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The Single Most Motivating Factor

“I have this employee who can do the work, but just isn’t motivated. What can I do to motivate him (or her)?” I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard this question. I hear it in leadership workshops, I hear it from my coaching clients. It’s probably the most frustrating question leaders I know confront. It’s stood the test of time—the leaders in my first workshops 30 years ago asked it as frequently as managers do now.

My colleague and friend, Kathleen McSweeney, has one answer based on the research chronicled in Tom Peters and Bob Waterman’s classic In Search of Excellence. She told how a friend of hers had met Bob Waterman and asked him what he and Peters had learned about motivation. Waterman said that their research showed that the single most motivating factor for individuals is having their ideas adopted by management.

I’ve spent several hours recently listening to employees who are struggling to care. They are competent and capable. None of them believe they are recognized or appreciated for what they do. As they told their stories, I kept thinking about how simple it would be to reach them. It seemed that what they wanted most of all was for someone to pay attention to them, to recognize their contributions and to acknowledge what they did right. Each story was different, but they all boiled down to the simple human need to be valued.

Peters and Waterman exhorted managers to “catch them [their employees] doing something right.” Animal trainers know you get a much better response when you reward positive behavior and ignore bad behavior. Many leaders do the opposite—often unintentionally. I believe leaders spend far too much time managing their problems and too little time looking for and acknowledging what’s going well. Public recognition isn’t always important. Listening, asking for employees’ opinions, implementing their suggestions, thanking people for going the extra mile, giving people tasks they love doing—these are the things that matter. They show that you give your employees your undivided attention—often. It’s as true for senior leaders as it is for frontline employees.

How often do you catch your problem employee doing something right?

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