No Bad Jobs, Just Bad Attitudes Print E-mail
San Diego Reader

20061228(San Diego Reader December 28, 2006)

If you've walked the concourse at Lindbergh Field, on the way to baggage claim you may have noticed the wall-mounted advertisement, "Welcome to San Diego—Home of 7 of the nation's top professional speakers": Tony Alessandra, Rick Barrera, Ken Blanchard, Scott McKain, Brian Tracy, Jim Cathcart, and Denis Waitley (McKain now lives elsewhere).These are motivational speakers, and more than 100 live in San Diego. Though they are based locally, most have peripatetic lives: they fly in and out constantly to address corporate audiences in America and around the world. They maintain websites, publish books (some, business best sellers), and offer programs; the last are notorious for their quasi-scientific design and ecstatic promise: Rancho Santa Fe's Denis Waitley runs the Waitley Institute's "Seeds of Greatness System"; Carlsbad's Jim Cathcart oversees "The Grandma Factor—Lifetime Customer Loyalty." Del Mar's Tony Robbins, who has been the longest-running San Diego-based motivator, hosts TV spots that, according to his website, "have continuously aired on average every 30 minutes, 24 hours a day somewhere in North America" since 1989.

These gurus of success are hired to fire up the legions of underperforming and unmotivated workers, weary frontline soldiers who toil in the service industry, in corporations, in manufacturing, and more. Motivators and their programs are central to the $27 billion-a-year incentives industry. As "productivity consultants" they can be found carting pallet-loads of books and software to convention centers, where with rhetorical fervency they rouse the moribund. The up-and-coming speaker usually averages between $3000 and $5000 per keynote address and $2000 per day for workshops. Elite presenters like Jim Cathcart get $15,000 for a 90-minute presentation, $20,000 for three hours, and "call for quote" for an all-day gig. Costs for retreats and seminars, for one-on-one "executive" coaching sessions, are significantly higher.

What do they speak on? Usually the message is the same: through motivation and inspiration one can achieve success in one's personal and professional life. But the means of delivering that message are as different as the presenters. On his website, magician Khevin Barnes of Carlsbad promotes his keynote address as "empowering themes of imagination, creativity, and 'astonishmentality' [that] translate into success and productivity in the corporate world." He's joined onstage by Socrates, an animatronic bird who is Barnes's "alter ego and sassy side kick." Former news anchor, exerciser ("Keep Fit With Phoebe"), and "community affairs expert" from Channel 10 Phoebe Chongchua has written If the Trash Stinks, Take It Out!: 14 Worriless Principles for Your Success. Part of her keynote pitch, taken from her website, reads, "Attracting success starts with taking the trash out before it rots. Whether you're an executive, entrepreneur, employee or hardworking homemaker, veteran newscaster, Phoebe Chongchua takes you on an entertaining, informative and inspirational journey that will have you laughing, connecting with her and wanting to clean your own mental house."

Onstage, many motivators prowl the boards with evangelical fervor, lacking only the Good Book cradled in hand. They like to circle-thrust their fists into the air and shout "Yee-hah," but unlike Howard Dean the exclamation is never ruinous. They trademark their products and services, their logos and phrases. They saturate their infomercials with life-improvement testimonials. They are the go-to guys whose programs, complete with online surveys, video training manuals, and sales chops, companies in need of get-up-and-go energy get up and buy. They exude waves of lacquered affirmation (as do their minions) to anyone who'll listen, not because it's free advertising, but because it's their nature.

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Easily the biggest newcomer in the galaxy of the mega-motivators is the 40-year-old Irish immigrant Brian Buffini. Buffini runs Buffini and Company, the largest business training and coaching company in America, whose 17,000 clients are predominantly real estate agents and brokers. Buffini's office sits above the fabled flower fields in Carlsbad. The 80,000-square-foot building houses 270 workers on two floors. The place is quiet and orderly—with a full-service fitness room and yoga studio and health-oriented snack bar—but in some corners it's abuzz with activity. On a tour, one can hear some of the 200 "Buffini-certified coaches" who phone their 85 clients with advice, sort of like business therapists. Buffini sells two products: himself as a motivation speaker and the services of his motivational coaches. The idea, Buffini says in a newsletter article, is to "instruct, direct, and encourage people to achieve at their highest level possible."

