It won't be because of me

The larger the team, the harder it is for an employee to be singled out for individual praise. And, not coincidentally, the easier it is for an employee to hide from being singled out for individual blame.

But imagine a scenario where neither of those considerations apply to any team members, because the idea of credit or blame doesn’t really occur to anyone.

How cool would that be?

Which brings us to the Apollo program, that never-draining fountain of great business examples. Only in this case, the story involves something that took place on the ground, with a man perhaps now best remembered for not being able to leave it.

Astronaut Ken Mattingly—think Gary Sinise—was an original member of the Apollo 13 crew. Exposure to German measles a few days before the scheduled launch bumped him from the mission, causing him to miss the harrowing drama of that unlucky yet ultimately inspiring flight.

His consolation prize was a ride on Apollo 16 several years later. A few weeks before takeoff, Mattingly visited the rocket on the launch pad and eventually wandered inside. There he found a lone technician, attending to his duties on the massively complex spacecraft. Mattingly observed him for a while, commenting on the diligent, precise attention the man was paying to his work.

Initially annoyed at some stranger strolling by to look over his shoulder, the tech changed his demeanor when he learned he was in the presence of one of the men who would be flying the rocket. The two began talking. The tech admitted that he had scant understanding of how the rocket would take off, how it would get to the moon or how it would get back to earth. All he understood for sure was the particular electronics panel he was working on.

He then told Mattingly something he would never forget.

“You know, I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like for you,” he said. “But I can tell you this: If we fail, it won’t be because of me.”

Mattingly would thereafter credit this pervasive attitude with the success of the Apollo program. He would go on to command two space shuttle flights, a program that tragically strayed from the Apollo standard of responsibility.

Discretionary effort at its best. Now, selling widgets may not be quite the same as exploring other planets, but the attitude of “if it fails, it won’t be because of me” holds regardless of the task at hand.

Each employee has his or her own motivations that drive them through the years. Some just like to win. They want the best numbers, the most visible contributions, the most ideas at the brainstorming session. Some are motivated by rewards; the bigger the brass ring, the more they'll push themselves to get it. Others take pride in their company’s mission, looking to be a part of doing good in the world, or they simply enjoy the nature or the challenge of the work.

Even purely self-centered motivations, properly channeled, are perfectly acceptable roads to success in the business world. But we don’t think it’s too much to say that the best and most reliable motivation an employee can have stems from their own internal standards: I strive to do the best I can do, because my own conception of my character requires it.

If this project doesn’t achieve the success we’re all hoping for, it won’t be because I didn’t do my part.

As with all employee engagement efforts, it’s your front-line managers who have to carry the burden of turning well-intentioned plans into positive results. So it’s their job to instill a mindset on their teams that no matter what happens—if some other department butchers their bit, if you get beat by a competitor because somebody’s brother-in-law knows the procurement officer, or you get beat by a competitor simply because you get beat—employees can look at each other, and in the mirror, and say, I did all that I was capable of doing. Whether the project succeeds or fails, to whatever extent my role played a part, I played it well.

Most definitions of employee engagement include the term “discretionary effort.” That Apollo technician from 1972 was a pretty good example, yet it’s possible to go even one better than that: Turning discretionary effort into automatic effort, through instilling personal standards of excellence, would be an immensely powerful thing.

That’s all you can ever ask for, isn’t it?

Because if you can create a team that arrives at work each morning with the willingness to see things all the way through, you’re not going to have that many failures. Pride and dedication of this sort is contagious, and will go a long way towards building the sort of corporate culture that sent Ken Mattingly and others to the moon, and brought them safely back home.