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Bread and Circuses

Using a film clip as a motivational aid is a common practice, with the clip often featuring a rousing speech from uplifting films such as Hoosiers. But when Paul Carlucci, CEO of News America Marketing, wanted to rally his troops, he picked a more unusual Hollywood moment to drive home his message. In a speech to his sales team, Carlucci once showed them a scene from the gangster film The Untouchables in which Al Capone emphasizes the value of teamwork by attacking a man with a baseball bat.

Carlucci’s choice might seem slightly over the top, but novel, gimmicky or downright wacky motivational tactics are commonplace. In the quest to motivate their employees, leaders often resort to outlandish antics. Wal-Mart founder and motivator par excellence Sam Walton, for instance, once promised his employees that if the company reached a pretax profit of 8 percent, he would dance down Wall Street in a hula skirt at high noon. The company reached that goal, and Walton kept his promise, which became a part of Wal-Mart lore.

“Unique motivational ploys are attention-getting and can be very fun, which is an energizer for people and workplaces,” says Bob Nelson, president of Nelson Motivation Inc. and author of 1,001 Ways to Reward Employees. For example, US Motivation, an incentives firm in Atlanta, once persuaded the king and queen of Sweden to sponsor a sales contest for a group of American employees of a Swedish-owned vinyl manufacturer. During the contest, the king and queen sent the employees letters concerning royal etiquette, autographed pictures and gifts like Swedish crystal to those who were meeting their goals and presented awards at a dinner outside Stockholm.

Other leaders look to the world of sports for ideas, whether by quoting legendary motivators such as Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi or using sports as the basis of metaphors. Tim O’Brien, principal of Pittsburgh-based O’Brien Communications, says he once worked for a company whose CEO was an ardent NASCAR fan and a great admirer of the teamwork exemplified by the pit crews that maintain the cars—so much so that he had his R&D department’s office space redesigned to mimic the look of a pit crew’s station. “It didn’t take,” says O’ Brien. “The R&D staff became very skeptical and never bought into it. They felt that, overall, the company was still run from the top-down.”

O’Brien’s story illustrates a common flaw in such contrived motivational stunts, namely the lack of a meaningful underlying philosophy. Outré tactics might get the attention of the audience, but without a solid framework, they are no more than distractions.

“Gimmicks are short term incentives,” says Wally Bock, author of Performance Talk. “They can work if they support an initiative or if they are a way to signal that things are changing. But if you use gimmicks over and over, you lose sight of the underlying behaviors that make the most difference. Gimmicks are dangerous because they take everybody's eye off the ball. Workers concentrate on the novel, new gimmick instead of day-to-day productivity. Supervisors do the same. And management, all the way to the top, mistakes gimmick numbers for real production.”

Another danger of gimmicks is their potential to backfire and alienate the very people they were intended to motivate. Claire Celsi, a staffer on the Iowa campaign team for Al Gore during the 2000 election, recalls how her boss came up with a contest to motivate his team to sell tickets to a political dinner. “The staff member who sold the most tickets would win the ‘keys to the vault,’ which we all assumed was money or some fabulous prize,” says Celsi. “It turned out to be a joke; there were no prizes. He was just trying to prove to us that we really had it in us to succeed. I still get angry sometimes when I think about it.”

In certain cases, motivational gimmicks can also invite lawsuits or other legal repercussions. In Carlucci’s case, for example, his choice of movies ended up coming back to haunt him—the incident was cited in a lawsuit brought against News America by one of its rivals accusing the company of illegal behavior and anticompetitive dealing. Another company whose motivational antics brought it legal scrutiny is California-based Alarm One Inc., which recently made headlines when an ex-employee sued and won $1.7 million for sexual harassment for its motivational practices, which included paddling those who didn’t reach sales targets. Other punishments the company doled out included throwing pies at sales reps and making them eat baby food.

Despite the risks, however, creative, well-planned gimmicks can work if they’re backed up by a genuine commitment to keep employees engaged and motivated. Nelson says that at one company he knows of, the president wanted to encourage his employees to embrace risk-taking behavior, so he offered $500 cash to any employee that could top a mistake he had made. Since then, the company has adopted a program through which it gives out quarterly $100 awards to employees who admit mistakes they have made on the job.

And remember, when all is said and done, one of the most powerful motivational tools at your disposal is a good old-fashioned congratulation. “Go beyond the joke and add some serious recognition for a job well done,” says Nelson.