Buffini came to San Diego in 1986 and began selling real estate for ReMax, the nation's largest broker. Buffini hated the usual system of finding clients—cold-calling and knocking on doors—so he tried his own: he asked those with whom he'd already worked for referrals. Buffini began sending clients tokens of appreciation each month as well as personal notes. Or he made a home visit—a pop-by, as he calls it—bringing along a gift—an item of value, as he calls it—like a dish towel or a bag of nuts or a screwdriver with a note, "Don't get screwed by another realtor. Oh, By the Way" (a phrase he's trademarked), "I'm never too busy for your referrals." One Buffini-coached agent, Angelina Feichko, hosts a "team pop-by" at Easter. According to Buffini's "Coaching Guide," published monthly in RISMedia's RealEstate magazine, she and her four female employees dress in white and "show up at a client's house in a minivan and jump out with our Easter bunny ears, delivering an Easter egg hunt directly to the client." Buffini hoped that such active reminders to his clients would mean they'd remember to refer their friends and family to him.

They did, by the truckload, and he became ReMax's biggest salesman. Next, Buffini decided to systemize his referral method and sell it to real estate agents. At first he sold the referral system as a program. Each month an agent pays for a gift package that contains items of value and Hallmark cards. Each month the agent delivers the gifts and cards, on which a personal note is inscribed, to the client. While gifts and notes may keep the agent in the client's thoughts, Buffini soon discovered that this would not, of itself, boost an agent's sales. Buffini needed a better sense of how the real estate agents he was helping were wired, perhaps to rewire them to be as positive and as dedicated as he was. So he and one of his brothers (all four have relocated to San Diego from Dublin and work at the company) developed the "heritage profile." According to Buffini's website, this "personality assessment" tool profiles an individual's "natural gifts and abilities"; it's used to "reveal how [agents] communicate, work, learn, and focus" and to target "the areas that can naturally trip you up."

With the heritage profile as a guide, Buffini hired people to coach agents to become better people. Coaches do one-on-one sessions with agents twice monthly by phone. The cost is $5000 per year. Buffini eventually expanded the coaching system to focus on the five elements, as he calls them, of his clients' lives: business, financial, spiritual, family, personal. Buffini's coaches advise clients to set goals (lose 25 pounds, save $10,000, find more time for family activities or spiritual practices) and then hold them accountable to those goals via their phone sessions.

The Irishman's rise to fame is richly dramatized in the promotional DVD, "Coaching the Good Life." It begins with rock music blaring and the Stars and Stripes waving, cuts to Buffini and family barbecuing at his Rancho Santa Fe home, after which he's driving his Lexus, hitting the golf ball, boarding his private jet, and leading, with a soft-edged Irish brogue, power seminars like "Mastermind" and "Turning Point," in which he stokes the fires of "personal growth." Buffini is, as his company members say, "huge," addressing packed halls twice monthly. In the video we hear the voice-over, "Brian Buffini may just be the happiest multimillionaire in San Diego. In 15 years he's made a fortune, lost a fortune, and then made another fortune teaching people how to make a fortune." At a rally, his throng cheers when he intones, "I believe a far-mel education can make you a living. But a self-education can make you a far-chin." (I asked a Buffini employee about attending a "Turning Point" seminar in San Diego and was told the event was sold out and reporters were not allowed in. I asked about interviewing a Buffini coach, but none responded.)

Buffini pushes his employees and his clients toward personal fortunes and company goals. In staff meetings, it's not uncommon, said several employees, to hear him or one of his brothers rouse the cadre. "What are our core values?" To which 100 supplicant voices recite, "Excellence is our minimum standard. If it's not excellent, don't do it. Always take the high road. Exceed your expectations, and win!" Followed by the big cheer. Another element is prayer. Buffini met his wife Beverly at Bible study, and Christianity is the de facto faith of the enterprise, as Rich Brennan told me. Brennan is the director of corporate wellness. I asked the superpositive, superfit Brennan whether Buffini or people in the company were drawn to any particular research in motivational or organizational psychology.

