The Drive That Gets Lost

A few years ago, when I was in the construction industry, at one point, the company I worked for had over twenty field employees. We were constantly hiring, trying to keep up with attrition and the manpower needed on larger and larger jobs we took on. Because of this, I got to know hundreds of workers who quickly went from prospective hire, to employee, and then (sometimes quickly) to ex-employee.

I recall one of our workers in particular—I’ll call him Steve. Steve was a very big man, and by all accounts was very tough and strong. He was the biker type, and had a huge, scruffy beard. He had just moved to Colorado from the South, and we hired him right away because he had the promise of being a strong, capable worker. After a few days we were pleased to see that it seemed we were right: our superintendents sang his praises, he worked hard, showed up early, had a great attitude, and hustled all day. So, naturally, when it came time to give him a performance review on his three-month anniversary, the boss decided it was time for a raise in pay to reward his excellent work. In fact, Steve’s performance had been so great that the boss gave him the biggest raise in the company’s history: a 27% increase.

So what happened next? Did Steve start performing even better than before? Was he working faster? Doing an even better job? Showing more dedication?

Nope.

Almost immediately, he started working at a slower pace. His attitude took a dive. He even stopped showing up early with his former eagerness to start work right away. Four-month Steve was a completely different than three-month Steve. What went wrong? We took away his incentive. He had been working so hard, not simply because he was a hard worker but because he wanted more money. As soon as we gave him what he wanted, his impetus to keep up the pace was gone. We were essentially telling him “Steve, you’ve arrived. You can take it easy now.” He was no longer under close scrutiny, carefully playing the part to make sure that he’d get what he wanted. And it worked. Until the fifth month when he was fired.

If you think about it, you’ll realize that this happens all the time, in all kinds of industries. How many movies have you seen that were surprise blockbuster hits, which are then followed by worthless sequels that didn’t come close to matching the power or quality of the original, even though the budget was several times bigger? Or in music: how many times do you find that a band’s best album is their very first—the one they recorded while living in their cars and surviving on top ramen? Once they’ve produced their labor of love, they’ve made it. After that point, they’re never expected to make that same quantum leap again. Just producing another album, no matter the quality, is good enough. They get immediate airplay and media coverage because they don’t have to work hard to get a seat at the table—they’re already there.

Truly great companies are very careful of this pitfall, and if you’ll notice, companies that make a meteoric splash onto the scene usually burn out just as quickly. They never command that same level of exposure again because their pace was unsustainable in the first place.

From my perspective, it’s better to quietly create excellent products or services in a steady, methodical manner. You may not get a 27% increase right away like our construction worker did, but you’ll still have work after five months. Unlike Steve.

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