Written by Yu-kai Chou with the help of Erik van Mechelen.
Now You’re a Manager
When Erik was selected to manage a four-person intern team at Target in 2012 after less than two years with the company, he was really excited for the challenge. He wasn’t sure if his manager knew it then, but at that moment early in his Target career he was motivated by Core Drives 2: Development & Accomplishment, Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback, and Core Drive 7: Unpredictability & Curiosity, so the unexpected responsibility of guiding four potential hires through a 10-week project aligned with his motivational wiring.
From the start, he planned to make the internship experience great. He’d been an intern and had ideas about how to improve various stages of the 10-week process. While there were some protocols to follow, he nevertheless intended to add his own creative approach on top. He was eager for his first management experience and wanted his intern team to impress people and deliver results.
Starting with Why
Before he did anything or made any decisions, it was important for him as the manager to understand the internship objectives. The interns would be contributing to a pyramid-wide initiative to understand what merchandising categories within Home deserved more space in stores. Erik’s team of interns would actually be teaming up with three other teams (a total of 16 people), to complete the project. Understanding the scope of the project helped Erik give Core Drive 1: Epic Meaning & Calling context to his group when he first presented the project: not only was their project part of a 16-person task force in aid of a pyramid-wide research project, but sales in the Home pyramid were foundational to Target’s business model thanks to strong product gross margin. If you’re unfamiliar with the context of Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why”, here’s the TED talk.
What Motivates People in the Workplace
Everyone approaches work differently. For some, it’s a steady paycheck (Core Drive 4: Ownership & Possession and Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance). For some, a stepping stone to the next job (CD2). For others, work is a chance to solve interesting problems alongside other interesting and ambitious people (CD3, Core Drive 5: Social Influence & Relatedness, Core Drive 6: Scarcity & Impatience, and CD7). And for some, it’s a chance to change the world (CD1).
As a manager, you also have a choice about how and when to use White Hat and Black Hat techniques. Each motivates people differently, but both can be effective. People are generally highly motivated by the intrinsic nature of work (the most dedicated Wikipedians aren’t paid), but extrinsic attributes matter too–sometimes certain parts of work are simply necessary and expectations related to consistent completion of unpleasant aspects should be made clear.
In his first management experience, it was very helpful when Erik actually thought through how each of his interns approached their work. As you might expect, their top one or two motivations remained stable throughout the 10-week internship, but others became more or less prominent.
Let’s now get into a discussion of how Erik’s interns moved through their relationship with him as a manager using Level II Octalysis in breaking down Discovery, Onboarding, Scaffolding, and Endgame spanning their 10-week internship. Through attention, effort, and careful devotion to understanding each individual moving through these stages, Erik built a culture where desired actions (and results) occurred regularly without his direct input.
When you’ve gotten to the interview stage with a candidate, you are probably at minimum already somewhat impressed by them. You’ve vetted them and they may have even done an interview application project demonstrating they have the desired skills for the work. The interview then becomes in part a time to understand how well candidates know themselves and what motivates them. Does that align with what your company and you as a manager can provide motivationally?
The most self-aware potential hires will openly share what drives them. To start with, just ask them. This process will take effort and some trial and effort to glean meaningful responses. But, do your best to understand a candidate’s hierarchy of motivations. At the minimum, try to understand the singular Core Drive that trumps the others.
Erik wishes he would have asked his interns what motivated them from the very beginning. He imagines how much better he could have made their experience by understanding what gets them out of bed in the morning. It’s not always easy to gather this information. Sometimes people just aren’t self-aware about what drives them. But if you don’t ask up front you do miss a potential opportunity.
Don’t worry if you’ve missed this chance, though. There are ways to figure out what drives your candidates over time, like asking about their strengths. Since many people are familiar with Strengthsfinder, using the language of the 34 talent themes is a good hack. For instance, Erik learned that one of his intern’s strengths was harmony. Later, it was effective to encourage her to use her strength in promoting harmony to ease the differences of opinion that arose between her peers.
While Erik did miss the opportunity to directly ask his interns what drove them, he did look into their resumes and pay close attention to their initial interactions with him and my broader team.
Once you’ve figured out what motivates a candidate, you’ve begun the process of seeing how the individual fits into your current team and how you will ensure they are consistently motivated throughout their time with your company.