"Brian's research is so vast and he's such a book reader," Brennan said, "that he'll pull from all different styles of motivation. But the number-one motivator for Brian would be Jesus Christ. When you talk about referral, Jesus Christ was the number-one referral king of all time. He had 12 disciples, and He said, 'Hey, go get Me some referrals.' He's the most famous person in all history, and He built His entire business off of referrals, the largest referral network ever created off of 12 people." The people who work at Buffini and Company are called "servant leaders, yes, a Christian-based term," Brennan added. Byron Vardilos, the coaching business manager, who said he is also a Christian, told me that "the more people you can serve, the more you're gauged as a leader. It's like Jesus washing the disciples' feet—doing the mundane task of showing them how to serve each other." The company recognizes its servant leaders with monthly, quarterly, and yearly awards. Julieann Billings-Riordan, marketing communications manager, who agreed that the company has its Christian adherents, said that Buffini does not "discriminate against non-Christians." Bowed heads and group prayer do begin some meetings; a large flock of employees, many of whom are married to each other or are siblings, attend the same church.

In the lobby of the Carlsbad office, one of two statements painted in big letters high on the wall reads: "Our Mission: To Impact and Improve the Lives of People." On the DVD, we see this purpose apparently being put into practice as audience members file out of Buffini's presentations awakened and stunned. After his talks, Buffini says on the video that he will routinely hear someone say, "You've changed my life." "When I'm speaking onstage," he continues, "I'm able to relate to everybody. People will say, 'You were talking just to me.' And there were thousands of people in the room." It's probable that the people to whom he ministers motivation already believe that a sales guru can change their lives. This aptitude for change is key. Brennan drew a profile of the real-estate-agent personality whom Buffini is looking for and who is open to personal transformation: "They are free-spirited, relational, and people-oriented; not as introspective as others. They like the freedom to make their own schedules. They enjoy competition; they're good sports. They like to be part of a team," which sells houses and collects referrals.

Selling real estate is competitive and cyclical. Market ups and downs are common: currently, Southern California faces sluggish sales that will remain constant, some experts predict, until 2008. Too many will compete for a limited share of home sales. But the variable seasons of selling seem not to matter. Buffini gathers the survivalists: the competitive independence of the agent's work favors those who like living on the edge, without a steady salary or company-paid benefits. Buffini and his coaches stir the real-estate-agent type to succeed. You would think that such enterprising sorts would need no motivation. But they do. According to Brennan, as the market cools down, "This is the time when the true business professional rises to the top because he follows the same system whether the market is up or down. Buffini and Company will do better over the next few years with the market low than when it's high."

Has Buffini found a way to motivate agents to be more productive? According to a study by the National Association of Realtors, members of the association who had 26 years of experience selling homes averaged $92,600 annual income. When Buffini's Mike Lopez, director of coaching and events, tallied the score of their Buffini-coached agents, he found that those with 4 years' experience selling homes averaged $172,691. Has Buffini found a way to motivate agents to be happier in their personal lives and wealthier in their profession? Perhaps. One thing is clear: an agent needs to be of the real-estate-selling ilk—one who balances taking advice and making sales, seeking spiritual ends and making money—before he or she rides Buffini's system to the end of the rainbow.

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In contrast to Buffini's self-empowerment through coaching is the more sober motivational message of Bob Nelson, best-selling author, workshop presenter, and management consultant. Buffini and his team coach willing real estate agents; Nelson trains willing and unwilling managers. Any company, he says, can build a "culture of recognition." A culture of recognition is a proactive attitude that managers use to recognize good work. Instituting "recognition" programs often costs little or nothing and brings immediate changes in a company's productivity. Of Nelson's 20 books about motivation and recognition, his most popular is 1001 Ways to Reward Employees, which has sold more than 1.5 million copies. Most of his books are "100 percent examples." They feature a "Dummies"-style layout with graphs and tip boxes and sidebars and drawings of perky associates with lightbulbs radiating above their heads. No doubt you've seen a Bob Nelson book, with "1001" in the title, lying on your supervisor's credenza.

In conversation, the 50-year-old exudes a kind of boastful benevolence; like Jimmy Carter, he's an automatic smiler, crinkle lines etching the corners of his eyes. He acknowledges but hates it that the grumbling American worker "resonates around problems, mistakes, crises." Nelson lapses into motivation-speak much of the time, but it's never slickly sales-oriented like Tony Robbins. His austere Rancho Bernardo office, not far from his home, is more like a bare closet than a work space: there's a small storeroom for his books, a computer or two, and bare tables. He spends little time here; he's on the road almost 100 days a year. In his office, there's one on-site employee, while seven others sell and promote him via the Web from other locations. Nelson, wire-haired and goateed, sports a knit shirt with his (trademarked) insignia of a beaming, halo-wearing office worker. After establishing himself as a job counselor, Nelson moved to San Diego in 1985 and was hired by Ken Blanchard, coauthor of The One Minute Manager. Nelson helped craft the motivational "you-can-do-it" voice of The One Minute Manager (which has sold over 10 million copies and still sells 10,000 copies a month) as well as Blanchard's syndicated newspaper column, seven trade books, and several business textbooks. "I had five jobs with Ken," he said, "and each one was created for me." Largely due to Nelson's self-motivation.

