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Using employee self-interest to motivate

Published:Sunday | January 6, 2013 | 12:00 AM

Francis Wade, Contributor

Local managers often give up on inspiring unmotivated employees too quickly because they don't realise that their weak listening skills are at fault.

A recent Harvard Business Review blog post by Judith Glaser confirms what I have seen: managers and employees often end up talking past each other.

Her research, gathered by observing structured role-play conversations, backs this up; executives use 'telling' rather than 'asking' statements 85 per cent of the time.

I see the same evidence when I coach and prepare leaders to have difficult, real-life conversations.They need to learn to do more 'asking,' but they resist developing listening skills due to a deep, negative mental model about the person they need to motivate, correct or train.

This frame of mind leads them to demonise the other person, and inflate every possible fault.

And this fault-finding causes leaders to try different tricks, such as fiddling with reporting structures, bonuses and benefits.

Leaders avoid the simple, constructive conversations they need to have because they fail to see, let alone transform, their ineffective thinking, which is the true source of the problem.

They end up stuck in overly simplistic models, such as 'all these people care about is money' and 'they only care about getting to the corner-office'.

When you find yourself in a similar situation, here's what you need to remember to shift your own mental model.

1. Self-interest consistently motivates people

Whenever you can't figure out why someone acts in a particular way, you simply don't know which self-interest is most prominent.

Crazy people who hurt themselves for no reason don't join corporations. Instead, you need to tune in and pay careful attention to discover which competing self-interests are at play and which one he/she is following.

The key is to listen keenly to what the other person says and doesn't say. Rest assured that something IS being communicated even if you can't discern it clearly (according to Glaser's article); a good manager uses 'asking' statements to find out true motivators.

2. The other person has an incomplete map

Factual information almost always makes more valuable feedback than personal opinion. It fills in awareness gaps and provides a more complete map of the world.

Instead of saying, 'I hate it when you drink too much', it's better to say 'When you have more than one drink at a time, I get so uncomfortable that I leave the room'. This way, you give the other person the necessary facts to see the entire situation.

We all operate with an incomplete understanding of the world around us, leading us to act in ways that we think are helpful, but may actually cause harm.

More complete information leads us to make better choices.

A friend of mine used to joke about his smoking, until it killed him in a matter of months. Near the end of his life, it was no laughing matter, especially when he couldn't stop the habit. If someone had pointed out the likely trajectory of his initial decision when he was a teenager, he may never have picked up that first cigarette.

3. You can feed others' self-interest

We all live to feed our own interests. In the daily give-and-take of company politics, managers forget this fact.

Once you understand another person's interests, it's easy to provide the person with incentives to realise his/her goals alongside those of the company. You can use individual change programmes, mini-projects and new assignments to make a difference.

In a way, good managers are like good parents. With powerful listening skills, they can illuminate the territory for employees so that their behaviour changes for the better.

Managers can come to see employees as people who are doing their best at all times, even when they don't understand specific actions.

The best way to improve these skills is not by simply hoping that they'll get better. This haphazard approach might be the most frequent, but it's hardly the most effective.

Glaser's article mentions the use of role-plays, and I believe they need to be an ongoing part of every manager's development.

Cricketers spend hours in the nets bowling and batting, and tennis players also spend many hours doing drills. Yet, very few professionals engage in video-based role plays more than once or twice in their entire career, and they fail to develop their skills past the basic level. As a result, everyone loses.

Francis Wade is president of Framework Consulting. Send feeback