Your Onboarding process may include a training manual, a meeting with a mentor, a welcome lunch with fellow team members, and multiple other steps to learn about the team and company. Even if you as the manager haven’t strictly designed these Onboarding steps, you should be very aware of how they will be perceived by the Onboarding team member. If possible, you can tailor your presentation of them to align with the Core Drives (if they don’t already). In my first days at Target in 2010, I was introduced to the leaderboard metrics that would drive my actions for the next two years (before I moved up to a role on the software team).
As the Home initiative and 16-person team was new, I didn’t have much to go off of when determining initial roles for my interns, but I noticed one of my interns competed in debate for his university and asked him more about it. In that conversation, it became clear he chose to spend all the extra time on debate preparation because he liked the challenge, unpredictability, and competition. I decided to give this intern the trickiest role early on.
Depending on your management style and philosophy (you should know what yours is), you may provide early feedback, support, or additional challenges in the Onboarding stage to confirm your first impressions about your team members’ motivations. Finding out what motivates each member as early as possible will only help in the long term.
Emphasizing collaboration from the outset can also be very powerful. This is something I did on the second day of the internship over a lunch I treated my team to. From being an intern myself, I suspected a mindset and approach of collaboration was most important to a successful intern project. I told my team that I only had one expectation, and that is that I expected them to work together and with the other intern groups on the 16-person project.
Some people are natural collaborators while others aren’t. For one of my team members (the same one who liked debate I mentioned above), collaboration wasn’t a strong suit. However, by establishing it as an expectation, I fed his CD2 mindset. He wanted to be good at it. He collaborated hesitantly at first before later emerging as a leader on the 16-person project. Interestingly, his leadership confidence emerged as he leveled up in knowledge, creative input, and with respect to his teammates. This growth was not unlike the mastery over topics and situations he gained in preparing for a debate tournament.
Achieving project goals and resolving disagreements was made easier through this expectation of collaboration, too. The team was empowered to be creative in developing their project to meet the stated objectives (CD3). They also felt empowered to attempt to resolve any conflicts that might arise between themselves before asking me. Of course, since the interns then built in collaboration time and a collaborative mindset into their workflow, they also benefited from CD5.
Employees enter the scaffolding stage after they’ve learned the ins and outs of their roles and responsibilities and have already made some minor contributions to the team and the company. As this stage progresses you will have many opportunities as a manager to motivate your team.
Since you are probably managing more than one or two people, you can see how understanding where each of the individuals on your team is in the Discovery/Onboarding/Scaffolding/Endgame process can be a challenge. Some managers can keep this dynamic information in their heads; others prefer to track their employee progression and growth in simple spreadsheets.
The scaffolding stage is where you can capitalize on a candidate’s primary motivators in creative ways. Erik learned part way through the 10-week internship that one of his interns was considering going to work for one of the big consulting firms post-graduation. Erik was glad she was open about this. Erik could then tailor activities for her that would build skills toward that aim and focus a bit less on parts of the 10-week internship process that were geared specifically to learning about and promoting Target’s advantages as an employer.
By focusing on her CD2 in the context of learning skills that would be helpful to her immediate career aims, she applied herself even more even when working on parts of the project that weren’t in line with those aims. Interestingly, her motivations and subsequent behaviors fell into hook cycles that Nir Eyal describes in his book on the Hook Model (here’s the deck on Slideshare). This candidate would work hard to complete the Target-specific tasks quickly in order to gain the variable reward (presented by me) of working on additional mini-projects.
As an aside, among her peers this candidate also learned the most about Target as a whole through active meetings (called “coffees”) with employees around the company from Merchandising, Marketing, and Strategy. Erik would like to think she felt empowered in part because of his openness to her finding out if Target really was the place she wanted to start her career. Erik felt some pride when he talked with her later about her reasons for declining the Target offer–she understood what the job would entail and thanked Erik for encouraging her to explore her options and her underlying motivations.
Just because a candidate shared their primary motivation during the interview process doesn’t mean it can’t change. It’s possible that new projects catch the eye of a particular employee; where she was previously motivated by mastery of her current work (CD2), the fresh challenges might take over as a significant motivator (CD7).
This emergence of CD7 happened for another of Erik’s interns. Erik recognized this when the intern would talk about unexpected things she’d learned during their weekly meetings. Erik then encouraged her to pursue some of the experimental ideas she had around how to maximize return from merchandising space in Target stores and gave her full autonomy in her approach to learning more (CD4).
