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Stop Trying to Motivate and Start Trying to Help

Leadership, leadership, leadership—that’s all you hear about today. It is fashionable to call executives, managers and supervisors “leaders.” Most of us know that people are promoted to management because they are either smart or good or both.They are not leaders—men and women with visionary foresight, integrity, character, and moral authority.

Most managers are average Joes—fallible, overstressed, and trying their best.Yep, trying their best even though they are impatient with those who report to them—particularly the ones who just can’t seem to follow instructions or the ones who seem to botch up every thing that comes their way. You don’t feel like you are actually managing people, you feel like you are in charge of them—held responsible for whatever they decide to do—good or bad.

There are systems in place that are supposed to help you; you’ve been taught to use different kinds of strategies to influence your reports—to encourage them to do their best. But, secretly you know that all of them are working according to the kind of work ethic and personality they had when they were hired.You try to stay on top of the situation, but the company has so many other things for you to do that you barely get a chance to get out in the workplace—which, even if you could, you would not know what to do to “lead” anybody.

One thing you’ve heard a thousand times—recognize your employees for doing good work; use positive reinforcement—they will be happy and motivated and, most of all, they will like you. The company brochures talk about it, the company trainer teaches and promotes it, and your manager asks you if you are doing it…it’s a nightmare. You feel like a bad guy, because the idea of going out to tell people good things does not seem natural.

All you know is that it just does not feel comfortable—it just doesn’t seem genuine—it seems dishonest, to go out and say positive things to people when they have done something you used to do without expecting or wanting any recognition. They know it is company policy—that all the supervisors are required to do it. It’s like some kind of weird game where everybody falls in line; don’t make waves, just do what you’re told. Say thank you to everybody.

Actually, it makes you mad to think that you have to positively reinforce people for doing what they are paid to do; you think, maybe I have the wrong attitude to be a supervisor; maybe I’m not cut out to coach others. I didn't need any coaching myself. I’m doing well in every other aspect of this job. But, the people side of this thing is making me feel like a failure.

Since I have taught thousands of supervisors and managers how to use positive reinforcement, I think I can say without fear of contradiction that if you have similar feelings, you are the rule, not the exception. Most supervisors are somewhat uncomfortable with the people-side of their jobs. You know you are not supposed to be negative, but what do you do when your employees don’t do what they are trained, instructed, and paid to do? How do you positively reinforce an employee for something good they did, when most of the time they do what they are paid to do, but you don’t see anything that can be singled out as worthy of a special comment.

Sometimes, you wind up doing nothing when people are not performing--when you know you should be disciplining or correcting them. Your manager has repeatedly reminded you not to be negative--be positive. It seems like the whole program is to ignore poor performers and intermittently give out some conspicuous public awards. The public recognition game is another practice that seems awkward and insincere much of the time. Like, everybody is trying too hard to find something good to say or something worthy of a plaque or certificate. Keep everybody happy. Don't make waves.

Stop Trying to Do Something to “Motivate” Your Reports

Often, supervisors only talk to an employee when there is some type of work related problem. For this reason, the supervisor is constantly paired with bad news. Seeing your supervisor headed your way is like opening the mailbox and seeing a letter from the IRS; you just feel that what is about to follow is not good news.

You cannot really positively reinforce anyone, unless your comments mean something to them, unless you have a productive relationship with them. If you have a history of only discussing problems, critiquing, pointing out errors and shortcomings—then you cannot come around intermittently and say something good about what someone did or achieved and expect them to melt with happiness. They think you are up to something—they are suspicious. And, you are not too happy either because you feel their distrust; the tension is mutually perceived. It just doesn’t work.

I have some good news. Recent research has disclosed that supervisors do not have to fit into the old “people skills” stereotype to have the highest performing, happiest employees. When researchers observed managers over several months and recorded their behavior, they found that there are very specific things that the highest performing supervisors (those supervisors who consistently had the most profitable departments) did—things that were more important than their personality profiles, traits, or other attributes. These behaviors were consistent across industries, geography—even the best coaches did them.

The Best Supervisors Simply Talk to Their People

    1. The supervisors with the best records of motivating others to excel and perform make it a point to be where the work is happening; they walk among their employees. They amble and peruse and observe. Amongst the activities, they look and ask questions. They are casual; they don’t carry a clipboard or take notes. They monitor the work and find out how things are going. And, they make it a point not to look for just problems. They do not ask questions meant to trap employees in order to correct them for an infraction.They just talk to people.

      Stop trying to motivate your reports (if you were trying, that is).Start trying to have a conversation with your employees while they are working; it’s what you might call real-time supervision. It is a form of work-sampling—being there to watch the employee do their jobs—interact with the equipment, the product, and the customer. The best supervisors find a way to be there when their employees are doing the job.
    2. During daily visits, the highest performing supervisors have natural, casual conversations about the work, the equipment, resources, tools, schedules—anything that might influence the employee’s performance. And, most importantly, the supervisors make comments about what the employee has done—some positive, some neutral, and some corrective.

A positive comment might sound like, “That will work,” or “It’s a good start,” or “We got to try to do it that way every time,” or “OK,” or “That’s going to save us a bunch of time.” The point is, positive reinforcement does not have to be staged or artificial sounding; in fact, high-sounding praise may come across as less than sincere. To build a relationship with an employee to the point where he trusts your comments requires a history of interactions—interactions that have natural mix of positives, neutrals and corrective statements.

    1. Get out of the office and into the work area
    2. Stop and talk with everyone you can
    3. Ask if they need anything—find out what’s going on.
    4. Give them any instructions that will help
    5. Let them know their work is important
    6. If something looks good, say—“looks good.”
    7. Don’t preach, insincerely compliment, or try any tactics.
    8. Give them feedback on their performance when appropriate—what they did that helped; what needs to be changed.
    9. Talk to them like a human, not like an authority figure.

Remember, you’re job is to help them succeed.They don’t like being reminded that they are “subordinates,” so don’t talk to them using words, gestures, or body language that makes them feel that way.

The model to keep ever-present in your mind is something like this—if someone were talking to me about this, how would I want them to say it?