Motivating Your Team: Why the Golden Rule Doesn’t Always Apply

MotivationWe all have different preferences. My wife, Mary, watches sports. I watch nature shows. She roots for the Knicks. I root for the young impala dodging the cheetah. Occasionally, I surprise her with tickets to a game at Madison Square Garden. While she whoops and hollers, I get a beer and hot dog, and enjoy people watching, which is really just another nature show.

For all of us, our varying likes and dislikes are what make us interesting, but also what lead to some confusion. While we all know we are unique individuals, we also tend to think that we are each fairly normal. Therefore, we tend to think, ‘What motivates me, will motivate others.’ That’s where we get into trouble.

Some organizations are structured in a traditional linear fashion with clear lines of reporting. Others are a matrix structure, with lots of dotted lines and concentric circles of influence. The structure of our organization dictates to what degree we can demand performance from people and hold them accountable for delivering. But regardless of which structure we work in, we get better performance from people when we motivate them to do their best work.

At work, there are two general types of forces that influence our behavior – External Maintenance Factors and Internal Personal Motivators.

External Maintenance Factors

External Maintenance Factors are the elements that are largely dictated by others and over which we have little control. They include basic features of our employment, such as:

Salary – usually dictated by the market.

Benefits – provided on a company-wide basis, not particular to an individual.

Working conditions – determined by the nature of our work and the economics of our industry.

These elements keep us showing up each day, and play an important part in our commitment to doing our job well. When you are trying to influence someone to do her best job for you, whether you manage her directly or indirectly, it’s hard for you to leverage these factors because you don’t control them. If you help set someone’s bonus, that certainly is a powerful factor in influencing her behavior, but most of us as managers have a very limited ability to affect these factors.

Internal Personal Motivators

Internal Personal Motivators are those elements unique to each of us that keep us engaged. They keep us providing not just the minimum performance to get by, but motivate us to do our best on the job.

These “true motivators” include:

Achievement – which we each define differently.

Recognition – of our hard work and added value.

Foreseeable growth – whether in what we do or how we do it.

If you need to influence others, these are the factors you can leverage to get better results.

Each of us has what’s called “discretionary energy,” the effort and enthusiasm that we bring to work beyond what it takes to perform at the minimum level of expectation. If you effectively motivate those around you, they are more likely to expend that discretionary energy to do a better job for you. If you don’t pay attention to motivating others, they are likely to use that energy while at work to shop on-line, play ‘Words with Friends’ on their phone, or work on their resume.

Awareness of your own motivators is the first step in understanding how to motivate others. What keeps you engaged at work? My colleagues frequently come to me, unannounced, with complex questions, and ask for a few minutes to brainstorm. I enjoy the intellectual stimulation and the acknowledgement that I can help them. Frankly, I also like the interruption because I get bored easily. I expect people to say ‘thank you’ at the end of the meeting, but beyond that, I don’t have a high need for praise. Now, if I assume others are motivated by these same things, I will show up unannounced, distract them from their concentration, and then show only a modicum of appreciation. But, if the person I interrupt values respect for his or her schedule, time to thoroughly analyze an issue, and effusive praise after the fact, I have undermined his or her dedication to their role.

So ask yourself, ‘What keeps me engaged at work?’ Keep that list of attributes in mind.

Now think about someone that you need to motivate to do a better job. What factors motivate that person? Are they the same elements that motivate you? If not, how can you approach this person not as you want to be approached, but in a manner that works for her?

How can you figure out what motivates those around you? Ask. Whether during a performance review or in a less formal setting, checking in with someone about what keeps them engaged is the first step toward actually keeping them engaged. It’s not hard. Here are some simple starter questions.

  • What do you like about your current role? What don’t you like?
  • What keeps you engaged here at work?
  • What could I do to help you get the most out of your role?
  • What learning opportunities have you had lately?
  • What’s the hardest aspect of your job?
  • Asking these questions, and then listening well to the responses and asking follow up questions will help you understand how best to keep someone engaged.

Jack wants to motivate Jill to hike up the hill to fetch a pail of water because Jack likes physical exercise and the great outdoors. He says, ‘You’ll enjoy the crisp breeze and the chance to break a sweat.’ However, Jill’s idea of enjoying the great outdoors is to sit at the kitchen window with a glass of chardonnay watching the blue jays at the birdfeeder. Jack needs to try a different motivator. He’d be better off saying, ‘Why don’t I grab a blanket and a bottle of wine and we can enjoy the sunset from the hilltop?’

The Golden Rule has certain assumptions built in – that others want to be treated the way we want to be treated. That may be true on the most basic levels of fairness and human behavior.

But motivating others requires a more nuanced approach that steers away from the assumptions and toward an approach focused on the individual.

So, what motivates you?

Originally published on Forbes.com.

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