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Eat the Slowest Zebra, and the Herd Will Speed Up

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When a leader is confronted with an under-performer who refuses to remediate, one of the things that leader can do is see this as an opportunity to employ a little negative motivation.

The term 'negative motivation' carries with it a negative connotation, but I question if that is a bad thing. Can the appropriate dose of negative motivation - that is, motivation to do or not do something in order to prevent a negative event from occurring - be healthy and productive? Do we not do things every day of our life to prevent bad things from happening? Is negative motivation not the basis of laws, crime, and punishment in our society? Are not these negative motivations effective and beneficial in our lives?

It is through this frame of reference that I pose the following the following tactic, for philosophical contemplation or practical application (your choice): eat the slowest zebra, and the herd speeds up.

This tactic is simple: under-performers who refuse to remediate are quickly isolated and separated (terminated, if possible) from your organization's activity, just as the zebra on the prairie is first isolated and then terminated by the lion.

When employing this tactic, it is important to maintain that inflexible under-performer's dignity and privacy, because leaders of character respect others. Additionally, there are laws and policies associated with privacy and due process that we must not violate. Further, it is also important because it is entirely possible (and likely) that an under-performer undergoing disciplinary and / or separation action will retaliate with some sort of complaint of mistreatment or discrimination.

At the same time, though, such carnage is typically observed through the disciplinary and separation process, and is further disseminated and discussed through informal channels of communication (the grape vine, the rumor mill, etc.). This visibility and awareness is an important part of the tactic, as it is important that the survivors see enough of what happened to inspire a little bit of negative motivation. Again, this is almost certainly taken care of through the disciplinary and separation sequence, as well as through common office gossip.

Here is the key point of this idea: by seeing what happens to these bad attitudes, selfish members, and grossly negligent non-performers, performing team members will:

1) Feel like their efforts are validated because they are still here and those that did not perform are not, and

2) Feel the residual pressure that will be present within any organization when someone gets removed for poor performance or bad attitude.

As a result of both of these conditions, the level of performance of many of these performing team members will increase.

Additionally, by seeing the slowest zebra get eaten, marginally performing team members will suddenly realize that they may in fact now be the slowest zebra, which will likely inspire them to run faster (improve their attitudes and performance).


In summary, one way to use a non-performer that refuses to remediate as an opportunity is to eat the slowest zebra and watch the herd speed up.

If you think about this idea motivationally and mathematically, it makes good sense:

First, obviously, all the other zebras see one of their own eaten, and this motivates them to run faster (work better).

Second, and perhaps less obvious, by removing the slowest zebra, you have removed your slowest zebra (worst performing team member), which mathematically increases the average speed of the herd.

Additionally, when sub-standard performance is not tolerated, it translates our espoused values of excellence and professionalism into practiced behaviors. By seeing the slower zebras get eaten, team members see that organizational leaders have and are serious about a cut line of acceptable attitude and work performance.

As previously mentioned, this causes team members to realize that they have surely been held to these standards and found worthy, which inspires morale, professionalism, and further excellence. In this day and age of 'rehabilitative transfers in lieu of termination', 'everybody gets a trophy', and a general lack of personal accountability in many aspects of our lives, this line of thinking can be refreshing and welcomed by those team members who are getting the work done.

A little bit of negative motivation, directed in the right direction, after exhausting all attempts at remediation, and judiciously sprinkled among a much larger field of positive motivation, may help improve individual and organizational performance and improvement.




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