How Does Santa Motivate the Elves? Three Lessons for Leaders Everywhere

Santa at WorkEven though Christmas is just two days away, I was able to convince Santa to take a break from his final preparations to grant me an exclusive interview. In last year’s interview Santa riffed on many of the practices that make him one of the most revered leaders of all time, and with employee motivation and engagement being a hot topic this year, I decided to ask Santa his thoughts on the matter. Enjoy the leadership nuggets I mined from the chubby and jolly guy in the bright red suit:

Me: Hello Santa. I know you’re busy getting ready for Christmas and I appreciate you taking a few minutes to speak with me.

Santa: Ho, ho, ho! No problem! I’m always eager to help other leaders. I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for people who have a passion for serving others.

Me: Finding ways to motivate employees so that they’re fully engaged in their work is a chief concern for leaders today. Based on the way you run things at the North Pole, it appears you’ve got this figured out. What’s your secret?

Santa: My secret? Ho, ho, ho…that’s a good one, Randy! The secret is that there is no secret! I work hard at creating an environment that allows my team of elves to do their best work. The credit for being motivated and engaged really goes to them.

Me: So tell me more about the environment you’ve created. What specifically have you done that has allowed the elves to be so successful.

Santa: Well, if I had to boil it down, I would say that I’ve learned three primary lessons when it comes to helping my elves be motivated and engaged. The first is that I’ve learned my crew works best when they have a great deal of autonomy. In my early days I used to be a bit of a micro-manager and I found that sapped the spirit right out of my team. The elves are clear on the goals we have to achieve and the boundaries we’re operating within and they have the authority and responsibility to get the job done the way they see fit. They design the work systems, create the metrics we use to manage our work, and evaluate the quality of everything we produce. I’ve found that when they are in control of achieving the goal they take a lot more ownership and use their discretionary energy to make sure we succeed.

Me: I would imagine that in order for the elves to be autonomous, it places a large burden on you to make sure they’re setup to succeed. Is that right?

Santa: Absolutely! I have to provide them with the training, tools, information, and any other resources they need that allows them to succeed. Many leaders think having autonomous employees is letting the “inmates run the asylum”, or in my case, the elves running the workshop! Ho, ho, ho! But the truth is, having autonomous employees means each one of them is thinking like an owner of the business and putting forth their best effort.

Me: You mentioned three lessons. What is the second?

Santa: The second lesson I’ve learned is that developing a sense of relatedness with and between the elves is critical in helping them to be motivated and engaged. I take time throughout the year to meet one-on-one or with groups of the elves to make sure I’m maintaining a personal connection with them. I try to foster a team spirit by doing things like celebrating birthdays and having a gift exchange at Christmas (White Elephant gift exchanges are my favorite!). Within the elves we’ve created a buddy system where new elves are partnered with senior elves who help them learn the ropes of the job. Being connected relationally with your boss and co-workers helps people be engaged at work.

Me: That makes a lot of sense, Santa. When I think back on jobs where I’ve been the most motivated, they’ve been ones where I’ve had really positive relationships with others. Tell me about the third lesson you’ve learned from your experience leading the elves.

Santa: The third lesson I’ve learned is that the most motivated elves are those who are continually developing competence in their careers. Whether it is learning to operate new machinery in the toy factory, attending a training class to expand their skills, or expanding their knowledge of their current job, I’ve found that everyone enjoys expanding their competence on the job. I try to structure both formal and informal learning opportunities for my team, so that if they choose, they have the chance to keep growing on the job.

Me: So to recap, the three lessons you’ve learned deal with creating an environment for the elves where their needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence are being met. Is there anything else you’d add for leaders reading this article?

Santa: I would add one thing. Motivation isn’t something that a person either has or doesn’t have. Everyone is motivated in one way or another. They key question is “What is the quality of their motivation?” I have a belief that you can’t motivate anyone. It’s up to each person to choose their level of motivation. But what I can do is help create an environment that encourages and allows people to be optimally motivated. That’s what I try to do with the elves.

Me: Well, Santa, it certainly seems as if you’ve been successful in helping the elves be optimally motivated! As you know, I have a particular interest in trust. What role does trust play in motivating the elves?

Santa: Trust surrounds and permeates the whole process of helping the elves be optimally motivated. It is both the foundation and the outcome. Without a foundation of trust, the elves wouldn’t be willing to take the risk to partner with me and participate in these strategies. And by taking the risk and seeing the success of our efforts, it nurtures and strengthens those bonds of trust.

Me: Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to meet with me. Once again, your insights into leadership have been tremendously valuable.

Santa: It’s been my pleasure. Oh, and don’t forget the most important thing! Be sure to leave out a plate of warm, chocolate chip cookies and a glass of milk for me on Christmas Eve! Mrs. Claus is trying to get me to eat more fruits and vegetables…something about this new health and wellness program our Elf Resources department is doing. But I figure I can splurge a little for just one night a year!

Autonomy, relatedness, and competence are three critical factors of motivation taught in Blanchard’s newest training program, Optimal Motivation, created by Dr. David Facer, Susan Fowler, and Dr. Drea Zigarmi.

14 Comments on “How Does Santa Motivate the Elves? Three Lessons for Leaders Everywhere

  1. Ho ho hope you have a great holiday, Randy.

    Santa didn’t mention it but I’m sure what also helps the elves be so engaged is a very clear understanding of how their work is appreciated by all the children of the world. Having their values align with their work must certainly help them pitch in and support one another to get the job done during their busy time of the year. 😉

    Keep sharing your gifts 🙂

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