Motivating People: Using Emails Within a Virtual Environment

Motivating people isn’t easy no matter what position you hold in the company. There is an old Japanese proverb which says ‘the bamboo that bends is stronger than the oak that resists.’

A common mistake

I was reminded of this recently when working with a client who was responsible for communicating a company-wide change. He needed colleagues in three different global locations to log in to an existing system and perform a task before the system could be replaced with a different, better tool.  It would take them 5 minutes. The most efficient way to communicate this request? Email of course. Easy he thought….wrong I’m afraid.
The first email he sent was a masterpiece of clarity and politeness. It laid out beautifully what was changing and how. The instructions were clear and easily understandable, (even when put through an online translator tool and back. Trust me, he tested that). There were six weeks until the deadline for the switch to the new tool, plenty of time.

The countdown began….
Four weeks before the deadline and two reminder emails later – only 54% of colleagues had carried out the request….
Three weeks before and another reminder, 61%….
Two weeks before and another reminder about the reminders, 69%….
One week before the deadline, another two slightly less polite but very clear reminders and still only 82% of his colleagues had carried out the request.
Why weren’t his colleagues more motivated to make the change? There was time for one last email, and this is when he came and saw me.
‘What’s wrong with my English?’ he asked me. ‘Nothing’ I said. ‘You’ve told them what will happen, you’ve simplified the technical language so even I can understand it and your instructions are clearer than those for an IKEA flat pack’. ‘So why are they so reluctant to make the change?’ he asked. ‘Simple’ I said. ‘They’re made of oak, and you want them to be bamboo.’

Realizing what your message should say

Before he thought I’d completely lost it, I told him the proverb and explained that at the moment, his colleagues were the oak trees. They knew how the old system worked and didn’t want to change to the unknown. If they were going to be like the stronger bamboo, they needed to know why they should bend. ‘That’s simple’ he said. ‘The old tool often asked you to repeat information and it could take a long time to enter data. The new tool only asks for information once and is far more accurate. Their life will be much easier. It will all be much quicker which will make their customers happy too.’
Great, that should make everyone happy, but where did it say all this in the original email? It didn’t, and there was the root of the problem, (or oak tree).
Normally, when communicating a change via email or group media, the biggest concern is making sure the ‘what’ and ‘how’ is explained as clearly as possible so people understand what they must do. It’s easy to lose focus of the motivational side, the ‘why’.

Getting results with your emails

It doesn’t matter how polite your request is, if people can’t relate it to themselves they will resist. To avoid this, try following these five simple steps:

  1. Explain what the change is
  2. Explain why it makes sense
  3. Explain why they should care about the change, (what’s in it for them)
  4. Explain how the change is going to happen
  5. Explain what you need them to do and when

Of course, these can be applied to any situation where you’re asking people to make a change, whether it’s by email or face to face; to 1,100 or 10,000 people.
By the way, the deadline was met, the new tool was launched and it has proved a success. I’m not so sure my client would be so ‘Zen’ as to say he’s now surrounded by a forest of bamboo trees, but I do know he didn’t have to send 12 reminders when he next asked people to do something.

Click here for more information on to work effectively in virtual teams.  Also, let us know in the comments areas below if you have had any similar situation in your job, and what worked for you.