When I was 11 years old, I saw a speech by 80’s-era motivational speaker Joe Charbonneau. I thought it was the coolest thing ever, and from that day forward wanted to be a public speaker of some kind.

That star faded a little bit as I got older, and I could peek behind the curtain of the tropes and platitudes that seemed so brilliant at the time (no disrespect to the late Mr. Charbonneau). This kind of speaking is now (rightly) considered more self-parody than serious boost to personal development. I wish I could say that the genre is no longer taken seriously, but speakers like Tony Robbins are now giving mega-concerts to thousands of their faithful. There is, when you think about it, no substantive difference between Tony Robbins and Joel Osteen or Rick Warren. They deal in the trade of temporary ecstasy.

I was looking through YouTube for examples of good modern motivational speakers, just to see if there was anyone out there with some substance. The exercise was depressing. The field has not changed much from the 80’s; the most successful speakers are still blow-dried white guys talking about getting you to change your state of mind. Many are hired by their fellow blow-dried, white corporate managers who believe that their workforce is unmotivated because of some attitudinal flaw that only affects the middle class.

What’s worse, the content is mostly schlock. Many famous systems are based on Neuro-linguistic Programming, a controversial, unproven form of hypnosis. Recently, on an international flight, I saw a BBC documentary called  “Money” about the proliferation of wealth creation seminars in England. It was about how poor and middle-income people would pay thousands of pounds for materials about attitude transformation. They would be instructed to meditate in strange ways several times a day, visualizing themselves with tons of cash. It was sickening, like an Amway seminar had slept with a Baptist revival.

I still want to be a speaker, and after having listened to a lot of modern motivational speeches, I think I have a useful trial theme. I call it, “The Anti-motivational Speech: How To Motivate Yourself and Those Around You By No Longer Being a Fucking Idiot.” I think it’s really going to save the world. It turns out, even smart people get themselves into really stupid habits, and transform into idiots slowly over time. You might be behaving like a total idiot and not even know it! I have ten points so far that I’m thinking about including, and I invite you to submit suggestions if I’ve missed anything important.

1) Stop Believing Unproven Bullshit!

Kahneman cites Philip Rosenzweig’s book The Halo Effect:…stories of success and failure consistently exaggerate the impact of leadership style and management practices on firm outcomes, and thus their message is rarely useful.”

To be clear, there is no problem with stories and cases that are used as illustrative examples of something already proven. However, when you are coming up with first principles (e.g. a certain type of leadership is a prerequisite for success), the only way to prove that the assertion is repeatable is through statistical correlation or variance analysis by means of a random sampling of companies. Nothing else counts.

This is very important, because everyone is going to tell you that their model leads to success: the right people, the right discipline, focus on core projects, diversification, a winning attitude, level 5 leadership, level six-and-a-half leadership, and whatever else someone comes up with. So when do we believe it? Repeat the magic words: “Randomized study or survey from a reputable (hopefully peer-reviewed) publication.” Anything short of that, and you should keep your bullshit detectors on full alert.

2) Stop Worshiping Trends!

I’m in marketing, and if I hear one more time how someone wants to “do something cool with social media,” I’m going to lose it. Or, I could quite possibly get into the business of selling worthless social media strategies to gullible in-house marketers. Hey idiot: have you even determined how social media would specifically serve your marketing plan? Do you even have a marketing plan?

I remember hearing a story about how former Motorola CEO Bob Galvin made substantial investments in China because “everyone was in China.” If you want to read about how that worked out, I’d like to point you to a recent article called, “Apple Tries to Avoid Motorola’s Mistake in China.” A previous Galvin (Chris) just had to launch the Irridium satellite phone system because satellite phones were a thing of the future. For more information, please see the article “Down To Earth Reason’s for Iridium Failure.” You know a good way to spot an idiot? They love fads for their own sake.

3) Stop Pretending Luck Has Nothing To Do With It!

See number 1 above. Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, tells us:

Stories of how businesses rise and fall strike a chord with readers by offering what the human mind needs: a simple message of triumph and failure that identifies clear causes and ignores the determinative power of luck and the inevitability of regression. These stories induce and maintain an illusion of understanding, imparting lessons of little enduring value to readers who are all too eager to believe them.

The personality and individual choices of the leader are usually the last thing responsible for a company’s success, even though we imagine them to be the first thing responsible. As we discussed in a previous post, a company’s institutionalized systems are more responsible for successes than the decisions of one man or woman. Likewise, pure blind luck (aka outside factors beyond the company’s control) is also usually more responsible for success than the actions of one man. How else do you explain Motorola still being in business after being run by the Galvins?

4) Stop Making Decisions Based On Condescending Stereotypes Of Other People!

