Monday, August 01, 2005

Understand People's Motivations

While most people act without thinking, nobody acts randomly. There is important information to get from figuring out why people do the things they do. And, knowing why people are doing what they are doing gives you the best tool for helping them to success.

The lowest levels of people’s motivation are easy to understand. People eat because they are hungry. People talk because they have something to say. And, people ask questions because they want an answer. Simple enough, right. Well, no. Some people eat to calm their anxiety. Some people talk because they want to be recognized. And some people ask questions because they want to make someone else looks stupid.

Understanding everyday motivations at a deeper level can be extremely valuable. Consider this simple example of someone asking you a question. There true motivation could be any number of things. They could be trying to show you up. They could be looking to show you how clever they are. They could be challenging you out of anger. They could be indicating disbelief in a previous answer. They could be trying to tell you something cautiously. They could be asking the question that they think will clarify something for someone else in the room. They could be speaking rhetorically. They could be afraid of making a mistake by double-checking an answer. They could be probing for the right question to ask. Or, they could just need a simple answer.

Knowing why they are asking their question can help you shape the answer. Answering without knowing could be a waste of time, or could even be a step backwards for the interaction or the relationship.

Effective leaders instinctively ask themselves “Why did they do that?” for every personal interaction they have. Building this instinct is not that difficult, but it does take practice. Most people have an instinct for understanding why. What they lack is the instinct to ask themselves why. So, next time you have an interpersonal interaction of any sort, ask, “Why are they acting like that?” or “What are they trying to accomplish?” Answer the question in your head, even if the answer is plainly obvious. Remember, you are not trying to learn the answers; you are practicing asking yourself the question. You are teaching yourself to be “on.”

Even so, this level of understanding is not deep enough. Great leaders truly understand people’s most basic, fundamental motivations. For example, some people are motivated by the need to feel important. Others are motivated by a need for money. Still others are motivated by the amount of money they make as a measure of their self worth: the bumper sticker, “He who dies with the most stuff, wins.”

Understanding people’s basic motivations allows you a key advantage in satisfying their needs. When you satisfy a person’s needs, they are able, even eager, to help you satisfy yours. Over time, you will build up trust, so that even when you can’t satisfy that person’s needs, they know you’ve tried, and will be more willing to work with you anyway.

Understanding a person’s basic motivations is tricky and at best inexact. It is a process of paying attention to behaviors, noticing trends, taking guesses and refining those guesses based on future behavior.

The process starts with the superficial “why” questions. After some number of interactions, look for trends on which go smoothly and which go awry. Don’t focus on their interactions with you. You can learn much more from their interactions with others. Your view of the details will taint your evaluation of the interactions. Your interactions are also biased toward your own interaction styles. This is one of the most important reasons to be “on” in meetings. Every interaction is an opportunity to observe other people’s motivations. If you zone out except for when you need to be involved, you lose those opportunities.

The next step is to evaluate the trends: what answers to your “why” question come up frequently? For example, I knew someone that asked a challenging question at nearly every presentation they attended. I asked myself the “why” question. My instincts said that they were trying to trip up the presenter. But that was not enough to understand their basic motivation.

The next step is to peel away at the onion of the behavior by asking a series of “why” questions, and shaping the answers by recollections of past behavior. Your goal is to dig down in to deeper and deeper motivations until you have a general motivation that you can apply to many situations. You are looking for the motivating factor that really excites them. It’s the event that happens that they brag to their spouse about. It’s the event that makes them say to themselves, “I was great today.”

In the case of the person who was trying to trip up presenters, I asked “why” again: perhaps, to make himself look smarter than the presenter. “Why look smarter than the presenter?” I guessed that people recognizing his technical brilliance motivated him.

Having a good guess is not enough though. As with any hypothesis, you need to test it to see if you can use that knowledge to predict outcomes. You need to validate your guess by watching future interactions to see if it holds up. Finally, you need to see if you can change the outcomes of future interactions based on your understanding.

In my example, I also noticed that whenever I met with the person, the meetings lasted far longer than I expected, and went into far too much technical detail. I tried an experiment. The next time we met I actively looked for technical ideas I could praise, presuming that this was what motivated him. It turned out that this was difficult, because I genuinely didn’t agree with many of his technical ideas. But, I was able to agree with some of the steps of his ideas. When I found something I could comment on, I said something like, “That’s a really excellent point. That will help us here.” After about three times, the rest of the interaction went smoothly. We got through the points and I could even disagree without further lengthy interactions. The guess seemed valid.

It’s not enough though to stop there. People just aren’t that simple. They generally refuse to be categorized so easily. Motivations are much more complex and impacted by other external events. Events like a fight with a spouse or a sick friend could have a strong influence on someone’s behavior or even their basic motivations. Also realize that everyone has multiple needs and motivations. Some of them may even be in conflict. Furthermore, people change. What motivates them now, may be completely unimportant to them a year from now. As a result, be ready to change your understanding of what motivates each person.

As a manager, it is important that you explicitly consider the motivations of each person on you staff at least yearly. As a team leader, you should try to understand the motivations of each member of your team. Do it explicitly; don’t wait until you think it matters. Just like your elevator speech, you won’t have time to figure it out when it matters. In fact, you should work to explicitly understand the motivations of everyone you frequently work with.

Many things can motivate people. There are some common things, though, that motivate people. As you peel back the onion, consider some of these common motivations, and ways to work with them:

  • Power or Control – Feigning agreement or even subservience can sometimes work with these people. It can work to let them feel like they are directing you. A good way to do this is to start with a solid proposal and ask, “does this work for you?” You might also ask for their support, “This won’t work without your support.” For the most part, title is not as important as real control.
  • Respect by peers – Praising them in public can be motivating to these people. Seeking their support as a “thought leader” from the team is also effective. You should also work to give them as much challenging work as you can. They thrive on opportunities that can make them look good.
  • Respect by superiors – Sending kudos to their management and copying them is a very powerful motivator. Getting their boss to ask them to help you is also good. Allowing them opportunities to make presentations to superiors is helpful. Titles and promotions are very important to these people. This sometimes manifests itself as “empire building:” focusing on the size of their staff.
  • Self-respect or Ego – These folks may or may not be motivated by public praise. It is usually enough to thank them in private. It is also helpful to ask them for their help as if they are really saving you.
  • Money – Few people are really motivated purely by money, although it does happen. Bonus programs can be very effective, but only if you don’t routinely pay full bonuses.
  • Recognition – Public acknowledgement is obviously powerful, but can also be dangerous. For each person publicly recognized, other people can be de-motivated because they were not recognized. Effective public recognition must be well deserved to avoid this. Effective recognition is about someone noticing their effort and going out of their way to acknowledge it. That can be as easy as a “thank you.”
  • Challenge – Give these people nearly impossible projects, but give them plenty of latitude in the solution space. It can be helpful to point out that someone else failed, or thought it couldn’t be done.
  • Care – These people like to feel loved. Ask them about their feelings, or engage them on a personal level, but make sure you pay attention to the answers. Follow-up on previous discussions. They will usually support you out of loyalty and friendship.
  • Loyalty – Befriending these people is important. Spending time with them is the key. Actively support them in public, especially when they are being attacked. Another effective technique is to elicit commitment from them to a task or the team.

Understand what people need and satisfy those needs first. Only then will they be able to focus on your needs.


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