Understanding What Motivates Your Workers

Following these simple management principles will help you get the most out of your employees

Understanding What Motivates Your Workers

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The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once observed that the only thing that is constant is change. That’s particularly true in today’s business world, and it’ll become even more so in the years ahead, as an estimated 85 million baby boomers begin to either retire or take on reduced job roles, paving the way for a seismic shift in managerial ranks.

In other words, get ready for a lot of new managers in workplaces nationwide, says Kirk Lawrence, a program director of executive development at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School.

With those facts in mind, Lawrence — who has more than 35 years' experience in leading both large and small organizations — says it’s more important than ever to make sure managers know how to effectively lead and communicate. That’s no small challenge, he says, noting that while many companies recognize there’s a causal relationship between developing strong leaders and organizational success, most also concede they’re not doing enough in terms of succession planning.

“The challenge is that it takes a heavy investment in time, people and money,” he says. “(Preparing managers) is a particularly timely topic for organizations interested in maintaining continuity — retaining the people who know your culture and strategies.”

For new managers who may find themselves on their own, Lawrence has developed five solid tips to consider as they embrace their new leadership role. The tips focus less on technical proficiencies and more on the human and emotional “soft skills” that truly set good managers apart.

“You have to understand people and what motivates them — how to get the most out of them,” he says. “Even in a small company with only 10 or 15 people, each individual responds differently to challenges, stress and incentives, and if you don’t understand the human aspects of all that, you kind of miss the boat.”

1. Be a good follower.

Unless you’re a workplace unicorn — that special, gifted person who’s a born leader — most leadership skills stem from experience gleaned while working your way up through an organization. As such, learning how to follow is invaluable to eventually becoming a manager.

“You’ve got to learn what it’s like to be in the trenches and get exposure to good and less-than-good leadership styles,” Lawrence says. “If you learn what it’s like to be a worker bee, you learn good managerial skills as a result.” 

And as counterintuitive as it may seem, experience with a bad leader can be just as valuable as the alternative.

“You’re a far better leader from being exposed to bad management, because you learn a lot about how not to treat people,” Lawrence says. 

In addition, he points out that people who are good followers (he calls it the practice of “followership”) pick up five essential skills from doing so: awareness, diplomacy, courage, collaboration and critical thinking.

2. Listen and learn.

Eager to make their mark, many new managers start out with the proverbial rush to judgment — a scorched-earth makeover of prior practices and processes.

“They jump to conclusions and question everything done by the previous manager, as well as criticize that manager,” Lawrence says.

His advice? Slow down and listen — you just might learn something by not trying to move the needle too quickly. Ask people what worked well and what didn’t. And never forget that 85% of learning is acquired by listening.

“If you take a step back and assess the playing field you’re on, you may find that you have good ideas, but the timing may not be right to implement them,” he says. “Don’t destroy the village while trying to save it by being too rash or questioning the competency of the person you replaced. You never know: That person might again be your boss or could even be a potential client. Be judicious with your comments and assessments.”

As you take in the lay of the land, it’s also important to figure out which employees you can trust — find out who’s credible and who’s not. And that’s something that can be gleaned from listening.

3. Practice the ethic of reciprocity.

This bit of advice could easily fall under the "everything I needed to know in life I learned in kindergarten" category. It’s also known as the golden rule: Treat others as you’d have them treat you. That’s an essential policy for managers, who should understand that a promotion to a position of authority doesn’t automatically guarantee the support of your employees. 

“If you treat people with respect and dignity and give them a sense of validation, you can get them to do things that are difficult and distasteful,” Lawrence says. “It doesn’t work all the time, but as a rule, it’s a pretty good principle.”

4. Don’t confuse likeability with respect.

This is especially true for managers who are promoted from within and end up leading the same people with whom they were sharing jokes at the water cooler before the promotion.

“Too many new managers want to be the cool person,” Lawrence says. “They think that if their employees like them, they’ll be able to make things happen. But it doesn’t always work out that way. 

“You can never forget you’re in a supervisory position. And if something goes south, they’re going to be out to save their own skins. You gain respect for your ability to be a good leader. If they know you’ll always be fair and listen to them, they’ll have the confidence to trust you when things don’t go well.” 

At times, every manager has to make unpopular decisions, and they’re tougher to make if you’re always out socializing with your direct reports and trying to be their best friend. But if you’ve built a culture of respect for your team, you can make those decisions and still maintain their trust.

“It’s OK to go and have a beer with your team,” Lawrence says. “But remember that you’re the boss — you have to maintain a little separation.”

5. You’re defined by your integrity.

Whatever you do, don’t compromise your integrity. Organizations that honor ethics and integrity experience less employee turnover, more engaged workers and higher levels of customer satisfaction, Lawrence says.   

“Compromising integrity is a slippery slope,” he says. “Once you fudge a number or are dishonest with a client, it becomes easier to do it again. And at the end of the day, everyone wants to do business with someone whose word is their bond.”

That means always doing the right thing — even when no one is looking.



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