How I know what motivates my team

I’ve seen a lot of organizations spend a lot of time and money on trying to learn what makes their employees tick: extensive personality testing, group trust activities, professional coaching, tricky little quizzes. They do it for a myriad of reasons, most of them, I expect, coming from a place of good, wanting to find the best mix of people, helping different personalities work together efficiently, etc.

I’ve also seen a lot of the same organizations do little or nothing with this information once gathered. Despite the tests and the coaching and categorization of personality types into colors, dog breads or whatever, they treat everyone the same and they treat each other the same. Nothing really changes.

I find myself a bit mystified by that second part. If you’re going to go to all the trouble of quantifying your people, why not use the data for good? My guess is that when it comes down to it, you can’t quantify people. Not with 100% accuracy, anyway, any more than you can quantify the weather with 100% accuracy.

But I do think it’s important — nay vital— to reach for deeper understanding of what makes up the complex humans that share the majority of their waking time with you.

When confronted with the seemingly complex task of understanding what motivates, demotivates, excites and challenges my team, I decided rather than using a well-vetted human factors methodology to try something drastic:

I asked them.

I asked them some very basic questions:

  • Describe a few times you felt truly valued by the agency, and a few times you felt under-valued, or not valued at all.
  • In your own words, talk about what motivates you to come to work in the morning. What demotivates you?
  • What do you like about your current role, and what would you change?
  • What do you see as your next steps, your next big challenge?

I tossed these and a few more questions to everyone in the agency, gave them a couple weeks to think about it, then I sat with everyone individually to listen to what they had to say. I put my own thoughts together on where I thought they were headed and what might be next, but only shared that after they talked first, to whatever level of detail and specificity they felt was right for them.

What they had to say is between me and them, but since you’re going to ask, a few themes that came up were:

“I feel valued when I am trusted.”

“I am motivated by new challenges.”

“I’m want to take more ownership and to work with more independence.”

“I feel that my personal growth and the growth of the company are linked, and that’s a good thing.”

“I feel unmotivated by shifting expectations.”

“I feel undervalued when I have skills that can benefit the company that I haven’t been allowed to put to use — whether it’s in my job description or not.”

It’s amazing what people will tell you if you just shut the fuck up and listen for a while.

I know not every organization can benefit from this approach. I have a team of extraordinarily driven, energetic, hungry and talented people who get the most juice out of being given the freedom to push their own boundaries. So when I ask them to tell me what they think, they rise to the occasion every time.

But you might also consider that the reason those types of people come to work here is because I ask them what they think.

It’s not hard. In fact it was easy. And intense. And surprising. And inspiring. And enlightening. And we crashed through the 45 minutes set aside for each chat. I believe the longest one-on-one was 3 hours.

We only have 8 people in our company at the moment, so you might assume this is a luxury you can’t afford at your 50-person+ company. But if you think taking the time to sit and listen to the people you pin the success of your business on is a luxury, rethink that. It’s a privilege, and you will learn more from doing it than you can ever learn by classifying your people by colors or the type of car they think they might be.

Give it a whirl. All I can tell you is that it had an immeasurable impact on my understanding of how to make sure each of my precious team feels valued, appreciated, challenged, and fulfilled.

And if you don’t think understanding those things is important: good. I really hope you’re a competitor.

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