Book Club: The Ultimate Handbook For Motivating A Workforce

Marcus B. Müller, pictured, wrote and published “The ABC of Life: Success has three letters” (Photo © Silicon Luxembourg/Stephanie Jabardo)

From the great resignation to digital nomads and Gen Z’s work preferences, a decent salary is no longer enough to hire and retain a good employee. This new book shows how to hire and retain a loyal and happy workforce.

The pandemic spawned thousands of new writers. For German national Marcus B. Müller, it wasn’t lock-down boredom that drove him to pen his self-determination theory handbook. 

The ABC of Life: Success has three letters” is a distillation of a decades-long exploration of the winning factor behind organisations, a journey which began when he worked as a banker in the UK and the US. 

“You can have the best technology, the best products, the best whatever, but the winning factor is always people. Any decision you take is only as good as the people taking them,” says Müller when we talk in a café in Luxembourg City.

He cites a pivotal moment in his career when the investment bank MD commanded the team Müller had just sent home to pull a fourth all-nighter on a deal that was practically complete. Days later, one member of that team collapsed with a heart attack. Müller handed in his notice in protest over the treatment, but the company convinced him to stay.

“This was a very important signal for me that if you are strong and if you fight for the right reasons, and you perform then you are making a contribution, not only to business but also to people,” he says, adding that role models are a very important factor in paradigm shifts. “We need more role models, especially in formal leadership positions.”

From investment banking to Kathmandu monastery

Eventually, Müller quit the world of investment banking and spent time at a monastery in Kathmandu reflecting on what it was he wanted to do with his life. This, it turned out, was a PhD in social psychology in Queensland where he sought to study the brains of senior executives and encountered a certain amount of resistance.

“I’m one of the most significant or substantial contributors to senior executive psychology research, not because I’m so brilliant, but because I’m one of very few people doing it because it’s difficult,” he says, adding that science without practice is “useless.”

“I believe we need more scientific research that is practice-oriented, and we need leading scientists with the communication skills to make their findings available to use for practitioners.”

It was during his studies that Müller came across self-determination theory (SDT). Founded by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, SDT posits that higher levels of perceived autonomy, belonging, and competence experienced by an individual foster higher levels of creativity, physical and cognitive performance, engagement, loyalty, empathy, resilience, interpersonal skills, social responsibility, psychological and physical health, and wellbeing.

From theory into practice

“I was electrified when I read about it. It’s got a solid scientific foundation. But at the same time, it’s very intuitive. In addition, there is an inventory of measurement tools including ROI calculation for organizational interventions and, finally, there is a process-oriented education framework so that the ABC can be learnt, taught and trained,” says Müller. 

““I was electrified when I read about it. It’s got a solid scientific foundation. But at the same time, it’s very intuitive”

Marcus B. Müller

The problem was that few people had successfully translated the theory into a practice that could be applied to organisations. Müller set out to make the theory digestible for the general public and, in particular, the senior executives he sought to interview for his research. 

He tweaked the wording, transposing relatedness into belonging, to come up with three psychological needs or “physical vitamins” of success: Autonomy, Belonging and Competence. When he began the book in 2015, Müller says he didn’t need to set out a structure, because by then he’d been practising ABC for so many years. The result is an engaging, informative and practical handbook that never feels overly academic. Nevertheless, Müller backs up the theory with peer-reviewed research as well as examples from real life, be it from Muller’s or famous figures. 

Given the great resignation and struggles by employers to hire and retain talent, the timing feels ripe for a book that teaches employers and employees how to be happy and successful at work and in our personal lives.

Marcus B. Müller. (Photo: © Silicon Luxembourg/Stephanie Jabardo)

5 Questions with Marcus B. Müller

JB: Your book digests the work of self-determination theorists into a format that is extremely user-friendly. Why do company leaders fail to implement these approaches in their workplace?

MBM: In short, companies aren’t making a firm enough commitment, or their efforts don’t go far enough. Everyone talks about greenwashing, but there’s as much “peoplewashing” as there is greenwashing. There was a great article in Harvard Business Review recently suggesting that we need an analogy to Europe’s Green Deal which they called a Human Deal, because the way we’re dealing with people in organizations is not species-appropriate. For example, organizatons that want to improve talent development, engagement and retention by offering middle managers a one-hour workshop are not committed to supporting their people in the long run.

Can you give some examples of companies that have successfully implemented ABC practices into their culture?

It’s reported that Apple is successfully using ABC in their Apple Health product, and has rolled it out all over the company. As far as I know, Google is using it as well. There’s actually a part of the think tank in the States called The Center For Self Determination Theory (CSDT), and they developed a digital platform solution called Motivation Works that assists with implementing ABC practices across your organisation. Digital platform solutions such as Motivation Works could do wonders for companies in Luxembourg, but many are not yet ready to implement it.

How can companies become more prepared to implement ABC practices?

Companies need to first understand that financial health is only one indication of company health. I go into depth on this in my workshops and seminars with executives. The other key mindset change that needs to take place is a shift in how organizations see their employees. Once they are seen as an asset, and as the nexus of solutions, then the motivation and drive to implement ABC practices will fall into place. 

To what extent is it inevitable that employers will have to adopt ABC cultures?

So the way this is going to happen is not by intent, but companies will be forced to change. And the great resignation is one stepping stone to change. I know of companies here in Luxembourg that have an employee turnover of 40% a year, which is not sustainable. They know they have to change something, but minimum investments are not likely to work as a long-run solution. The bigger the company, the more time they will need to implement ABC solutions. The sooner they start, the more ahead of the curve they’ll be.

How and why should startups think about ABC cultures from the get-go?

I think any entrepreneur should realise that companies go through stages of growth, assuming they are successful long term, and whatever they create as a culture in their core team is going to help them grow faster later on. A startup is a unique opportunity to create an ABC culture from the start. 

At its core, the ABC is a communication tool. Instead of talking about their feelings, employees talk about A, B or C boosters, as well as A, B or C killers. Once this communication tool has been established in a startup, additions to the workforce will automatically pick up on it. As a result, you’re building an ABC-driven corporate culture, which science has shown to be a foundation of success. In fact, MIT has been running a scientific research project with so-called sociometers, which collect social interaction based data. ABC-related communication styles between people have been shown to drive organizational success such as creativity, cognitive performance and teamwork.

Remember that the reason we’re here today is because 50,000 years ago, there were three human species competing. The reason we Homo Sapiens made it is because we developed better and more effective communication than the other two. That’s what makes the ABC so powerful—it is directly in line with our genetic code. It feels natural because it’s a communication tool that’s grounded in our human nature and caters to our survival. If you give people (psychological) safety through the ABC communication they can spend their energy on creating and delivering, instead of trying to protect themselves and feel safe.

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