“I’m struggling with one guy in particular, and I’ve decided I’m going to let him fail on this first project. That’s the only way I can motivate him.” This was a client’s response when I asked how her new managerial role over a team of teleworkers was going. She expanded, “The other team members are self-starters, technically savvy, and don’t need much guidance, but this guy isn’t taking directions well and isn’t pulling his weight.” Man at Computer

Is failure a useful learning tool? Absolutely. But only when the consequences of that failure are contained, the team is prepared to deal with them, and the manager who is “allowing” the failure turns that experience into an opportunity for growth and team building. While there are many issues associated with this small situation, a common problem facing the conventional wisdom of “failure isn’t failure if you learn from it” is deciding which failures are appropriate to learn from and which will disrupt an entire team or project.

Reframe Motivation to Communication

If you find yourself in charge of teleworkers, you need to take time to get to know what makes them tick. Build a relationship with them to understand their strengths and weaknesses, what gets them excited about work, and learn their anxieties. These early “learning conversations” will give you the building blocks to communicate with your team members in a way that leads to clear expectations and understanding, even when your are delivering difficult messages.

Return on Investment

Focusing too much on how to motivate people – stimulate their desire to do good work – is putting the cart before the horse. You should focus on building a relationship with them so you learn how to communicate with them effectively and efficiently. Only then will you be able to properly motivate your team members.

Will allowing a team member to “fail” on his first project build trust, respect, or loyalty? Doubtfully. To do so, managers of teleworkers should take the following communication steps to create virtual accountability:

  1. Be transparent about your managerial process and philosophy. Give them reasons why you are doing things and bring conversations back to project goals and team growth.
  2. Determine the level of shared decision making that you are comfortable with. This will depend on your personal style and work culture.
  3. Determine the level of micro-management that you are comfortable with and that your team members need. This emerges from their past performance and skills.
  4. Shift from statements to questions whenever possible.

Man Talking to Can

After a more thorough discussion, it was clear my client had determined that this failure would be contained and that she was prepared to deal with the consequences, but she hadn’t thought enough about how she could have framed this experience as an opportunity for growth, for team building, and for building a productive relationship with this team member. Hopefully he doesn’t shift his weight to pull the whole team down!