How to motivate people

November 03, 2018

ONE of my past employers loved to gather all the troops together and rally our support. “Competition is getting fiercer!” he would boom. “I am asking for your commitment to work harder!” Then I overheard one rank-and-file employee behind me muttering, “What’s in it for us?”

Well, let’s backtrack a bit. The best way to motivate people is to have a great relationship with them. If your workers know and feel that you genuinely care for them, generally they would go the extra mile for you. Conversely, without emotional investment, it would be hard to hurl a one-sided challenge where the only clear beneficiary is you. But what if you’re just starting out as a supervisor? Or what if you are not close to the worker you seek to motivate?

First, I would ask him about his role in the organization. Is he a planner? A machine operator? A dispatcher? And then I ask him a little bit about himself. Is he married? How many kids does he have? Are they still studying? I show that I listen because it is an effective way to erode resistance, to make a connection, and to earn the right to be heard when it’s my turn to speak.

Then, I pose this question: “What is it in your job that makes you happy?” I can tell you that not one worker answered, “the paycheck” -- let alone the smart-alecky quip -- ”well, a raise would make me happy.” Of course, I am not naïve to think that wages are not a serious concern. As time goes by, I can always peg the issue of pay scales and merit increases to performance. For now, I will assume that their answers came from their hearts.

In my experience, three answers stood out: “The opportunity to learn more…” “The ability to provide for my family…” “The camaraderie with my fellow workers...”

When you know what motivates your people, you can pull the right levers. There’s this particular guy in my team named Ruben who loves to learn and teach. His job as a machine operator can be potentially boring. He loves it when he would learn something new and apply it to his work. So, what did I do? I arranged technical and soft-skill training programs for my team and made sure Ruben was there, front and center. Then, I asked him to cascade his learning to the junior operators. He has been happy ever since.

Sometimes you have to use a little psychology. One time, our company sponsored a workshop on statistical analysis. Now you and I know the difference between a sigma and a stigma, but here you are talking about operators who may not even know Algebra.

So I told the guys, “After the workshop you will have a fancy diploma. Can you imagine hanging it on a wall and telling your son or your daughter, ‘See? Your dad’s a somebody. Any time you need help about statistics, you come to me, okay?’” I wanted the operators to become heroes to their kids. A few months later, those guys were doing projects for process improvement using mathematical tools they never knew before.

What if you don’t really know what makes your colleagues tick? The Golden Rule is ... well, golden. How do you want your boss to motivate you? Then, do the same to others. I have learned to tell my workers: “Thank you.” “Good job!” “I appreciate that you...” Mark Twain famously said, “I can live for two months on a good compliment.” The payoff? When I needed them to give me an extra mile, they gave me two.

So, what’s in it for your people to work for you?

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