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3 Questions to Motivate Any Employee

Need to energize your troops? Start here: Find out what would make them love their jobs.
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I'm president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, a group of about 1,400 published book authors and writers for newspapers, magazines, and websites. It sounds like a pretty powerful position until you consider that our 64-year-old organization has only three full-time staff members. Much of the work, from planning and presenting the content at our annual conference, and other events throughout the country, writing our newsletter and blog, putting on our conference call and webcast events and mentoring new and aspiring freelance writers, is done by volunteers. These volunteers are freelance writers for whom time is very literally money. Without them, our organization would immediately grind to a halt.

So I see my job as most often wielding influence rather than power. There are times, of course, when even I have to be the boss--settling a dispute between members for instance. But I spend most of my time figuring out how to get people to want to do what benefits ASJA. And if my approach works with freelance writers--an independent-minded, highly intelligent, and sometimes cantankerous group--it's pretty much guaranteed to work with your employees too.

It comes down to asking three simple questions about the person you're dealing with:

1. Why are you here?

If the answer is to collect a paycheck, you've already lost the battle. One friend of mine whom I regularly meet for dinner would always spend the entire meal complaining about the employees at her company. They would, for instance, clock in in the morning and then spend the next half hour eating breakfast in the break room. My friend thought this was outrageous while I thought it was human nature. These were unskilled hourly workers with no hope of advancement in the tiny company so they had no real reason to be eager to please the boss.

What could she have done differently? It should have begun with asking what they wanted and hoped for. Maybe providing training or help with education. Maybe setting production goals and buying breakfast for everyone once a week if the goals were met. I don't know because she never tried to find out.

2. What do you want that I can give you?

In my case, the answers usually have to do with prestige and visibility. If I can give someone a public acknowledgement, or a chance to address our group directly, I do it. One thing I love to do is invite key volunteers who are leading one effort or another to join our monthly teleconference board meetings so they can tell the board about what they're doing, answer any questions the board has, and ask any of their own. It's a great way to keep communication flowing, but it also sends a powerful message: Top leadership cares about what you're doing.

3. Can I let you own your project?

I believe people work hardest on things that are theirs to shape and manage on their own. So I try to fit the right people for our most important projects, and then I largely get out of their way. I'll provide support and input if they want, and I'll ask for regular status reports. But I avoid telling them what to do.

This means that often things don't come out exactly the way I wanted, or at least not the way I originally envisioned. I always try to stop and ask myself: Is having this be precisely what I want worth taking control away from the person who has ownership of it? Most of the time, if I'm honest, the answer is no. And if I'm really honest, I sometimes have to admit that the other person's vision is better than what I had in mind.

I know you probably have paid employees who have to show up to their jobs and you can fire or discipline them at will. But consider this: Most human resource experts believe that finding employees, especially those with critical skills, will get harder and harder over the coming years. So even if they don't now, in time, your employees will likely have a choice to  go elsewhere if they want to.

What choice do you want them to make?

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Oct 29, 2012

MINDA ZETLIN | Columnist | Co-author, 'The Geek Gap'

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and speaker, co-author of The Geek Gap, and former president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Like this post? Sign up here for a once-a-week email and you'll never miss her columns.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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