Joel Trammell Cautions CEOs to Manage Employee Stress by Understanding Motivation

November 9, 2014

2:00 pm

Last week, Tech Cocktail gathered at John Barleycorn for our Chicago Mixer Sponsored by Speaker Series. We heard from Scott Hess of Spark and Joel Trammell of Khorus, author of The American CEO.

Trammell dove right in to the discussion of employee stress by bringing up the Pointy Haired Boss. The concept of “It’s funny because it’s true” is definitely at play in the famous Scott Adams comic strip series because working in Corporate America often means working for someone exactly like Pointy Haired Boss. A micromanager who never really gives direction, everyone knows that PHB is an ineffective manager. But it’s important as a CEO to pay attention to why this strip is so funny and avoid making similar moves.


Dilbert july-2009

Source: Scott Adams

Joel Trammell advises that it is crucial as a leader to identify what type of business you are in, and what type of employees you are looking to motivate. If you have employed a crew of “ditch diggers”, an analogy that Trammell uses to refer to non-creative laborers who can be interchanged and can all complete a separate or duplicatable section of the same task, then this type of employee will be solely motivated by financial incentive.

If, however, you have employed a team of portrait painters, incentives and motivation will need to come from another place. Portrait painters, or employees in a position that requires knowledge, skill, and creativity to complete tasks, are not easily replaced and have value that might range wildly. Therefore, it is believed that these employees will not be motivated or even engaged by an increase in pay.

The reason for this is that our brains are not wired to be incentivized by money. Our brains are wired to take action based on a stress response. There is a theory and model that identifies the five factors that will induce the fight-or-flight reflex that our brains are wired for. Managing employee stress can begin by evaluating the SCARF model:


Source: LeadersWheel

When employees experience comfort in the above areas (Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness), their stress is reduced. For instance, when an employee feels less certainty about the direction of the company or about the task they have been assigned, their stress is increased.

The number one responsibility of management should be to reduce stress. Leadership in intelligent management looks like the ability to reduce employee stress, maximize alignment, and make adjustments real-time. “Great leaders avoid surprises and are able to predict where their company is going,” adds Trammell.

Companies should have a written record of what it is that people are supposed to accomplish. Does this written record align everyone according to the unified goal of the company? Does this include clear goals and measurement of those goals? Trammell advised that his company, Khorus, promotes the ability for a company to create this document and collect input from the members of the company.

As far as how to reward employees if not by compensation? “The best organizations in the world are made up of people who were passionate about the mission,” Trammell says. Of course they were being paid, however, they were not motivated by money.

“If you want to build a high-performance organization you have to understand the way the human brain works.” Trammell says to reward these “A-players, employees who would ‘make your stomach turn’ if they left” – by providing them with a list of other potential rewards. These include more equity in the company, more responsibility, a faster career path, or more training. There are a lot of ways to reward people. Some promotions may lead to pay increases, but this is not a pay-for-performance structure.

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Previously the Managing Editor at Tech.Co, Ann Diab has a background of launching and nurturing of startups and tech companies. Empowering and educating entrepreneurs and startups to better productivity and culture is her passion. Growth Manager at WorkingOn to enable folks all over the world to enjoy work and improve communication. Follow me on Twitter.