In the next few weeks, she was often excited to share those new findings with Erik and ultimately presented those findings as a bonus above and beyond the final presentation to upper management. Upper management complemented her for taking extra initiative to learn about a part of the space planning process outside of the internship curriculum. Additionally, because of the ownership she had in her own learning, her presentation came off surprisingly strong–sometimes it’s amazing how much you learn when you get to decide for yourself what you are trying to learn and discover.
Remember that while you can stay very close with your employees’ motivations, there are also aspects you can’t control. Life events like marriage or having kids or losing a loved one can drastically shift an employee’s hierarchy of motivations.
As employees progress through the scaffolding phase, the importance of getting in tune and staying in tune with your team’s Core Drives can’t be overstated. Just do it.
As you bring your team through many small, medium, and large motivation cycles (probably corresponding to tasks, projects, and achievements), you’ll have built some employees that have decided to stay with you for the medium and long-term. Even though three of the four interns would return and get new managers, Erik still met with them periodically to catch up and continue their mentor-mentee relationships. Even having decided to leave Target to pursue writing full time in the fall of 2014, Erik still stays in touch and follow those interns and know that two of them are still with the company and doing quite well. Erik was glad to be there to set the tone and give them a way to become more self-aware about what motivates them and how to approach their work and relationships with their managers and peers. It’s very exciting for him to see their leadership and growth. What’s more, one of the three that returned was third out of 40 in his starting business analyst class to be promoted.
You may also have helped to develop strong employees that have really added to your team and company culture. First off, well done. Employee retention isn’t easy. Life happens and even people that want to work together can’t. If you’ve created a culture and an employee-manager relationship that keeps people happy and motivated in their work, it’s something to celebrate.
If you’re working on retention and long-term motivation, remember that a reason someone stays on a project or a team or with a company for the long run is because it continually satisfies their Core Drives, and often multiple in their motivation hierarchy. The Golden Corner, justifiably named, plays to CD3. The White hat motivations (CD1 and CD2, and in some cases CD4 and CD5) also matter. When in doubt, intentionally building to satisfy the Golden Corner is rarely a bad design move.
Growth and promotion also play into the Endgame picture. For the employee motivated by CD4, stock options, cliffs, and vesting schedules could see people staying a little longer or leaving just when you’re starting to gain traction in your employee-manager relationship (CD6 and CD8 also play a part here).
These Endgame considerations are not to be overlooked. Your infrastructure itself may be the cause of people walking out the door at the two or three-year mark. Having worked at Target for almost five years, it was interesting for Erik to watch new analysts approach their work and predict how long they might be with the company. Erik also had brief conversations with more senior managers about the predictability of analyst churn. He is always looking for better ways to do whatever he’s doing. As a manager of Target interns, Erik saw it as part of his responsibility to show and share what the interns’ eventual work would be with the company. All four of his interns received offers. Three of the four returned. As mentioned above, the fourth realized she wouldn’t be motivated in the Target environment. Erik respected her decision as much as the three who decided to return to work with Target to start their careers. When possible, it’s important to make choices that align with your core motivations. As managers, it’s important to provide these opportunities.
For strong candidates, building a leadership core that can share your philosophy and spread motivation without your presence is the cherry on top of your efforts. Keep your eyes open for these employees too.
As a manager, you know that even with the best team in the business, there are moments when individuals or the team needs motivation. Understanding what drives your team to do great work is often the difference between victory and defeat.
This post has described how to treat management through a game design and Octalysis approach. Hopefully, it is just the beginning of taking your management skills to the next level.
Now, do just ONE of the following to level up your management approach:
- General/Easy: Write down three ways you can immediately improve the way you give feedback to one of your team members. Be creative. Are there moments when you can step outside of your general management philosophy to give the team member what they need to be successful?
- Specific/Medium: Evaluate the infrastructure of your onboarding process. What player types and Core Drives does it cater too? Then answer this question: Are the majority of my employees moving through this onboarding process aligned with the Core Drives inherent in the process?
- Specific/Hard: You need to do two things. First, evaluate one of your leading team members. What are her Core Drives? How did she move through the entire Discovery/Onboarding/Scaffolding/Endgame process with your team and company? Were there any pivotal moments that secured her attachment to your team or company? Second, evaluate a team member who has had issues contributing effectively to your team. Really try to understand if their Core Drives are being fed adequately. Instead of laying them off, be sure to give them a fair shot by providing tasks and responsibilities that align with their Core Drives. Re-evaluate after a fair test has been run.
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