What motivates Jane? (a.k.a. The Telepathy Game)

Jane can do better. You know she can; you’ve seen it. She’s usually one of your top performers.

Yet lately, that Jane has not been in residence. She’s not doing badly, by any stretch. But her usual “fire” has faded.

This morning you had the “Is everything OK? Anything wrong?” conversation with Jane. She smiled unconvincingly, insisting things were fundamentally fine. “I’ve just hit a bunch of low potential prospects in a row, I’m sure this coming month will be better.”

You scratch your head, brows furrowed. You ponder strategies to re-ignite Jane’s energy on your end-of-week commute home. Then resume your internal dialogue while on your evening jog. Is Jane disappointed in your recent sales territory assignments? Maybe she views them as reducing her autonomy or opportunities? While pushing your daughter on her swingset over the weekend, you wonder if you should have given Jane that raise last month, after all. Monday, you ask your colleague Mary over lunch what SHE does in such cases – what are her favorite motivational tactics?

In short, you pull your hair out trying to “read” Jane, her current issues, and what it might take to light a fire under her again.

The Telepathy Game

This scenario plays itself out over and over again each day across corporate America. Well-meaning managers play what I like to call The Telepathy Game. In the absence of hard data on what motivates employees like Jane or an ability to crawl inside their hearts and minds to find out first-hand, these managers often default to the Golden Rule. Motivate others…as you’d like to be motivated yourself.

But the well-meaning, kindergarten-taught Golden Rule often fails us. A de-motivated employee is likely suffering from a perceived loss of “what matters most” to them about their work and life. And “what matters most” can be startlingly different from one person to the next.

So, do I just ask?

Is it as easy, then, as STOPPING this crazy guessing game, and asking Jane “hey, what really matters most to you at work?”

In reality, no. That question is too theoretical, too out-of-left-field, and may involve answers Jane is reticent to articulate on the spot, such as “All I want is that extra $10,000” or “All I want is a manager who gives me space — you’re micromanaging me unnecessarily.”

My favorite tactic to sleuth out key motivators is a written exercise that can be done with your whole team OR with an individual — perhaps as she or he first joins your team. (Ideally before “low motivation” crises arise, but if not – after.)

One effective approach: The rank-ordered list

Step 1: Make a typed list of 12-15 things that could conceivably “matter most” to individuals as they reflect on all managers they’ve worked for over the course of their (short or long) careers. Here are 6 items to get you started:

I am MOST motivated and happy when a manager…

__________ expresses genuine appreciation for my ideas and contributions

__________ provides me with independence and autonomy

__________ is approachable, open, and listens well

__________ supports a healthy work/life balance

__________ helps me reach the compensation outcomes I desire

__________ gives me lots of opportunities to learn new things

Step 2: Ask a direct report to RANK ORDER all 12 or 15 items in order of importance to them. Remind them this exercise is about what they have found motivating based on experiences with ALL the managers they’ve experienced (even including that guy who ran the pool where they were a lifeguard!). If there are 15 items on your list, each number from 1 to 15 must be placed in front of one item. #1 is the thing that matters MOST to someone at work, #2 is the next most important thing. #15 might matter too, but it is the least important of all items on your list.

Step 3: Meet 1-on-1 with each surveyed employee to discuss their rank-ordered items. Let them know you want to be the best manager possible for them, which means hearing more about the things that matter most to them on the job, and about past experiences that may have shaped these preferences. Ask lots of curious, open-ended questions.

Prepare for surprises

I share a survey like this containing 17 items with participants in my leadership development programs; they love to use this tool to climb inside the heads of their direct reports. Most years, I aggregate data from their 500+ surveyed employees on “what matters most”. Surprisingly to some, financial compensation is rarely listed among the top 5 motivators. Many leaders are taken off guard by what DOES float to the top of their employees’ lists of motivators. Post-survey 1:1 discussions open up rich new topics and forms of communication.

But back to Jane. Do you really want to fight for that $10,000 raise for her, when what Jane REALLY suffers from is a perceived loss of work/life balance? Your best “telepathy” skills may not pick up the true source of her frustration. Turns out that Jane’s son is now two and wants to see his mom more nights before his 7 pm bedtime. Jane is beginning to suspect that this job’s long hours and long commute may be incompatible with her goal to be the best parent possible.

Play the Telepathy Game at your own risk when it comes to understanding motivators. It leads too frequently to the wrong conversations or action steps. With the war for talent so fierce and the loss of a strong performer so expensive, stop guessing. Proactively discover what each team member really cares about, and work to address it. Before it’s too late.