When You Move Your People’s Cheese

Want to suck the motivation out of your people? Move the goalposts on them. Change the rules mid-game enough times and I promise, even the most obstinately-positive of your employees will learn to give up.

Have you read Spencer Johnson’s bestselling classic, Who Moved My Cheese? It’s all about how individuals deal with change. I have to admit that when I read it several years ago, I was nonplussed. I thought at the time, “So what? Who doesn’t like change?” It’s taken me years to figure out what I was missing. Now, finally, I get it.

I was raised to lead. I haven’t always been in leadership positions, and when I have I’ve made an inordinate number of missteps and more than a few downright egregious mistakes to boot. But my internal dialogue, my self-image, has always been that of a leader. Leaders feel in control of their destiny, which I know can at times be self-deception, but that deception is often quite helpful in driving us through obstacles and toward eventual success.

But finally, I get it. I don’t like all change after all! For the most part, I like change that I impose on myself. It spices things up, keeps them interesting, and it’s a great way to stumble your way toward invention and eventual breakthrough success.

But leaders: in order to be good at what you do, you’ve got to put yourself in your people’s shoes.

When you choose change for them, you’re in control – so of course you’re going to enjoy it, or you’ll change it again! But when followers – employees – have change imposed on them it’s an entirely different scenario. The locus of control is outside them. They’re helpless.

Need an example? Here’s one: you tell your staff what is expected of them. “Do this, and you’ll meet expectation. Exceed it by this much, and you’re a star.” Simple and every-day, isn’t it? So here’s how you sucker-punch them in the gut:change the rules mid-game, or (better still) after the game is over! Move the goalposts after they’ve already kicked the ball. “Oh yeah,” you say, “You’ve done great, but so has everyone else, so we’ve made it harder.”

Umm…. Hmm. How should any rational person react?

In this economy, here is one possible answer: many of the stars you’ve hired or developed won’t quit in disgust and rage born of helplessness. They’ll keep coming to work. But they’ll resent your company, and maybe they’ll resent you as their “leader.” They’ll stop trying. They’ll start looking around for better situations outside of your team, or your department, or maybe – if the rest of the company is no better – outside of your company altogether. You’ll find out that you lost them, but only when they’re ready.

And meanwhile, you’ve taken something great – an eager, winning attitude – and you’ve willfully poisoned it.

That is why people loathe and resist change. It isn’t about the change itself. It’s about the helplessness, the change imposed on them by un-empathetic leaders. Obtuse leaders. Leaders who, as I was, don’t get a big part of the equation of change.

Change rocks – when it’s fair. Just don’t move the goalposts after the ball’s been kicked. That is, if you’re serious about building a high-talent, intensely-motivated team.


This post first appeared on Ted’s previous blog with the title “Please Move My Cheese (…Well, Maybe)”

Photo courtesy of  Woodley Wonderworks

Ted Coiné is a Forbes Top 10 Social Media Power Influencer and an Inc. Top 100 Leadership and Management Expert. This stance at the crossroads of social and leadership put him in a unique perspective to identify the demise of Industrial Age management and the birth of the Social Age. The result, after five years of trend watching, interviewing and intensive research, is his latest book, A World Gone Social: How Companies Must Adapt to Survive, which he co-authored with Mark Babbitt. An inspirational speaker and popular blogger, Ted is a pioneer of the Human Side of Business (#humanbiz) movement. He is also a serial business founder and three-time CEO. When not speaking at conferences and corporate functions, Ted advises CEOs on how to become Truly Social Leaders, or “Blue Unicorns” as they put it in A World Gone Social, in order to bring their companies into the Social Age. Ted’s advice: “Change is only scary if it’s happening to you. Instead, bring the change your competitors dread. That is something only a Social Age business leader can accomplish.”

  • onboardlearning

    Great post. Thanks!

  • The thing I notice about leaders and change is that it’s almost always presented as a problem. The leader shouldn’t be simply expressing their fears, upfront or belatedly. Would it be helpful if the leader remembered this line, “Change is happening all the time; our role is to identify useful change and amplify it” (Gregory Bateson)?

  • DD_LifeCoach

    I remember when I used to work for a corp. that the rules were always changing, in general (regulatory issues), on the management team (for unknown reasons), and our staff. It’s hard to motivate people when you tell them that just yesterday what they were getting praise for is no longer the thing and now there is a new thing that they have to do or their job is in jeopardy. The company eventually called in coaches for the management team that specialized in resilience. I couldn’t help but feel bad that most of us were getting nothing out of it because, like you say in your post, we were getting sucker punched all the time and there was more to come. The coaches were great at what they did but I think they could see it was lost cause. Nothing ever changed and I eventually left to start my own coaching practice outside of a corporate atmosphere. Great for me, better for my clients.


  • AndyInfante

    This happens at almost every company that is trying to perform at a higher level. At a level that they feel they need to achieve, even if the company is performing well. Sometimes change (upward) is not necessary. Yes, striving to constantly improve is a worthwhile goal, but it’s easier if everyone buys in.

  • Employees need autonomy and mastery in order to feel fulfilled at work. That means letting them “own their jobs” and come up with solutions to problems without micromanaging them. Telling them exactly how to do things or randomly changing the work environment takes away their sense of control. No one wants to work in a place where you don’t know how to succeed.

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