Our business would be so much healthier if it wasn’t for those bastard union workers. Or those incompetent management douchebags. Or the friggin’ government employees, or pansy-ass Democrats, or obstinate Republicans. Hey…quit your whining!

I realize the irony that this entire article is a screed based on a condescending stereotype of those who believe that motivational speaking brings the answer to their problems, but let’s face it: they’re asking for it.

This is what we do now, and it has gotten worse in the past fifteen or so years. Our current political problems are not philosophical; they’re leadership problems based on institutionalized mistrust, bad faith, and revenge-seeking.

You know those case studies I asked you not to believe because they aren’t statistically valid? Well, many of them do contain some anecdotal evidence to suggest that morale improves when you start treating other members of your workforce like human beings (aka offering some measure of trust without regard to status or affiliation). Imagine that. Nothing motivates a person like treating them like a fucking human being. Try it.

5) Stop Shutting Out Other People’s Input!

One of my favorite examples is Paul O’Neill’s cultural change at Alcoa, as detailed in Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit. Previous CEOs treated worker input on efficiency and safety as “cute.” “That’s a nice little suggestion, now the real thinkers will take it from here.” You can imagine what happened to Alcoa’s culture once worker’s safety suggestions were taken seriously.

The people who are going to know the most about something are the people who deal with it everyday. You think they aren’t thinkers? You think their input is from the rabble? See point #4 above, about treating people like human beings.

6) Stop Reveling in Status and Perks!

“But I earned that parking space!” No you didn’t, Bill Lumbergh. Stop your whining. There once may have been a time – a more credulous, mysterious time – when corner offices and parking spaces reinforced respect and awe. I’m sorry, but you were born forty years too late. Get over it.

Nothing builds resentment faster than douchebaggery. Ask any lawyer. If your CEO’s salary is over 150 times the average worker’s salary (the 2011 U.S. average was 380 times – the highest gap in the world), it’s time to revisit some priorities.

7) Stop Maneuvering for Political Gain!

Bill Lumbergh – Office Space

I remember the one corporate job I had at the beginning of my career, at a hyper-hierarchical engineering company. First-level managers made a game out of playing both ends against the middle. They soaked up the credit from upper managers when times were good, and blamed upper-management intransigence to their teams when denying raises, bonuses and promotions. They became so much a conduit that they could, like Wally from the Dilbert comic strip, do nothing all day but answer emails.

There is less of that action these days, because hierarchy is expensive. Somewhere along the line, one of the Bobs finally figured out that Bill Lumbergh was more of a cost center than the engineers he managed. Let that be a lesson. If you’re constantly maneuvering for credit and the escape of blame, it means you’re not doing anything useful. More people notice that kind of thing these days.

8) Stop Any and All Unethical Behavior!

Not just because of the fact that if you’re skimming 10%, your subordinate is likely skimming 20%. Because it’s the right thing to do. ‘Nough said.

9) Stop Drinking Your Own Kool-aid!

I am so sick of people who think they’re geniuses. Most people believe they have above-average intelligence. That’s normal. Some people who’ve been managing operations for too long start to believe that their run of good luck equals infallibility of judgment. Then you start believing that, by hiring a good motivational speaker, the people around you will start thinking more like you do. Get over yourself, before sociopathy sets in.

10) Stop Buying Into Motivational Rah-Rah Shit!

Pep rallies are forgotten fifteen minutes afterwards.

It’s fine to want a workforce on board with values like listening to others and providing value for the company, but those values are communicated by example. No one with any brains ever said, “That motivational speaker / communications guru changed my life forever!” Smart people are skeptical. They say, “Wow, that was a waste of time because clearly the person who hired that speaker wants to instill values that they (the ones who booked the speaker) clearly do not display themselves.”

The best speakers can encourage meaningful reflection, and offer a few new insights. They can serve as excuses to step back and reassess values. That’s it. That is the extent of their role in life. You, and your sense of follow-through, are the sole determiners of whether or not culture will return to status quo immediately afterwords. You plan what you’re going to affect, you put something new into place, and you keep improving upon it. It takes planning, discipline, willpower and Emotional Intelligence – four things a guru is powerless to give you.

I’d like to close with a quote from an excellent article on the Living Stingy blog:

The reality is, most workers want to do a good job. They want to cut costs and help the bottom line. You don’t need to “motivate” them to “think outside the box” to provide “continual quality improvement.” In most cases, they are trying to do just this – but their ideas are dismissed at meetings or are told, “We’ll get back to you on that.” Before long, they stop trying. If your workers are not motivated, it is the fault of management for de-motivating them, and a motivational speaker is not the answer.

Those are my points so far. What do you think I should add?

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  • Learn what makes a business fragile, so you can avoid pitfalls that sink most founders.
  • Discover how to set up your business to use setback and stressors as fuel for growth.
  • Build an unstoppable business that uses resistance to grow like muscle!