Nelson earned his doctorate, in 2000, from the Peter F. Drucker Graduate School of Management at Claremont Graduate University. With guidance from Drucker, the father of modern management, Nelson studied "reinforcement theory," a dreary locution that Nelson translates quickly as "the most commonsensical thing: you get what you reward." As a graduate student, he spent three years creating and administering a study that would answer the question, "Why is it that so few managers recognize employees when they do good work?" He sorted managers who frequently recognized good work from those who didn't. He found that two-thirds of managers who infrequently recognized good work believed people needed no motivation on the job. These managers didn't subscribe to motivational logic. They believed money was enough to spur workers to produce. In addition, managers said they had no time to recognize workers; they felt unsupported, even unrecognized, by their own managers; they didn't want to "single out" their most deserving staff, which might provoke jealousy and backstabbing. They said things like, "I'm not going to coddle them; no one ever did this for me; people should pay their dues; I'm not going to fawn over this college kid; this is already a good place to work." Their beliefs can be intractable, suggestive of the brashness that shapes these managers' personalities and is often resistant to education, in college or at the office.

The top reason why managers recognize good work, Nelson learned, is that enthusiasm for others' accomplishments is central to their personality: to think well of friends, family, and employees and to encourage them are behavioral traits. From his study Nelson discovered a fundamental principle these positive-prone bosses were already using: "If you manage people, you're in charge of the motivational environment in which they work." Good managers—the most efficient, the most hands-on, the ones who are hired away by other companies—recognize good work at monthly and yearly intervals as well as every day. Good managers initiate rewards themselves with or without a budget or a program. And good managers are not dependent on being recognized by their superiors.

Armed with this knowledge, Nelson is called in to awaken the sleeping minions. The City of San Diego sought his aid in fixing a lackluster "Employee of the Month" program. "I was brought in in the late 1990s before the financial mess. I can't remember the exact fee." (Typically Nelson earns $12,500 to $15,000 per presentation, though his consulting fees vary.) At a meeting with city officials, when he asked what was wrong with the employee-of-the-month program, which covered 13,000 employees, "They said they didn't know—that's why they needed my input." As part of his response, Nelson chided them: " 'If that's your plan, I'd recommend prayer as a more effective approach.' I excused myself and sought feedback about the program from individuals in the same room. I introduced myself and asked if they used this program. The first person said, yes, he knew of it but would never use it since they had previously nominated several of their best people who were subsequently denied the honor by the central office. 'I'll never be humiliated like that again,' the person said. The second person said that she knew of the program but would never use it. She indicated that early on someone received the award that most people felt did not deserve it and thus wanted nothing to do with the program. This is what happens," Nelson continued, "when you try to institutionalize employee motivation. The idea of trying to select one person a month to honor is out of touch with the times. We don't need employees of the month as much as we need employees of the moment."

At Pizza Hut's annual convention, Nelson heard the franchise owners carp that they couldn't get good people anymore—it was a lousy job; the pay was minuscule; deliveries were growing more dangerous. Nelson stopped them, mid-grouse: " 'Wait a minute. How many people in this room once delivered pizzas in their own car?' " Nearly every hand went up. " 'How can you complain about something you once did willingly?' I have to reframe their thinking. They have to see that this is a job that leads to management or owning a franchise."

The IRS spent 18 months collecting data and interviewing managers to survey how well their organization was recognizing good work. They hired Nelson to study their findings and make recommendations. Nelson heard from the IRS that "it didn't matter what they offered" to their managers, whether it was catered weekend training retreats or a seminar (with motivational speakers) that taught practical methods for enlivening their positive energy: "Some managers would do it, and some would not." After Nelson pored over the survey results, he told them, "You've come to the right person: where you're giving up is my starting point. I don't think some people 'will do it and some people will not.' I know specifically why those people who don't, do not, and why those people who do, do. I can show you how to convert the non-doers into doers."

