A Foolproof Tool for Motivating Your Team (and Yourself)

Ten years ago, I was managing a team of talented marketers at Yahoo! when something unexpected happened. In a one-on-one meeting, a woman on my team said to me, “I wanted you to know that if I ever do a really good job, just pay me more money. I don’t care about recognition or awards and I’m not motivated by praise. If I do well, just give me a bonus or pay me more.”

I stuttered through a response while feeling a bit taken aback by her comments. They seemed, well, a little crass.

But then, as I thought about it more overnight, I realized something: if this team member hadn’t told me what motivated her, I’d likely never know. What’s worse, I might try to reward her for good work in a way that would be motivating for me but not at all for her, leaving her frustrated and less likely to perform well in the future. It would be a lose-lose situation.

In fact, I thought, if I wanted her to be happy and productive in her job, the most helpful tools I could have in order to ensure her happiness were the details of what motivated her. This is true in other relationships, too. It is often referred to as the “platinum” rule: instead of using the “golden” rule of treating other people as you would like to be treated, treat them as they would like to be treated.

(As a side note, this practice is also useful outside of work. Here’s one real example from my own life: I personally love to be doted on when I’m sick, while my husband generally likes to be left alone. For the first few years of our relationship, he ignored me when I was sick, and I fussed over him to no end. Both of us were upset, until we realized we were making faulty assumptions about what the other person wanted based on our own preferences. Now that we’ve figured this out, things work much better!)

So, based on this illuminating conversation at the office, I decided that the best way to keep people happy at work was to start directly asking all the people on my teams what motivated them. To do so effectively, I created a tool: The Motivational Pie Chart. (Yes, it’s a pie chart, not real pie, so apologies to those who thought this would be an article about motivating your team with pie. Though, to be honest, that certainly works sometimes too….)

Using the tool is easy. You just follow these three steps:

Write down categories for everything that motivates you at work: recognition, money, learning new things, etc. You can write as many or as few things as you want and there are no pre-set categories. Anything that matters to you can go on your list.

Give each category a percentage weighting in order of its importance to you. The total weightings should add up to 100%, thus giving you a comprehensive pie chart of the things that motivate you.

Use a “red, yellow, green” color coding system to rate how satisfied you currently are with each of the categories on the list. If you are very satisfied with your compensation, give it a green. If you are completely dissatisfied with how challenged you feel in your job, give that a red, and so on.

If you are using the tool as a manager, the next step is to have an open conversation with each person on your team to talk about ways you can work together to “get them to green” on all of their categories. If you are using the tool for yourself, it can help you think about steps to take to make yourself happier at work, including thoughts about whether you are in the right role or at the right company. The reason the tool is foolproof is because it starts with asking each individual what matters and then helping each person find ways to do more of what matters.

Since that original conversation, I’ve used this tool with nearly a thousand people at four companies, and I’ve learned two important things:

1. People are really different.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but vastly different things motivate different people. Every time I do this exercise, I encounter something new. I’ve heard everything from people being passionate about hobbies (rock climbing, singing, etc.) that require them to have flexible work hours, to people saying they are motivated by external recognition and wanting to be on the cover of a magazine. I would never have known about these specific motivators for people if I hadn’t invited them to share. Good managers understand that the individuals on their teams are just that: individuals, with different interests and needs.

2. People are more similar than you’d think.

Despite all those differences, I’ve seen common patterns emerge that point at a few key motivational factors for most people.

They want “worthwhile work,” so they can know they’re doing something important and deserving of their time and energy.

They want to understand how their personal contribution is important to the goals of the organization.

They want to work with a team of people they admire and care about.

They want to learn new things and feel challenged by their jobs.

Are those common patterns surprising? They were for me at first. Perhaps partly because of that initial wake-up conversation I had at Yahoo!, I thought classic motivators like title and compensation would come up more, but for most people, they seem to make up a much smaller portion of the motivational pie.

The exception, of course, is that when people feel they are being paid significantly less than they are worth, they will often cite money as their top motivator. It’s analogous to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: once people feel their basic needs are being met financially, and that they are paid fairly for their capabilities, then they quickly move on to focusing on motivators like meaning, collegiality and learning. Note that the pie chart can and does change over time. That is to be expected – just as our careers change, so do our motivations.

This tool can be incredibly useful, both for productive conversations between managers and their direct reports and at the company level to extract patterns of what matters across large numbers of your staff. At Change.org, we’ve taken these patterns of common motivators and built them into our company culture. To connect people to worthwhile work, we host an all-team call once a week where everyone in the company joins to share and learn about the incredible impact our 40 million users are making every day around the world. To help with building connections with colleagues and learning new things, we are starting a program to encourage staff members to shadow someone from another team for the day to build stronger relationships while picking up new skills. And we’re taking learning a step further, giving each employee access to free language training. (With staff in 18 countries, it’s also an essential team-building initiative!)

How could your company use the motivational pie chart to improve how it serves its employees? How could you use it personally or as a manager? Share your plan in the comments – and if you do give the chart a shot, let me know afterward what motivates you and your teams!

Source: Jennifer Dulski @jdulski

Jennifer Dulski is president and COO of Change.org, the world’s largest platform for social change. With 40 million users around the world, Change.org empowers people everywhere to create the change they want to see.

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