What can we learn from the recent Volkswagen public relations disaster and how can it shape they way we motivate our employees?
I recommend that you read this article in the NYT if you haven’t had a chance to get the full picture of what happened.
The summary is that Volkswagen, in an attempt to attract the fuel-efficiency/hybrid market, rigged their diesel cars to fake low-emissions testing while still spewing tons of contaminants into the air. Basically, they cheated the system.
All of this can be tracked back in some ways to the CEO’s challenge to the whole organization to top 10 million car sales by 2018 and be the number one car manufacturer in the world. And they succeeded well ahead of their goals. They topped 10 million cars by 2015 and were number one…for about a minute.
Ambition can be a complicated and powerful motivator and one that can lead organizations and people down some fairly dark paths.
Shakespeare even wrote a play about this once:
(Macbeth. The play is Macbeth.)
In this play a Scottish lord (Macbeth) chooses to kill the king while he is sleeping in his castle so as to usurp the crown and live out the destiny promised him by three lying witches. In an attempt to keep the crown, he makes a series of decisions that go from evil to crazy and that leave him without anyone to support him. (Spoiler alert: He dies. Everyone dies. Here is the plot summary for those who don’t remember 10th grade English class.)
While we can all feel a little superior when someone who has a huge ego gets his/her comeuppance
(Still waiting on this guy)
the key to the play Macbeth is that the tragic character was actually a noble and successful warrior for the king. The reason the king is at his house is to celebrate their recent victory over an enemy of the crown. The genius of the play (especially for the modern world) is that it works off of the aspirational dream: “why not me?” We can relate to Macbeth’s audacity to dream of being king, just as we can (and did) applaud Volkswagen’s desire to be number one.
The problem is with how you go about it.
Why is this so much more of a news story? What makes Volkswagen’s cheating any different than the many other companies who get caught cheating the system?
Maybe it is because Volkswagen owners, especially those who owned a TDI, feel like they are jilted lovers. They feel betrayed.
I owned a Jetta TDI Sportswagen for a few years and loved it. It was a great car to drive; it was versatile and got excellent gas mileage. I eventually traded it in because I wanted a car that was more suitable for Maine winters:
Fact is that I, much like many of the other owners of TDI cars, loved my vehicle and felt a kind of pride over it. We trusted Volkswagen and the promise that it made of lower emissions, better gas mileage and impressive performance. Who cares if the technology didn’t make sense? Volkswagen is magical. “Fahrvergnugen!”
Now that trust is gone. While Volkswagen will most likely be able to pull themselves out of this, the question will remain what the impact will be on their brand.
When Toyota had their credibility taken away a few years ago because of their braking and gas pedal issues, their brand took a hit. That company decided to put its head down and humbly go back to making very reliable cars and stop chasing the headlines. Will Volkswagen be able to do that? Time will tell.
The lesson, however, that the rest of us can take from this is important. How well we understand our brand and our value ought to dictate how we approach ambition. If our brand is integrity and we have to sacrifice it in order to be king, then maybe we shouldn’t be surprised when that comes back to haunt us.
When you set ambitious goals for your organization and your team consists of exceptionally competitive people, make sure that you are clear about protecting the integrity of your brand. You can’t just give them the goal of being number one. The smartest people in the room are not always the most ethical, which can lead to some pretty bad outcomes.
When good companies try to manipulate the game, they tend to lose the thing that made them loved and successful in the first place.
Aiming for great heights and pushing your organization to be exceptional are good things. We just need to know what we are not willing to sacrifice and what is at stake. There are lots of stories about companies that eschewed integrity for the quick win:
Those that trade their brand (or their essence) for some cheap success are likely to be punished for it in the long run.
This rule does not apply to all organizations. Those that the public already deems “necessary evils” can’t have their reputation dinged too badly by cheating or breaking the law. Time Warner Cable or Comcast will not suffer from a story that they cheated customers out of millions (difficult to be hated more than those two). Nor is it all that surprising that GM might be embroiled in a scandal given their struggles with communication and integrity since the 1960s (didn’t we go through this already with Ralph Nader?).
If your organization is known as a company that can be trusted, be careful how you choose to motivate your employees and leadership teams if you want to keep that reputation intact. Be clear about who they are and what winning should look like.
John Wooden won 10 national NCAA basketball titles with UCLA in a 12 year period. He is thought to be one of the greatest coaches of all time. He was also a deeply spiritual man who imbued in his players a sense of self-respect and respect for playing the game right. His teams dominated and his players loved him.
You can be ambitious and successful without losing the very essence of what makes you special. You just have to know what that thing is, believe in it and be able to communicate it to others.