To activate the non-doers Nelson tells managers that (it's nothing personal) they lack creative vision; he's been asked to modify their behavior with 1001 fresh ideas. He instructs the managerial slackers, "I know you're busy, so here's what other busy managers do. Take a few moments at the end of the day and reflect on whose behavior or performance stood out, and jot them a note. Try to thank five people a day. Have a memory aid to do that. The president of Atlantic Consulting Group has a trick. He says, 'I put five coins in one pocket, and every time I praised somebody I moved one coin to the other pocket. After I worked on that for a couple weeks, I didn't need the coins anymore. I got the behavioral pattern down.' It's a technique. For some well-intentioned managers, if it clicks, they'll do it every day."

Another way to jumpstart non-engaged managers is to get them to think about employees differently. In three separate studies, by Bob Nelson, Ken Kovach, and Lawrence Lindahl, managers and employees ranked ten workplace incentives—both manager and worker were asked to respond to what the "employees wanted from their jobs." The managers consistently identified the top three factors as "good wages," "job security," and "promotion and/or growth opportunities"—each with a financial cost. These were not even close to what the workers said were their top three: "full appreciation for work done," "feeling 'in' on things," and a boss who is "sympathetic to my problems"—each without a financial cost. Managers and employees, Nelson said, are not on the same page. To get managers involved, Nelson insists that they survey their employees so they become aware of the schism between their assumptions of what their workers want and what their workers really want. The result is that when managers see what their employees value, the managers are more liable to participate in retraining themselves.

Then there's the managerial group Nelson calls the lurkers—those who wait to see whether others change before they will. The key to implementation is to have people who've started recognizing good work guide others. When "you create the story," others will follow. Nelson thinks that any company can reform its most diligently disengaged managers. He cited a hospital staff in Modesto who started a recognition program for which the bosses were trained. The first year the program was optional; the second year, it wasn't. "We asked you; now we're telling you. We're changing. You can be part of the change, or we can leave you behind." The mainstay of Nelson's ship is to hold the managers accountable. If, over time, managers fail to adapt, as a last resort, they're fired. The jaded, the cynical, those who long ago lost their motivation, are phased out or retired.

For 30 years, Gallup, best known for its public-opinion polls, has been tracking worker engagement in hundreds of American organizations and companies. Their yardstick is the employee engagement survey, or Q12. Administered by Gallup and bought by human resources departments, the Q12 asks employees 12 questions about work: "At work, do your opinions seem to count?" or "Is there someone at work who encourages your development?" Employees rank their responses on a weak-to-strong scale. The most recent finding of the Q12—based on 4.5 million workers at 332 worksites—reveals that 71 percent of those measured are either actively disengaged (16 percent) or not engaged (55 percent) at work.

Nelson has studied the Q12, and he agrees that there are lots of jobs, in customer service and retail, in warehouses and on assembly lines, that are uninspiring, repetitious, pay next to nothing, and go nowhere: no wonder seven in ten are not engaged. In fact, most low-skilled and low-paid workers find little intrinsic value in their labor. With such unrewarding jobs, how can we expect employees to perform better? How does a person in tech support, who talks with frustrated customers and is supposed to finish the call in four minutes, transition to the next caller with grace? How does a janitor who's paid minimum wage to clean toilets and has no opportunity to advance make an effort to go beyond what he's required to do? How does a bank teller who must tabulate dozens of checks or transactions per hour, a process in which clerical errors often occur, have the incentive to check her work?

Managers who recognize good work are especially critical when the work is not interesting or challenging. Somewhat contradictorily, Nelson believes that "all motivation is self-motivation"; but he also believes that a company has to "set up the conditions for them, their employees, to motivate themselves." If the company doesn't help its laborers feel good about themselves, most will be non-engaged or actively disengaged, which can mean sleepwalking through the job or sabotaging it. Workers whose wages and the nature of their work are not going to change may self-motivate, Nelson said, but only when they feel that their managers are their "coaches, colleagues, counselors, and even cheerleaders."

Time and again, Nelson has seen workers stop caring "because they don't see anyone else care." Managers should meet them "at their energy level—the place where they started the job. Employees have that initially: they want to be part of something larger than themselves. If you meet them at their first energy, you maintain it or build on it. If the organization doesn't meet them, over time that energy will drop off. They'll be disappointed and lose motivation. But it doesn't happen overnight."

