Motivation by Management


Motivation can be hard to come by. Some days, you just feel inspired and all the work gets done – other days, why even bother showing up? One thing that is consistently true, though, is that management plays a big part of whether or not you feel motivated to show up and put in that effort.

A few things I need to say up front: This entry represents my personal opinion based on my professional career. It doesn’t represent the opinion of my company, etc., etc., etc. And should you be reading this from my company and happen to be a manager type, even if you see some similarities in what I describe – not everything is about you.

The Problem

I should also tell you that I’m not a manager. I mean, on paper I have people that report to me but this was an oversight or a mistake as I understand it. I had a boss who thought I’d make a good manager so he put me in that role. Then he was removed from his position and it feels like every decision he made was undone. That left me in a sort of weird place where I have people reporting to me but I don’t actually manage them in any meaningful way. It’s … amazing.

This entry is not about that, though. This entry is about a different type of management problem that I’ve seen plenty of throughout the years. Let me give you an example…

I was attending a meeting recently for a super secret squirrel project. This was the first meeting for said project and it was one of my first dealings with an executive in my organization that I’ll call Bob. I can say, with all honesty, that I was excited to be involved in this project when I first heard about it and I remained excited until we had this meeting.

What happened to my excitement? Bob happened.

Bob did not try to motivate the team to come together or try to facilitate collaboration. In fact, when a couple engineers on the call were sharing opinions about a facet in the project, Bob stepped in. He stepped in to say, essentially, that sharing opinions was not the point of this meeting. We should have figured that out prior to this first meeting and we’re in this meeting only to share our findings.

But that wasn’t all, Bob kept going. Bob basically lays down what any normal engineer would see as a threat (not an exact quote but this is more-or-less how I heard it):

Listen, this is a high profile project. We’re going to involve a project manager to keep you accountable and any failure to meet assigned timelines will be known by all of the executives in the company.

Bob the Manager

Cool. My motivation sank. My desire to be a part of what was going to be a cool project died. And here’s the kicker: there’s no way out now.

Be Nice to Bob The Manager

I want to be fair to Bob the Manager. He didn’t mean what he said as a threat. In fact, I imagine that most people wouldn’t take it that way. They would simply say, “He’s just telling us the truth of the situation.” Okay, so maybe it’s my personality type that pushes me in that direction because I worry that dealing with someone that starts the conversation with an assumption of failure will ultimately put me on the bad side of executives. And in American business culture, being on the wrong side of an executive is enough to get you fired. I would prefer to not be fired.

I want to say here that I also have issues with how the project itself is being approached but I’ll cut out the specifics since I was trying to focus on motivation rather than project delivery. To sum up, though, it’s basically a project that seems doomed to failure where every executive is going to be made aware of your failure to deliver their desired vision. And the main executive in charge is already planning for your inevitable failure.

What’s This About Motivation Again?

Managers have the ability to inspire and lead their teams to do great things. For a long time, I felt like management was a waste of space – if everyone showed up to work and acted like an adult, the work would get done without a need for managers to get in the way. Over time, I’ve learned that managers do play an important role for their team. A good manager sets goals for their team and empowers that team to accomplish those goals.

And one more important thing: a manager shows up and explains how the team is contributing something good to the company and is being recognized for that contribution.

I don’t need to hear from a manager about how my potential future failure will be seen negatively by everyone in the C-suite. Not only is it completely unhelpful but you’ve just expressed to me that you are expecting me to fail.

What I want to hear is how the C-suite is monitoring the outcome of this project and has full confidence in this team to get the job done. I want to hear how we’re going to take this team of really smart people and put them in a room together and remove them from their normal day-to-day temporarily because this project is so important to the executives. Tell me about the potential impact to revenue or how you envision this work is going to help our clients.

What I don’t need to hear is how my future failure to deliver on something you can’t even fully describe is going to be seen by the executives.

What You Can Do Different

While I truly doubt anyone would read this and think, “I need to change my ways,” I figured it wouldn’t hurt to provide some tips. So, here you go, my suggestions on how to motivate your people:

Avoid negativity.

I’m not saying that you should hide the truth or be bubble-pop positive. You need to frame outcomes in terms of positive results. In my example meeting/project, the manager should have stated that the C-suite is invested in the outcome of our project and how important the project is to the company. Tie that importance to business objectives, revenue goals, or whatever. This makes it a positive experience and all the negativity about how executives will see our failures? Well, that’s implied. It’s just known. Of course they’re going to see if we fail because they are so invested.

When you say that failures will be seen by all levels, what you are actually implying is that you expect the people on the call to fail.

Have Specific, Reasonable, and Obtainable Goals.

Goals are important for a team because you need to have direction. You also need to be able to measure progress towards that direction. But goals need to be obtainable and reasonable or they’ll demotivate people. Whenever a goal seems too far out of reach, many people will give up. They’ll think, “I can’t ever get there, so why bother trying.” Specific to the example project I used for this blog, the main issue I see is this idea that people will create something great while also still delivering on their normal day-to-day jobs.

Many of the people involved are client facing, what do you think is going to take priority for them? Are they really going to drop something the client wants them to do in favor of this project? Oh, I know, you expected them to just put in extra hours and forgo their personal lives in order to do this work… You know, because the best work comes from people who are stressed and tired.

Anyway, when a goal is specific it can be measured. (Think: “Lose 10 pounds in 6 months” rather than “lose weight”.) When the goal is reasonable, it feels obtainable. (Think: “Write a short story and submit to publications/contests this month” rather than “write and publish a novel this month.”) When a goal is obtainable, it’s a lot easier to be motivated to reach for and achieve that goal.

Encourage Collaboration and Teamwork.

It is important to allow conversation and collaboration amongst a team. People need to feel like they are contributing to the team and, frankly, everyone needs a little peer pressure. You will work harder when you know there’s a team of people, that you respect, counting on you to get the job done. Also, all that conversation will help ensure that the best ideas bubble up and are the ones that move forward – assuming people feel empowered to speak up.

The End

Again, this was just an opinion and I have plenty more! So should you see me at a conference and want to discuss this more in-depth, let’s do it!

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