7 Questions to Bring Out the Best in People

Based on 75-year-old Psychology Advice.

Jake Wilder
Feb 23, 2018 · 8 min read

How much of yourself did you leave in the trunk of your car today?

A coworker retired this month. In his life, he started a charity, worked with under-privileged kids, wrote a novel, and raised a beautiful family.

That’s what he did outside of work. At work? He processed forms.

He led a great life. And he was a great man. Yet every day, he drove to work, and left that great part of himself in the trunk of his car.

So he could process forms.

This isn’t a unique story. People are amazing. They do tremendous things.

Talk to the people around you. They’re artists and poets. They’re coaches and leaders. They’re social workers and political advocates and lifelong learners.

They’re all these things and more. On their free time.

At work? At work, they process forms. They follow procedures. And they do what’s asked of them.

Except what’s asked of them isn’t that impressive. Not compared to what they’re capable of.

How do we change this? How do we encourage people to be their best selves at work?

How do we, to paraphrase Harry Davis of the University of Chicago, “make it so people don’t leave parts of themselves in the trunk of their car?”

And I think that maybe the answer lies in a 75 year-old psychology paper.

A Psychological Turning Point

In 1943, the practice changed. One psychologist issued a paper called A Theory of Human Motivation and forever altered psychology’s path. Instead of studying the mentally ill, he reviewed top performers. Instead of correcting problems, he offered opportunities for improvements.

He changed psychology from treating people as a “bag of symptoms” to focus on people’s potential for good, famously saying, “The new age which is already upon us is essentially the product of the turning inward to the self.”

The psychologist was Abraham Maslow. And he developed the famed Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Often shown as a pyramid, it suggests people have multiple levels of needs, with higher level needs (self esteem and self-actualization) only becoming a priority after basic needs (safety and security) are met.

Maslow considered the lower levels of the pyramid to be “deficiency needs” as we’re typically motivated by their absence. Once gained to a sufficient level, their motivational power drops. And as we all know, once you have $45 million in the bank, going up to $46 million doesn’t bring a lot of added incentive.

In contrast, the top level, self-actualization, is a “growth need.” When we’re pursuing something for the sake of mastery, each gain fuels the desire for more. Each achievement brings more motivation as we strive to reach our full potential.

Which also drives people to do the amazing things they do.

The Traditional Bargain

“Our world no longer fairly compensates people who are cogs in a giant machine.” — Seth Godin, Linchpin

Most companies offer a bargain. They say, come here and follow our instructions. Do as we tell you. In return, we’ll take care of you.

We’ll give you money. We’ll give you security. We’ll even host company events so you can make friends.

And it’s safe. If you’re following our process, you’re not really risking yourself. Come take the safe deal. It comes with your very own cubicle.

It’s enticing. Well, maybe not the cubicle part. But the safety, the security, the belonging. Those are seductive. It’s difficult to look past those.

That’s why companies focus on them. And that’s also why the majority of people are disengaged at work. And why they leave so much of themselves in the trunk of their car.

Aim for the Higher Level

Are you only offering those lower level needs?

Make no mistake, people need fair, competitive wages. While a lot of people will tell you that money won’t make you happy, those people always seem to have enough.

People need stability. No one likes working under constant threat of layoff.

And people need belonging. As most people who work at conservative news programs know, it’s difficult to be happy working besides people you can’t respect.

These needs are important. They cannot be ignored.

But they are not enough. Not if we want people to bring their best selves to work.

As psychologist Barry Schwartz wrote, “If we design workplaces that permit people to find meaning in their work, we will be designing a human nature that values work.”

Lower level needs are the entrance fee. They’re the starting point. They need to be covered. But they’re not enough to motivate people to consistently bring their best selves to work.

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Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

Live the Questions

I don’t have the answers. And any that I offered would be too generic to apply to your specific situation.

But I do have questions. Questions that I’ve often asked other companies regarding this same issue. So ask yourself a couple. Or ask your own. And maybe they’ll help lead you to those answers.

Does anyone really care about your mission?

Most employees don’t care about shareholder benefits. Or company returns or any other fancy financial data. People want to understand that their work is contributing toward a greater benefit. One that they’re proud to be a part of.

What are you doing to make people feel proud of their contribution? If you’re asking people to give their all, what do you expect them to give their all for?

Or as Simon Sinek wrote, “If the leader of the organization can’t clearly articulate WHY the organization exists in terms beyond its products or services, then how does he expect the employees to know WHY to come to work?”

Can you connect peoples’ short-term goals to their long-term goals?