In addition to recognition, Nelson believes that management, particularly executives, must respond with structural changes. Older workers or those who've been with a company a long time say they want managers to give them more flexibility, more challenge, more team orientation, and more personal responsibility, all factors that are more critical to staying with an employer than pay raises. One company that has responded is TRW, the credit-reporting business. At the Carmel Mountain office, TRW adopted the 9/80 plan: eight 9-hour days and one 8-hour day (totaling 80) so that the worker gets every other Friday off. Nelson said that in a national survey, twice monthly three-day weekends ranked higher with employees than better health-care coverage. "When the headhunters call the employees at TRW, they laugh and hang up: 'I'm not going anywhere.' "

In the end, work, love, and the boss are joined at the hip. "If you've got a good boss," Nelson iterated, "then you've got a good job." A good boss who approves of a worker's efforts and values his or her contributions may make coming to work more than tolerable. Once an employee is recognized daily, not just every other Friday, a sluggish storeroom or a glum counter may start to sing, a transformation Nelson has documented at least 1001 times.

* * *

In a conference room at the La Jolla Marriott, 200 employees, "business line leaders" of a local bank (which requested anonymity), have gathered to eat, network, inform themselves about the bank's latest products and services, compete for raffle prizes, and celebrate each other. It's the second annual "Development Network" event, an early-December quasi-Christmas party and testimonial, from 5:30 to 8:00. Women and men relax in their business attire; a daring few wear Santa hats, others suck on candy canes. A call to order, take your seats: it's the formal part of the program. When the sharing gets rolling, the repetition in every impromptu speech doesn't seem to matter: "market-share leaders" are introduced with an apocryphal golf story or a quick bio ("Lucy's been with us just two years"). They hustle onto the stage, take the mike, and recite phrases like "cost-effective benefits that accrue with employee-development networking." These leaders then recognize coworkers in the audience who've "made a difference"; a few mention the Chargers and recycle the football metaphor about "Jim's offense being every bit as good as his defense." The room is grandly trimmed: icicle-like chandeliers, walls with floor-to-ceiling mirrors, plush carpeting, well-dressed tables. Attendants with clasped hands guard the roast beef under a heat lamp; people keep getting up for desserts. Between boasts and toasts, the mistress of ceremonies reads the raffle numbers. Of the 35 prizes, she says, "You guys, these are really good gifts." This is the modern American employee recognition gala, whose centerpiece is a string of public confessions, honoring work buddies, staff, secretaries, even bosses, "not for their sales"—which are rewarded with cash and promotions at another event—but because "these folk were there when we needed them."

One man names his coworker, and the audience giddily cheers; then, mid-praise, he says, "I sincerely, sincerely mean that." Another says she's identifying those "impact players" on "my team" who've "made big contributions to our profile in the community." Still another is near tears when he intones, "I wouldn't be here if it weren't for --" He calls her name; she stands and acknowledges the applause with bemused timidity; he extends a hand to her as if he's about to launch into Tony Bennett's "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," karaoke. What I can get out of his general thanks is that the woman helped him finish his quarterly reports on time, and she did so with such regularity that he was able "to climb the corporate ladder" and is now much higher in the institution than he ever thought he would be, which has surprised him and which he now realizes he owes to her.

In the middle of all this "giving back," when it seems everyone is pretty equal—at least, for the evening—when it seems the group can't gel-as-one anymore, the program transitions to "Now it's time for our speaker." She's introduced as an "award-winning speaker whose audiences have fun learning to stay positive." She's spoken in 47 states, Canada, England, Mexico, Asia, and Iceland. Clients include Hewlett-Packard, Nokia, Kaiser Permanente, and WD-40. "Tonight, she's going to address 'How to Get More Done with Less Stress.' " Sarita Maybin.

Maybin steps onto the dais to a rousing welcome. She's a vivacious African-American woman whose "Good evening," followed by a pause for their response, works perfectly. They're primed for more positive energy, and she doesn't disappoint. She asks the crowd to complete the phrase: "If you can't say something nice" (a line she says she heard all the time from her mother), and the audience bellows in return, "then don't say anything at all." One shared so-true moment and she's got them. She asks for a show of hands, "How many of you watched the Charlie Brown Christmas special the other night?" A third of the hands go up. "So you know the voice of the teacher in that, the whomp-whomp." Giggles all around. "How you gonna deal with her, the one who's always saying no, who's making your life stressful? Whomp-whomp."

