Laws may hold us to a standard, but what is more important is the consequences they hold. Even more important is shaping motivation to work with the rules set in place instead of against them. Hamish Knox writes this article for Tanveernaseer.com as a way to show how all of these ideas can work in tandem.

The dominant perception in the business world is that the word “consequences” automatically means “you’re fired.” That’s like launching a thermonuclear weapon in response to getting into a fender-bender on the highway!

Consequence simply means “the result or effect of an action or condition.” There’s no moral judgment here. It’s just what happens as a result of something else happening – and consequences can be either positive or negative.

Here’s a thought: suppose you were to establish intentional consequences that came a step or two before, and even prevented, deeply unpleasant unintentional ones (like missing quota or getting in a fight with an employee over why they didn’t get a bonus).

Effective consequences, whether personal or professional, always relate to one of three things: time, money or recognition.

As calendars become more and more tightly scheduled, we find that time consequences are, as a general rule, more powerful motivators than money consequences. One of the most important points to bear in mind here, however, is that the consequence that motivates you is not necessarily the consequence that moves your direct reports.

Your challenge as a leader is to understand which type of consequence will motivate each individual on your team.

For example, you have three salespeople on your team. The first has a child going off to college in 16 months, the second is an endurance bicycle racer and the third is highly competitive with colleagues. The first is likely to be motivated by money consequences, the second is likely to be motivated by time consequences (e.g. more time off to train) and the third is likely to be motivated by recognition consequences (e.g. winning an internal contest).

In all cases the best way to uncover each salesperson’s motivation is to ask them with a caveat that asking the third salesperson “would you like to win a contest?” is likely to get a “yeah, duh” response, which doesn’t help you.

An open secret about human beings is we tend to be motivated to perform if we feel we have some choice in both how we will complete a task and the consequences for failing.

Using the example above, each salesperson was motivated by profoundly different factors. Addressing this reality is known as “situational management.” Instead of implementing consequences to a supposedly homogeneous whole, you tailor consequences for each department or member of your team.

That sounds like more work, but it’s not. That “extra” work happens up front instead of after the fact as part of regular employee interactions. It’s usually far less work than firing someone and securing a suitable replacement!

Traditional management implements accountability and consequences to the entire group instead of tailoring consequences to each member of the team. This makes about as much sense as putting pole-vaulters, shot-putters, and sprinters on the same weight lifting plan.

Situational management spends a lot of time setting up a sandbox for a team to play in. It then sits back and lets the team play, only getting involved when a team member strays outside the sandbox. It’s much, much easier than traditional management!

In our experience the most successful consequences are those set up by employees themselves.

Initially employees will resist helping you set up consequences, because they expect there’s going to be some dire outcome. The trick is to help employees understand that you are only having the conversation so that you never have to use the consequences agreed to. Once that much is clear, you will generally find that they will open up and your conversation will be more productive.

It’s best to have this conversation offsite, and to give each person involved at least a few days’ notice that one of your agenda topics will be consequences of failing to complete their goals each week. This prevents outside distractions and helps your team come prepared with thoughtful responses. “Springing it” on your team members may leave people feeling trapped and create unhelpful on-the-spot reactions when you ask for consequences.

Think of a consequence program as a ladder that you can move up, down, or off of completely, depending on performance.

Typically termination only arises upon the sixth (noticed) offense! That seems like a lot of second chances, doesn’t it? That’s intentional. It’s also intentional that each and every benchmark is created during a collaborative discussion with the employee.

Keep in mind, too, that accountability tracking is a weekly process, so a salesperson, for instance, could theoretically move from first offense to sixth offense and termination in less than two months. That’s pretty quick. Considering the cost to hire, onboard, and terminate an underperforming employee, which is estimated at somewhere between 4.5 and 6.2 times their salary, a co-created consequence program allows you to quickly terminate someone who just isn’t working out, saving time, money, and morale.

There are many variations on these discussions. For instance: can someone go from level four consequences to zero if he meets his goal targets for a specific number of weeks? You must collaboratively work with your team to set up these guidelines – and then you must stand behind them.

There must be no “mutual mystification” between you and your employees. Just as accountability can’t exist without consequences, accountability can’t exist with ambiguity!

Whenever an accountability program is implemented for a group of employees, some people will attempt to wear you down by asking you to deal with a host of “special” situations. For instance:

  • What happens if I don’t hit my targets because I’m on vacation?
  • What happens if I hit my revenue/project goals, but don’t reach the targets we set?
  • What happens if operations doesn’t deliver on time?
  • What happens if I hit my targets, but the rest of the team doesn’t?

Those are the most common “What if” scenarios, and you are well advised to prepare for them ahead of time. For your accountability program to be successful, you really must have fanatical discipline when it comes to inspiring people to stay focused and hit their targets daily, weekly, and monthly.

Remember that we are talking about collaboration here. The fact that you ask your employees to come up with their own proposals for their consequences does not mean that you will just rubber stamp each proposal. As their leader, you are well within your rights to push back, gently, on suggestions if you feel they are going too easy or aren’t taking the exercise seriously.

Accountability programs only succeed with transparency and clearly defined metrics that connect to both performance and consequences.

Hamish Knox is author of “Accountability the Sandler Way” and plays an important role in Sandler Training’s worldwide organization. He is a recognized business development expert specializing in executive sales consulting and sales productivity training. You can find this post here.