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If You Can't Pay More Money, Pay More Attention: A Leadership Lesson

Updated: Jun 2, 2022

Business leaders listening to employee

When I took over security operations at a large church in metro-Atlanta, I was stepping out of more than a decade long career in law enforcement. I immediately discovered that there are a number of similarities between being a police officer and being a pastor. For one, I was still in the business of saving people. And for another, I recognized that my coworkers weren’t doing their job for the money; it was a calling.

People who work as first responders or for non-profit organizations typically live sacrificial lives. They recognize that they won’t be able to buy the biggest homes or drive the fanciest cars. The same can be said for many others who work and earn a meager wage in the for profit sector as well. The reality is that extrinsic rewards are hardly the motivation these types of individuals are looking for. Instead, intrinsic value is usually the primary motive for jumping into this kind of work. There is a personal desire, a value added benefit and a true sense of fulfillment simply from doing what one is called to do. That said, even when intrinsic motivation is a primary driver behind why someone chooses to pursue significance in a specific field, there is still a role for extrinsic value. An individual may not desire to be rich, but they still want to be able to have opportunities to grow financially and save for the future.

So what happens when you, as a leader, can’t provide more extrinsic benefit to an employee who desires it, specifically a financial benefit? What happens when the flames of intrinsic motivation have seemingly burned out and the only thing they say will make them happy is more money? I found myself navigating this issue during my first two years as Director of Security at the church.

The first few months after inheriting my team were great. I got to speak to them, get to know them and hear their concerns. We were working together to grow the department and increase safety for all of our campus locations. After a while though, I became inundated with the day to day responsibilities of my position. I stopped showing up to all of our meetings and delegated many tasks to others. I didn’t have as many one-on-one interactions with my staff, and as a result, we saw less and less of each other. Within short order, I began to hear grumblings of unhappiness. The team wanted more from me but they weren’t getting it. In their frustration, many began asking for more training, better equipment, new shift opportunities in order to feel valued. Others desired specific policy changes to make their work life easier. Ultimately, several employees resigned which made it really difficult on those who stayed behind. When requests for remedy failed to happen, the team asked for more money. My response was always, “I’m working on it.”

After a while, turnover and undercurrent had become unsustainable. I had become so immersed in my job that I lost sight of one of my greatest responsibilities; my team. I had adopted this belief that whenever someone left, God would send someone better. That mindset caused me to view my team as dispensable and replaceable. Subconsciously, my employees weren't assets; they were liabilities.

I decided to do a pulse check. I scheduled time with everyone as individuals and gave them each a chance to speak their heart, to tell me what they really wanted to say without me responding back. I was only there to listen. The effort was invaluable.

I quickly learned that while I was privy to conversations and activities within the organization at my level, my team was just along for the ride and had no idea where we were going as an organization. They didn’t want to just see or hear about the vision, they wanted to help carry the vision. Decisions were being made that affected them, but they had no input, no influence and no knowledge of those decisions until they were put into action. They desired a personal contact from me and from their senior leadership because they felt ignored or completely abandoned by the people at the top. They longed for an occasional “attaboy” to let them know that their work mattered. Many desired to grow in their positions and to be trained in other areas of responsibility. Over and over again, I was hearing an unspoken theme from my employees. They weren’t vocalizing it this way, but their hearts were screaming “If you can’t pay me more money, at least pay me more attention!” As a results oriented leader, I hadn't yet learned the most important lesson of all: Relationships matter!

What a lesson that was for me as a young leader. I quickly recognized that there were two primary reasons that I wasn’t engaging with my employees:

1. I knew they weren’t happy and didn’t want to be reminded of it.

2. I assumed that I understood the root of their frustrations, but I didn’t.

Recently I began studying for my Master’s Degree in Strategic Communication at Purdue University. Of particular interest to me is the discipline of internal communication. What I’ve learned in this short time of academic study is that many organizations struggle with navigating internal communication. The leaders who matter most don’t listen. That was my problem. Not only was I not listening, I wasn't even making myself available to listen. In the rare event that my staff could engage me, they didn't always speak openly out of fear of being ignored or rebuffed. I've now come to realize that there is a name for that; organizational silence. OS causes a phenomenon that leads the people at the top of an organization to feel that the people at the bottom are content simply because they aren't complaining.

It has been said that employees are the cheapest smoke alarm an organization can install to alert an organization to internal fire. Where there is smoke, there is fire. As leaders, I find that we are more likely to open a window to let the smoke out than we are to seek out and extinguish the flames. In other words, we fire the people who signal the alarm and let the rest burn instead of finding the real problems to extinguish. Out of fear of being burned, everyone learns to say nothing.

Undercurrent and negative conversations within an organization don’t only come from people who are unhealthy. It also comes from people who desire to see the organization they’ve committed to become healthier. They are invested and they care. Resist the temptation to always "know better." As leaders, we should commit to listening to the noise in order to listen through the noise. Studies tell us that people would rather earn less while working for an organization that they love than to earn more money at an organization they hate. Either way, no one wants to earn little while feeling little intrinsic value at the same time. We can’t always pay more money, but we can always pay more attention.


Ryan Dunlap is a conflict strategist and the founder of Conflictish, a conflict strategy consultancy dedicated to helping leaders navigate all of the 'ish that comes with conflict. From tarnished rapport to hellish attitudes to sluggish performance, Conflictish helps leaders get 'ish done.


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