Everyone’s happy to help with the short-term goals. Short-term goals support the company’s needs. Write this report. Ship this product. Turn this crank.

And most companies do encourage people to have long-term goals. They’re happy to ask employees where they want to be in five years. But few companies actively plan to make sure those short-term actions contribute towards peoples’ long-term goals. To ensure today’s assignment will benefit that five year vision.

Employees know when a company invests in their development. They appreciate the support. But more importantly, they’re able to let that growth compound. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, through his work on Flow, described,

“When we choose a goal and invest ourselves in it to the limits of our concentration, whatever we do will be enjoyable. And once we have tasted this joy, we will redouble our efforts to taste it again. This is the way the self grows.”

How frequently do you give people the opportunity to truly contribute?

Meaning comes from constant pursuit. It’s the focus of consistently building on yesterday’s progress that drives fulfillment and brings out our best efforts.

The great Lou Holtz once said “If what you did yesterday seems big, you haven’t done anything today.” Are you giving people the opportunity to do something big today?

Or as Bruce Lee wrote in his unfinished work, In My Own Process,

“The maintenance of self-esteem is a continuous task that taxes all of the individual’s power and inner resources. We have to prove our worth and justify our existence anew each day.”

What problems do you trust people to solve?

Go to a grocery store. Bring an expired coupon. If a cashier refuses to accept it, complain to a manager. The manager then accepts it.

Most grocery stores instruct their cashiers not to accept expired coupons. But managers are instructed to honor them if people complain. Can you imagine a better way to show people that you they’re not trusted?

You hire people to be responsible. Let them be responsible. In the words of John J. Bernet, “Men are more important than tools. If you don’t believe so, put a good tool in the hands of a poor workman.”

How do you encourage employees to bring out their best ideas?

Standardization often gets a bad rap. We think of mindless factory workers soon to be replaced by machines. But standardization is also a benefit. It gives people guidance so they can reliably start from the best position.

The difference in mindless standardization and meaningful work is whether we’re empowering people to contribute their own ideas. Empowerment helps people contribute in their own unique way. When people are able to contribute their own unique value, they feel uniquely valued. Are we giving people that opportunity?

In the encouraging words of David Mamet, “Do not internalize the industrial model. You are not one of the myriad of interchangeable pieces, but a unique human being, and if you’ve got something to say, say it, and think well of yourself while you’re learning to say it better.”

How do you encourage people to practice excellence daily?

One of my favorite parts of Disney World — other than the fact that everyone has to be nice to me — is that every detail is always covered. You’re left with little doubt that excellence is a daily practice.

In our love of simplicity, too often we sacrifice the depth that’s necessary to encourage excellence. In the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, “I would not give a fig for simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

Until we give people the opportunity to embrace excellence, simplicity is just a short-cut. And few people find meaning in short-cuts.

How do you encourage people to grow?

Are you asking enough of your people?

There’s a limit to the shear quantity of workload that people can support. I’m not suggesting you load people up until they have a mental breakdown.

But are you limiting your expectations to mere productivity? Are you only asking people to come in and punch the clock? Or are you challenging their ability to make that unique contribution?

As Michelangelo famously warned, “The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”

The same logic applies to our expectations of others. We do them no favors by asking too little of them. We don’t build meaning by setting a low bar.

In the words of Kara Swisher, “Smart people like to be challenged and they like smart people challenging them.”

You’re smart. Challenge people. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

Build Meaning. Start Now. Don’t Look Back.

“Of all the virtues we can learn, no trait is more useful, more essential for survival, and more likely to improve the quality of life than the ability to transform adversity into an enjoyable challenge.” — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

I could tell you that the world is changing. That there will be a time in the near future when companies that can’t bring out the best from every employee will lose their competitive edge and no longer be tenable. But you’ve likely already heard that. And I don’t really know if it’s true.

So instead I’ll just ask, what type of company do you want to be a part of? One where people bring their best selves through the door? Or one where they leave that part in the trunk of their car?

There’s plenty of opportunity for the latter. We just need to get started.

Thanks, as always, for reading! What questions push you forward? I’d love to hear from you. And if you found this slightly helpful, I’d appreciate if you could clap it up👏 and help me share with more people. Cheers!


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Jake Wilder

Written by

Enemy of the Status Quo.


A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning. Selected as “Best of 2018” by Apple. Mission.org

Jake Wilder

Written by

Enemy of the Status Quo.


A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning. Selected as “Best of 2018” by Apple. Mission.org

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