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Kelly Graves


Seven Steps to Better Performance

Coaching employees to motivate themselves

Published: Wednesday, September 2, 2015 - 10:17

What lasts longer, an expensive motivational speaker or a cup of espresso? It’s about the same, but the espresso provides a much better return on investment. You see, from a behavioral standpoint, you can’t motivate me, and I can’t motivate you. However, people can and do motivate themselves, and the steps outlined below will help managers to coach themselves and others.

A few years ago I was involved in a company merger. Company A had purchased company B, and many of the company B employees were going to be laid off within six months. My job was to help the managers motivate themselves as well as the employees in company B while continuing to maintain production levels and delivery schedules.

I started off by respecting people and listening to their fears, concerns, and frustrations. The next step was to outline a realistic production plan that everyone could support, given the dire situation. The last step was to find and maintain a healthy balance between these two issues. I held meetings with small groups of 10 or fewer people, and asked them for their ideas about how to go through this transition. Slowly the conversations turned from venting to finding solutions to the challenges facing them as individuals and the organization as a whole.

As the transition consultant, I had knowledge and experience that the managers and employees didn’t. At the same time, the managers had experience in the organization and knowledge about production schedules that neither I nor the employees knew about. And then, the employees had knowledge about how to run the machines and make the product. The key was to gather all of this information and use bits and pieces from each individual or group so that everyone worked toward the same goals, to solve problems quickly with as little friction as possible.

The transition was successful because we gained support and buy-in from everyone involved, and thereby gathered valuable input. Through respect, empathetic listening, and allocating an appropriate amount of time for people to come to terms with a life-altering event such as this, we were able sidestep the land mines of anger, fear, loss, and rejection that might have sabotaged this company. Listening, acknowledging, honestly answering questions, and involving people in problem solving, helped management and employees develop a bit more trust. In the end we were successful in maintaining production levels as well as helping people transition to new jobs and training programs.

During chaotic and challenging situations, leaders often assume that they must project the image of having all the answers. Actually, what is needed at times like these is the ability to slow down, connect with your people, and involve them in the process. The answers you seek are housed within the human talent that you have cultivated over the years. Your job as a leader is to encourage them to share this point of view with you, and to listen. Because of their daily duties, they have a point of view that you can’t easily see on your own. Many employees know the product, machines, and customer better than anyone else in the organization because they work with these variables every day. They often know how to improve processes and where cost savings can come from—yes, even the tough cost-savings measures.

When I’m asked to work with an organization that is in “free-fall,” there are many symptoms that may cloud, hide, or distort the real problems. The vast majority of the time, the real culprit is poor or nearly nonexistent communication, which severely damages trust between people and departments. In my experience, the building blocks needed to help an organization in the journey back to profitability or transition to a better situation are much easier once people start communicating and discussing the real challenges facing them. If this step is taken, the organization and the people in it will be better positioned to direct their cumulative attention to the organizational objectives instead of wasting their time with finger-pointing and political maneuvering. The first step is to have people look in the mirror—at themselves.

Leaders need to create an environment of trust and two-way communication where intrinsic motivation can germinate and grow. What most people refer to as motivators are not motivators at all but “movers,” which are things like fear, money, love, hate, and group pressure, to name a few. But these carrot-and-stick tactics have proven to be inefficient because as soon as you remove the “stick,” the behavior stops. So then, what keeps people motivated when they are tired, angry, or can’t quite see the end result? What keeps people motivated when “the boss” leaves for the afternoon?

Motivation comes solely from within. However, we can create environments that are more conducive to motivation. The question then becomes, “How do we create an environment where people are encouraged to grow and perform?” In other words, how do we lead and manage people so that their intrinsic motivation and drive is perpetual?

Step one: It all boils down to self-interest

People grow and change when it’s in their best interest to do so. Great leaders and managers create reciprocity of interests, meaning that we serve each other’s best interests in our normal course of work.

Step two: Align organizational and individual goals

The key for leaders is to understand that self-interest varies from person to person due to:
• Different values
• Different behaviors and predispositions
• Different personal and cultural backgrounds
• Different career aspirations
• Different employment history and experiences

A blanket approach, like sending employees to a convention or generic standalone team-building workshops, are often a waste of money and time due to their superficial hit-and-run approach. Does any person or group change behavior after a four- or eight-hour event? No. It’s not possible. For consistent and continuous change to take root and grow into something substantial, leaders must create an environment where everyone has a chance to succeed.

Step three: Identify the self-interests of those you lead and manage

The first step is to understand who your people are, what naturally excites or interests them, and what’s important to them. Take the time to ask them these questions, and then take even more time to listen, comprehend, and apply this knowledge to future interactions. For some people, motivating factors may include on-site day care or flex time so they can attend school or family events. For others, it may be working evening or weekends to earn overtime hours because the family is saving to buy a house. From a behavioral standpoint, the No. 1 motivator for employees is to be listened to and valued as a contributing member of the team and organization. Again, it all boils down to self-interest.

Step four: Learn to speak their language

People may speak the same language, but that doesn’t mean they understand what is being said. Listen to the metaphors and analogies people use, and speak that language with them. One employee might reference water-skiing, another might volunteer at a hospital, and another’s world might revolve around grandchildren. Use these examples when explaining a new concept or when determining how to best develop these people.

Step five: Watch their behavior

You may have the right people but have them seated in the wrong place on the bus. For instance, some people are more enthusiastic and productive working with their hands; others work better within a group; others thrive on managing, guiding, coaching, and encouraging others; and still others may be at their best sitting quietly by themselves crunching numbers. They may think they want to be in management, but their behavior says differently. I have seen executives take their best worker, often the one who has been with the organization for the longest period of time, and make that person a manager. However, being a great machinist is one skill, while developing, coaching, and guiding a group of machinists to work as a unit is a totally different one. They each require distinct behavioral temperaments.

Step six: Analyze successes and failures

Determine why a particular worker achieved success in one setting and not in another. Is the person better managing others, working within a team, or working alone? Is he better at seeing the big picture and selling this to people, or adhering to structure and details?

Step seven: Never confuse their self-interest with your own

What motivates one person isn’t what necessarily motivates another. I’ve seen many leaders give raises in hopes of motivating people, but in the end, they just had wealthier, unhappy employees. Again, employees want to feel valued and respected. Money doesn’t hurt, but it’s not the be-all and end-all.

When there’s a call to motivate, remember this one basic tenet: People support that which they help create. Involving your people will give them a semblance of control and create profound buy-in and ownership over projects, processes, and their own self-esteem, which in turn will provide a huge boost to continued motivation and production levels alike.


About The Author

Kelly Graves’s picture

Kelly Graves

Kelly Graves is the CEO of Internal Business Solutions, which exists to help organizations overcome their most daunting challenges. The Internal Business Solutions team understands that most, if not all, organizational problems—whether technical, financial, structural, etc.—hinge on improving human communication and processes. Contact Graves at Kelly@InternalBusinessSolutions.com or call (530) 321-5309. Click here to sign up for his free newsletter.


Valuable Article

There are a dozen critical lessons noted here, Kelly, so thank you. Your emphasis on communication hit home with me. As someone responsible for internal and external communications, I can't tell you how many projects or initiatives have failed recently due to one or more team members NOT making it their responsibility to apprise the group, or organization, of their progress. Just as good documentation is the cornerstone of Good Manufacturing Practices, I propose that communication is the foundation for better employees, better products, and better companies.