What Engaging Managers Do Differently


It’s the main thing a leader is supposed to do—engaging people—and yet the truth is very few of the smart, driven managers we talk with every year come naturally to it.

Business experts have been talking about the need for engagement since the early 1990s. And yet despite this, in most companies nothing changes. Workers are not getting more engaged. On the contrary, they are disengaging in droves.

The problem most managers face in the busy corporate world is they try to treat everyone the same.

Something is missing.

What we’ve found in all our research is this: To achieve higher levels of engagement, managers have to find out what really motivates each of their people—individually. Managing is more of a one-on-one game than we may have realized.

Here’s a quick example to illustrate the point. One of the best leaders of people we know is William Lovett, coach of the Jaguars, an inner-city high school basketball team in East Orange, New Jersey. This is a part of the world where they take their basketball very seriously. Games are loud, pulse pounding, and insanely competitive. You can only imagine the challenge of coaching talented 14- to 17-year-olds who need a helping hand.

William is a whiz with xs and os, but the reason he wins so many games is that his players would walk through fire for him. He cares about them as individuals and they know it. The first hour of every practice is homework time. He makes sure the kids go to class, stay out of trouble, and eat right. He has been coach of the year twice, and almost every one of his kids goes on to college.

Watching him in action is a graduate-school lesson in leadership.

In a run-up contest before the city championships this spring, the Jaguars were playing a cross-town rival. Before the end of the first half, one of coach Lovett’s star players started slacking off on defense, was a little late on the help-side defense and slow to get back after a basket. Coach Lovett pulled the kid off the court and yelled a blue streak while the young player sat on the bench fuming. Yet only a few minutes later another player grew cold. This kid missed a few 3-point shots, his specialty, and committed a turnover. William called that young man off the court, patted him on the back, told him to shake it off and warmly assured him he’d be out again soon.

“What’s up with that?” we asked Coach Lovett after the game. He confided, “Oh, there’s no way I could yell at him, it would destroy his confidence. But (the first player), I found he doesn’t respond unless I get in his face. It’s a challenge to him to prove me wrong.”

And sure enough, in the second half both players responded with increased effort and focus and the Jaguars won going away.

The problem most managers face in the busy corporate world is they try to treat everyone the same. We aren’t. Every person on this planet has a thumbprint-like makeup of what makes him or her most engaged 9-to-5.

Over the last ten years we have interviewed more than 850,000 working adults around the globe for our books. What that has revealed is that most engaged people have aligned more of their work with their core motivations. As for those who are most unhappy at work, as you might expect, their jobs are out of alignment with what they are passionate about. They aren’t doing what they love, on the contrary their work is demoralizing.

Yes, it might take a bit more work for a manager, but the most successful leaders we’ve interviewed have discovered the way to help their employees have more engaged and successful work lives is helping each person on the team understand his or her motivations; and then doing a little sculpting of the nature of their jobs or tasks to better match duties with passions. This “job sculpting” can have a huge payback for leaders, as it can help diagnose how each team member’s specific tasks are (or are not) aligned with his or her motivations, and uncover subtle changes that can lead to increases in morale, engagement, and results.

As we’ve shared this in our consulting work it has resonated with some. Last year we were working with a large medical center suffering from low engagement and high turnover in its nursing ranks. Valuable CNAs, LPNs, and RNs were walking out the door almost as fast as the organization could hire them. As we spoke with the senior-most leader, he reached an epiphany: “The more I’m thinking about this issue the more I believe we’ve missed the mark with our nurses. What motivates a labor-and-delivery nurse is vastly different from what motivates an emergency room nurse or an oncology nurse. But we’ve been treating them all the same—they have all been ‘nurses’ to us. We need to start understanding what really motivates an individual joining a particular team, or even someone who’s been here for a long time. We need to put people in the right roles, for sure, but we also need to give each nurse specific assignments they’ll find motivating.”

Well said.

So, as a manager, how do you find out what motivates your people? As one starter, you might sit down with each of your people individually and ask them a few simple starter questions. Here’s how the conversation could go:

1. Tell me about your best work experience ever – Think about a time in your life when you were most engaged at work, you gave extra effort without being asked, you believed your work really made a difference.

2. Write down a few of those “best-work” specifics –Why exactly was that your best work experience? What specific assignments did you have? How did your manager act toward you?

3. Now, think about what’s really important to you at work? – Identify those key concepts that jump out at you from the list as the most motivating to you. What insights do you gain into what’s important to you at work right now? How might we use those ideas in sculpting your job a little to be more motivating and engaging to you? 

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