How to Lose at Tug-of-War

Updated: Aug 18, 2021

I've said before, and I'll say again... business is a team sport. Moreover, like any team sport, you want people on your team who play for the love of the game. These people are intrinsically motivated to do a great job. Who can forget championship games where a reporter asks the star player how winning feels, only to hear "I only do this for the money." It never happens because star performers, regardless of salary, are intrinsically motivated. In every field and every position, from the greatest to the least, there are star performers. 

If you are playing tug-of-war, you need team members to help you. They need to pull in the same direction, which means they need to share your goals. Absolutely, pay them. On game day, you want them to show up, after all. However, salary alone will not make them pull hard. Salary gets them to the rope but does not make them care enough to pull. Money does not create the drive to win; it only buys food, clothing, and shelter. Intrinsic motivation makes teams pull with all their might. Sweat, blood, and tears come from deep inside us.

With this in mind, can you imagine singling out one of your team members as "Player of the Month?" Do you see how that belittles the other team members' efforts? Can you imagine winning a game of tug-of-war and telling your team members not to celebrate, because it's your victory alone and you alone deserve the rewards? What would that do to your team members' drive and intrinsic motivation?

Any normal business consultant will start by speaking with the people who work in the business. It would shock you the number of times I interview employees who do not know why they are pulling or even which direction to pull. It amazes me how many managers want exceptional performance out of people who do not make enough money to cover the necessary costs of living. If people are only worried about their next meal or their rent payment, they won't have the energy to worry about your team goals. I am surprised at how many leaders keep all the rewards of success to themselves, refusing to share with their teammates based on "that's what I pay them to do." Salary gets them to the game, but intrinsic motivation makes them care about winning or not.

So to lose at tug-of-war, all you do is alienate your team. Do not tell them which direction to pull. Do not treat them as team members. Do not share wins with them. Pay them only enough to show up, but not enough to care if you win. Fill your team with people who do not care whether you win or lose, and you will definitely lose. 

One of my favorite examples is our nation's largest retailer, Wal-mart. Walk into any one of their stores, and you will find people who do not make enough to care about their employer's goals. Wal-mart is reaching the end of its ability to reduce costs via process optimization and has chosen to focus on labor costs. It has yet to occur to them that it takes a lot more apathetic employees to do the job of one motivated employee. They could quickly reduce labor costs by hiring fewer intrinsically motivated employees and paying them a decent wage. Per employee wages would increase, but total labor costs would decline.

Tell me about your team. Are they intrinsically motivated to win? Are they pulling in the same direction? Do they care about team goals?