, transparent and known by everyone from the outset. Their philosophical foundations should be based on each person’s freedom and responsibility for making his or her work as good as possible.


UKnowledge at Wharton: Must the worker win the trust of the boss, or should it be the reverse?


I.A.M.: The exercise of trust, which is something hard to master, requires the presence and contribution of both the boss and the worker. Trust is like a tank that requires a lot of effort, patience and time to fill up, but can nevertheless be reduced to nothing in a very short time. The sort of person who is ready from the outset to put his trust in others is more likely to win their trust in return. It’s the same thing with distrust.


Who takes the first step? Who must be the first to commit? Again, there are no general recipes for every situation. There are people who, whether they are bosses or employees, are more prepared to take the initiative. Others, however, will not do it unless the other person has made all possible approaches.


Even so, if you had to ask just one person to assume more responsibility, it would always be the person higher up the organizational structure. The person who is higher up the hierarchy must do that because he has more power, a greater capacity to act and influence, and more criteria [for judging others].


UKnowledge at Wharton: At times, it seems that teamwork is the panacea of the modern company. But are there contraindications [hidden risks]?


I.A.M.: Teamwork does not have any contraindications; it’s only when you merely appear to be working as a team that there are all sorts of contraindications.


What does it really mean to work in a team? It means you have to comply with a series of conditions:


  1. One common mission: Every member of the team shares the same ideals.
  2. Shared goals that put that vision into practice; they must be compatible with the goals of the individuals [on the team].
  3. Leaders, whether individual or collective, who provide direction, coordination and strength, especially during hard times.
  4. Talent: The best possible fit for the desires and knowledge of every member of the team.
  5. Team spirit: shared values, norms, attitudes and rules of behavior. A common sense of collective ownership.
  6. Results: A perception that the team is functioning when it achieves the goals that it has set out to achieve.
  7. Incentives: Each and every one of the members of the team has to feel compensated for his or her efforts; and each and every one must feel that it’s worth the effort to work there.


Finally, working as a team is not the same thing as merely holding meetings. Anyone can hold meetings but very few people work as a team. If we were more demanding about taking advantage of the time we spend on employee meetings, we would probably hold a lot fewer meetings.


UKnowledge at Wharton: What role does personal development play when it is time to exercise leadership?


I.A.M.: In the current context of a business organization, there are two fundamental things to manage from the point of view of leadership: the participation of workers in critical business processes and workers’ commitment to the business plan. The leadership style that has been proven to be more efficient under these conditions is the style that commits to the personal development of employees.


What does it mean to commit to the personal development of employees? On the part of the employer or manager, it means making sure that the growth of the business is compatible with the parallel growth of each one of its workers. This occurs as a result of committing firmly to training workers and giving them meaningful latitude to make decisions and take individual action. From the viewpoint of the employee, it means using their own freedom and responsibility to pursue a course of personal development that fits more closely with his or her real desires. Unfortunately, many people prematurely give up their goal of exploiting what are theoretically their best gifts and talents in favor of [working for] organizations that wind up paying the same sort of price as their workers pay [as a result].


How does a leader contribute to the development of his or her people? That kind of leader:


  1. Observes and identifies the individual talents of each person.
  2. Puts each person in the place where he or she can produce more.
  3. Empowers: Makes a definitive commitment that all co-workers will achieve higher levels of autonomy and responsibility.
  4. Demands: Performance and results in proportion to the investment made in terms of personal trust and financial resources.
  5. Shares the profits that are earned or the losses that are assumed.


UKnowledge at Wharton: What exactly does it mean to lead people?


I.A.M.: Leadership begins with taking control of your own self, which is an arduous and complicated task within the reach of only a few. A good leader must know himself or herself — his or her strengths and weaknesses. Leaders must try to take maximum advantage of their strengths, and not make their weaknesses too much of a burden for themselves and for others. Starting from there, leaders must promote the right conditions for enabling other leaders to emerge.


Several studies of workers in a wide range of sectors and working conditions agree that employees want their leaders to be someone who:


1.                 Has a broad and deep knowledge of the work that he or she is carrying out.

2.                 Is honest and has integrity.

3.                 Has a vision of the future.

4.                 Puts excitement and passion in everything.


Finally, leadership means enabling other people to achieve what they must achieve with the deep conviction that other people are the ones who are chiefly responsible for achieving their objectives.