Before she can talk about how to deal with those nabobs of negativity, she needs to identify "our clients, our coworkers—or people at home—who cause us stress, who cause us angst, who push our buttons." She riffs on the idea: "We take a vacation to get away from these people and go halfway around the world, and there they are again." A tour guide leader, a flight attendant, the critical parent, the voice that says no, the attitude that says you can't. These people exist, and we have to deal with them. But the main thing that causes us stress, she says in a curious twist, is our own personality traits. The things we do to ourselves are the most important source of our stress. Really? Yes, really. And we are the people only we can do something about.

How does our character contribute to our stress? There are five types of stress-inducing personality: the perfectionist; the one who tries to fix or control others; the one who lacks priorities; the overanalyzer; and the people-pleaser. She asks the audience to turn to a neighbor, "to confess which one of these you are." This activity gets the room pulsing. Maybin comes off the dais and prowls the audience, eavesdropping and joking; back onstage, she says that she heard one or two reveal they're all five types. "That's okay to check more than one. I have to include myself in several." Before she defines the stress-manifesting qualities of each trait, she asks people to stand up and identify themselves. "Will the perfectionists please rise?" This is "so you can make a 'note to self': 'I always thought Troy was a perfectionist.' It's important to know about your colleagues and how their little buttons cause you stress." So the stress issues both from us and from others.

Maybin, dressed in a navy blue pants suit, glides assuredly across the stage, sometimes adding a swoop, a pause, and a fetching smile to snap home a point. The 48-year-old jokes, laughs at herself, points at people she calls by name (she arrives early, she tells me later, to "work the group for juicy nuggets," anecdotal material about employees she can use); she goes into the crowd, gets the audience kibitzing, gets them making notes and writing down the "one idea from today's presentation that you will use," tells personal stories about her 14-year-old daughter, whose view of life can be summed up in one word ("whatever"), and clips the air with memorable lines like "home is where we go when we're tired of being nice."

Why is the perfectionist on the list? "It's because," and her voice drops down an octave, "no one will help us." Big laugh. "The perfectionist supports the myth that 'I don't need any help. I've got it all together.' You know these people, am I right?" Every time the self-selecting members of each personality club are asked to stand, they do so, and the group buzzes like hurried hens. The largest categories are the perfectionist, the overanalyzer, and the people-pleaser: more than 50 people are on their feet. Only a dozen people get up to say they try to fix or control others, and only three (men) stand to acknowledge they lack priorities. For that bunch, which should be joined by dozens more (who are in denial), Maybin singles out their favorite line, "Someday, let's do lunch." Which never happens. "As my girlfriend likes to say, the road called Someday"—she stops and cocks her head—"ends up in a town called Nowhere." She directs us to tell our partner what our most coveted "someday" is. My neighbor says, "Someday, I'm going to be rich." To Maybin, one person says aloud, "Someday, I'm going to write a novel." "Yes!" Maybin exclaims. Another, "Someday, I'm going to clean the garage." "How uninspiring is that," she calls back.

After taking degrees in psychology and counseling, Maybin served at several back East colleges as a director of freshman activities. She loved giving tours and talking to hundreds of new, bewildered students. That career path brought her to UCSD and a job as acting dean of students at Fifth College in the early 1990s. An epiphany in 1993—"it was during the Rodney King uprising, and they wanted us to do riot control on the lawns, when I knew this job was not working for me anymore"—led her to begin a career as a public speaker. One half of her loves academics (she writes books: the newest, If You Can't Say Anything Nice, What Do You Say?), the other half, performing (she recently debuted with her salsa dancing class). During her academic years, she volunteered to speak whenever she could. Unlike the "normal" person, who's terrified of such exposure, Maybin says, "I felt the itch to do it more and more." Yes, most dislike speaking, "but I thrived on it." She recalls that "people would come up to me after a talk and say, 'You missed your calling. This is what you should be doing.' " She took their advice. Maybin, whose home office is in Oceanside and who flies to engagements two or three times per month, has worked for 13 years as a keynote workshop and event speaker, making $5500 for a keynote address. Her niche is the workplace, and her tagline is, "Helping People Work Together Better!" Onstage, she describes "a palpable energy between me and the audience—people are engaged, and I'm thinking, 'Wow!' "

Corporations typically call Maybin when change in the company—layoffs and restructuring—is dragging people down. "For me the real challenge is going in when there's drama, negativity, change—and have them walk out, after my speech, feeling like they have a few tools to empower themselves to move past the negativity." Part of her motivational strategy is to inquire of those who invite her (75 percent of her business is word-of-mouth) for specific direction. An example: one boss, who kept telling his workers not to use ALL CAPS when writing e-mails, said to Maybin, "I've been telling them and telling them, but they don't listen to me. Can you work that into your presentation?" She did, in her discussion of the pitfalls of nonoral communication. The practice ended, she later learned.

