After I received my undergraduate degree at Columbia International University, I went back to school to earn a master’s degree in teaching. One of my professors there was as tough as they come. She was always after me to do better. Though she seemed to go easy on other students, I could never satisfy her.
This professor observed one of my final teaching sessions in front of a class. Our follow-up meeting went true to form—she unloaded a long list of issues on me that needed work.
Later, I complained to a classmate about how unhappy my professor was with me. “You’re kidding!” my friend said. “She told me that you were really improving, that your last lesson was the best you’d ever done.”
That’s when the lightbulb went on for me. I realized my professor knew me better than I did. She understood that I had natural ability as a speaker, and that I tended to rely on that when I taught. I was just getting by. She knew I was capable of more and kept after me, trying to motivate me to do my best.
You can motivate and develop the members of your work team in a similar way. Instead of immediately telling your employees the answer when they run into an obstacle, give them time to uncover a solution on their own. It will allow them to stretch their abilities and be better employees—and leaders—down the road.
A few years after my experience with my professor, I discovered how motivation worked from the other side of the desk. I’d had some success as a high school basketball player and was named Conference Most Valuable Player in my senior year. I became a basketball coach and spent six years leading a team of teenage boys. I quickly learned about the different personality types on my team and how to tailor my style depending on the player.
I remember one game where right from the start, my point guard was making sloppy passes and turning the ball over. It wasn’t like him at all. Something, either grades or girlfriend problems, was distracting him. I had to get in his face. “C’mon!” I said. “Get focused. We are playing a game here.”
That was all he needed. When I aggressively showed my dissatisfaction, he snapped out of it and started playing up to his potential.
My shooting guard, on the other hand, required the opposite treatment. When he played poorly, my yelling only made it worse. Instead, I needed to call him over to the sideline and ask in a gentle voice, “Hey, are you all right? Is something going on? We can talk about it later, but right now I need you to concentrate on the game.” That wouldn’t have meant anything to my point guard, but for my shooting guard, it was the most effective approach.
As you observe and talk with your team, ask yourself a few questions about each one. Is she usually quiet or vocal? Is he usually defensive or assertive? When something unexpected happens and you need to encourage them to work hard and fast, will you be more effective with a hand on the shoulder or a kick (figuratively) in the behind?
Don’t wait for a crisis to determine the answers. You need to understand the individual characteristics and personality of each member of your team now so you can have a plan ready.
Learn what makes your people who they are, their strengths and weaknesses, passions and problems, and you’ll be in a far better position to inspire them to do their best.