There is No Substitute for Knowing Your People!

In This Article

(Click the links below to move easily to sections of this article)
My Rude Awakening to Employee Motivation
The Lesson on Motivation I Have Never Forgotten
Getting Help With Employee Motivation

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Today, I help managers with the people side of the business. As I share in my personal story, however, this is where I’ve traveled, but it is not where I began.

The truth is that as a young man I was promoted into management for my technical skills—not my people skills. Once I was promoted, I really thought that I was ready to manage people.

Boy, was I mistaken! I had much to learn and it did not take long for me to realize that I wasn’t prepared for the people side of management. It was humbling but I was determined to do better.

Some of my best leadership lessons came through taking responsibility for mistakes that I made and adapting my approach to get a better result. I share these lessons today in my management development work.

One of my first important lessons was on employee motivation and it came with some public humiliation.

So, what did I learn about motivation and how did I learn it?

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My Rude Awakening to Employee Motivation

the word "ouch" written in a comic font style

As I mentioned, one of my most important lessons was about motivation and it came with the following words from one of my team members:

Young man I need to talk to you!

I can still see “Jane’s” face and hear the frustration in her voice as she said these words to me. I knew she wasn’t happy with me about something but her outburst surprised me. As a twenty-something manager, I was struggling with the people skills area but it was less so with Jane. She knew the work, did her job well, required little interaction, and she respected me in my supervisory role.

That day was different though! Even though I was the same age as some of Jane’s children, she had never publicly called me “young man” before. I also never heard her address me in a tone that sounded like I was getting ready to be scolded. I knew something unpleasant was coming for me emotionally so I prepared myself.

What did I do wrong?

Well, I made a common management mistake with employee motivation. I rewarded Jane with something that I valued and not with something that she valued. Jane was the most dependable person in my finance unit. I began giving her more responsibility and moving her to a team lead role.  Jane complied and in her usual manner, she performed well. At the time, I was a bit impressed with myself and how I was starting to do better in the people skills area. Only, I wasn’t doing as well as I thought!

I may have been impressed with how I was working with Jane. Jane was unimpressed with me, however. She wanted none of my new plans for her and she was determined to make me hear her. I was shocked when she said the following:

“Listen, I do not want your job or to be your assistant supervisor.  

If I wanted your job, I would have taken it when they were trying to give it to me before you ever came here.

I have grandchildren and friends that I want to spend my time with.  I want to spend less time at work not more!”

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The Lesson on Motivation I Have Never Forgotten

As Jane unloaded her frustrations on me, she taught me a valuable management lesson that day.  It’s a lesson that I have never forgotten.

Here’s what she taught me that day:

As a manager, there’s no substitute for knowing your people.

Jane’s verbal and public spanking was good for me!

I learned from her that I needed to better understand each of the members on my team. I needed to reward them with what was important to them–not what was important to me. She taught me that rewards and motivation are individual. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to motivation.

Over the years, managers have asked me how they can determine what their individual team members value. I’ll tell you what I tell them. To know your people, you can start with effective communication: speak with each of your employees regularly, ask good open ended questions, and listen much more. (In fact, managers can improve their effectiveness across-the-board by just listening better.)

You can also silently observe your team members more in the workplace to learn what they value. Management by walking around is still a useful tool. To summarize, you can learn much about what motivates your team members when you make time to STOP – LOOK – LISTEN.

To lead your team effectively, there's no substitute for knowing your people. Share on X

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Getting Help With Employee Motivation

Fortunately, there’s even more help with getting employee motivation right! Over the years, researchers have identified several ways to improve employee motivation.

The research work of Dr. David McClelland with his Three Needs Theory provides a useful framework that managers can use to focus their employee motivation efforts. As you stop, look, and listen to your employees, you can assess your employees’ individual needs for achievement, power, and affiliation.

The research work of Dr. Abraham Maslow with his Hierarchy of Needs Theory provides a useful framework that managers can use to support their employees’ motivational needs. As you stop, look, and listen to your employees, you can assess where your employees’ individual needs fall in his hierarchy.

Finally, many researchers have done work on personality styles. As you stop, look, and listen to your employees, you can identify their individual personality styles and then use this information to motivate them effectively.

With this information, you can avoid the common leadership mistake of thinking that what is important to you is also important to your employees.

Motivation is not one-size-fits-all. It's individual! Share on X

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There’s no substitute for knowing your people. In fact, employee engagement and motivation are not possible without this information.  Jane taught me this important lesson years ago and I share it today.  Stop, look and listen to your people.  Give them the rewards that they value. With this approach, you’ll create a work environment where your employees will want to give you their best!

So, my question to you today is the following: How well do you know your people? If you do not really know much about them, it’s never too late to start learning. You can get started today!

If you want to improve workplace motivation, there's no substitute for knowing your people! Share on X

Written by Robert Tanner | Copyrighted Material | All Rights Reserved Worldwide

This article is accurate to the best of the author’s knowledge.
Content is for informational or educational purposes only and does not substitute for professional advice in business, management, legal, or human resource matters.

Robert Tanner, MBA

Welcome to my leadership blog. I'm the Founder & Principal Consultant of Business Consulting Solutions LLC, a certified practitioner of psychometric assessments, and a former Adjunct Professor of Management. As a leadership professional, I bring 20+ years of real world experience at all levels of management.

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