As a speaker, Maybin's main hurdle is, "How can I segue from what they're doing to where I need to be in my presentation? How can I connect with them where they're at?" Normally, people show up, having been "dragged to a mandatory training, with this look"—pinched, sour—"saying to themselves, 'What's she got to say?' and I've got to win them over right away. I think it's harder to go from giddy," as with a bank's recognition program, "to real than it is from negative," as with layoffs, "to real. If they're expecting just another speaker and I can be funny or engaging, then they start leaning forward."

Toward the end of her 30-minute talk to the bank crowd, Maybin reminds them that "You know, one little pep talk, one little workshop, one little motivational speech doesn't mean that you can change anyone." Even yourself. That's a much bigger project. The slump in the room is not exactly audible, but it's there. Maybin tells me later that she said this because, although she can inspire people, she doesn't want to mislead them. "I would really like to know what happens tomorrow, when they have to go back to that same boss or boring job." She thinks that despite the recognition programs, where most network and make promises, workers revert to the same old, same old the next day. Since change is unlikely, she says she tries to give them practical advice to deal with entrenched ways of thinking and speaking.

The most efficient way to change the workplace, she believes, is to change its everyday language, to say things nicely but firmly, with direction and emphasis—and the fewest times possible. For example, how to say no, nicely: "Thank you for thinking of me, but I choose not to." "I'm sure you'll do a terrific job on that project, but I don't have the time to help you." Be clear, be real, don't equivocate, don't promise what you can't do. She does lots of role-playing in her all-day workshops to model new behaviors. When she includes her "top-ten communication phrases," she'll hear from her clients, say a month after the event, that those phrases are posted on a person's door or above her computer. If employees can practice what she offers in the workplace immediately, through her lens, then she believes her message will stick. "Instead of us trying to push our ideas down their throats, the power is in the processing," that is, by the employees who participate with it during and after the motivational session.

After Maybin's performance and after the prizes are gone, she's standing with well-wishers who, because she's been forthcoming about her life, confide in her about theirs. Later, I note that there's something about her celebrity, her openness, that draws people to her. She agrees. "One of the best-kept secrets about being a good speaker is you have to be a good listener. I try not to just talk at them, but I relate to what they're saying, pulling in their comments as I go. That way I make it more real." She says she gives the impression that she cares "because I do care. It may seem that I'm feeding off the energy of the group, and it may seem that it's all about me and that I love all the attention. But it's not about me; it's really about the audience."

Maybe all a motivator can do is be "fully present in the moment"—the positive energy, the disarming humor, and the schmaltzy phrases at company-sponsored lovefests are like any pleasure, purely temporary. "That's right," Maybin says. "We plant the seeds for them to contemplate or reexamine what they're doing. But they'll take that information and use it in their own good time. People change, all the time. It's only when individuals get good and ready to change that they do. I also think people change but only because they feel a need to, not because of something that's done to them." As for the millions in dead-end jobs, Maybin, whose most grueling set of workshops was with the United States Postal Service, says, "They have to remember it's just a job; it's not their life. I always speak as a recovering workaholic—at one point, all I had was my job. So I try to impart to people who are stuck, 'You can't change your boss, you can't change your duties, you can't change the company, but you sure can make choices about what you do around that and outside of that.' "

For those who stay and share enthusiasm with Maybin afterwards, they seem to be saying that it's events like this that make working for this bank worthwhile. Office work is difficult, sometimes rewarding, sometimes not, preset in ways that may change but only in geologic time. Thus, the camaraderie created by "Development Network" makes more difference when they return to work than any outsider can know. "Yeah, their chumminess felt genuine," Maybin says. The best evaluation she's got is when "people leave my workshops and say they left feeling like they could do anything they set their minds to."