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Understand Motivation.

I recall as my senior class president in high school, I had teachers and administrators teaching me how to be a leader and showing me my mistakes to learn from. My supervisors and commanders in the Air Force saw something in me and invested their time and effort to groom me for future leadership roles. That grooming included some extremely positive encouraging words; promotions; monetary awards; and public praise. However, it also included very constructive feedback...and a few push-ups! Most important, these leaders from my past knew exactly how to motivate me to give my absolute best. You see, understanding motivation is essential to grooming people to be great and give their best.

You can’t get into the head of another person. Even if this were possible, understanding what motivates another person can be so complex that even that person is unaware of her or his motivations. However, to a certain degree, the essence of leadership is inspire others to do what you need them to do, as if it were their original motives themselves.

If you can think in terms of how other people are motivated, start by first developing compassion for the people you lead. Why am I starting with compassion? Well, with compassion you are better able to understand another person’s needs and how to meet those needs while motivating the person to help meet yours or your company’s need. If you have ever heard someone say (or have said yourself), “I can really identify with that person,” you’re getting at the heart of identification. When you identify with someone else, you are able to feel empathy and compassion for them. In identification, something of you rubs off on the other person with whom you identify, and something of that person rubs off on you. In leadership, you can create an “unconscious willingness to be led” in another person by identifying with that person and trying to meet the other person’s needs. When you go out of your way to allow an employee off for a vacation he or she Is excited about, you create in that person a willingness to follow you and make your goals their goals. And that my friends will make you a more respected leader.

Understanding what motivates the people you are leading is a great way to better assist them, but you also have other pressures upon you as a leader, which can include your ultimate goal for your company as well as pressure from higher ups in your own hierarchy. What’s more, even when you are an understanding and compassionate leader, some may seek to test this.

The difference between an understanding but effective leader versus a weak leader is a how well you respond when people attempt either consciously or unintentionally to cross boundaries. When someone engages in behavior that’s detrimental to your overall leadership vision, you occasionally have to intervene. What’s important in this case is that you intervene in an effective way that makes the situation better for everyone involved.

When you have to criticize or correct an employee, one of the most important things to consider are your own motivations. While it may be tempting to want to punish an employee who “acts up,” this can frequently create a poisonous environment where the employee misses the message of improvement and only hears a message that involves asserting your superior position over that employee. This can recreate a sense of a parent –child relationship which runs counter to seeing the other person involved as a person and an equal who deserves respect. Punishment often has unintended consequences, as well. If you look at the number of criminals who leave prison only to return again after a time, it becomes evident that punishment can harden someone into repeating behaviors as much as it can deter that person from those behaviors. Sometimes it is helpful to retreat from a potentially volatile interaction rather than addressing a person when you are angry. You can use email to schedule a time to address an issue, for example, which has the additional purpose of allowing you to restore your own emotional balance. Ultimately, you’re in conflict with an employee because he or she has crossed a boundary, whether it’s a social boundary or one related to your expectations for work. The more productive and effective approach is to find a way to correct the behavior rather than finding a way to punish the employee.

One way to approach an intervention where you need to let an employee know about an area of improvement or an intolerable behavior that needs to be corrected is to try to envision the situation playing out in such a way that there are no losers. Instead, you want to consider a way in which everyone has an opportunity to come out a winner. For an employee who has trouble with being at work on time or at all, this might be a powerful move that allows that employee to take greater responsibility in her or his life, an improvement that can carry over into the long term, for example. When you develop a positive vision of what a successful correction looks like, you are better able to stay out of the punishment or blaming mentality that so often sabotages good intentions and well-meaning criticism.

Experiencing criticism can be a stressful situation, and the common approach towards hearing criticism is to prepare a defense. One way to soften another person’s experience of your criticism is to use the idea of a feedback sandwich. Instead of telling people what they are doing wrong all at once, you can mix the negative with genuine positive comments as well. It’s important that these are genuine, however, or you can come across as insincere and manipulative and lose any goodwill or trust you might have earned with your employees. Finding a positive thing to say about an employee who needs correction serves an additional purpose as well. Whenever you are angry at another person, a good tactic to help spur your thinking away from that person’s faults is to consider something positive about that person. Having something good to say about your employee can help to put the entire situation into a more manageable perspective.

In Part 3 I addressed the importance of setting SMART goals. When you set goals, it’s important that you set a goal that is achievable and corresponds to a time frame. Similarly, when you intervene with an employee about an area that needs improvement, it is helpful to have a definite view of success, as well as a time frame for when you can check back with the employee. This follow-up will work better when it is approached as a “how are you doing with this?” rather than a “have you done what I told you to?” style conversation. Furthermore, you should consider avoiding two types of extremes: not following up at all and overdoing your follow-up by continuously returning to the issue. When you initially discuss the issue with your employee, it will be most effective if you both identify a time in the future to schedule a follow-up conversation where you can check in with each other. If you never follow-up it erodes your credibility when you do offer constructive criticism because it makes it seem as if there was no real need for criticism.

On the other hand, if you continuously come back to the situation that prompted the criticism, you put the employee into a guilt-redemption type drama. If you follow up with your employee at a scheduled time, and that employee has not shown improvement, you can re-assess what needs to be done further, and use that time to schedule another follow-up. Keeping your follow-ups structured can help you avoid the pitfalls that can turn following up and being invested in your employee’s success into a form of harassing your employee.

What motivates the people you lead? To understand motivation one must get to know the people being led. Everyone is motivated differently. But by following the tips outlined above, you’ll get the best from the people you lead. And, you’ll be a more likable and respected leader.

Stay tuned for Part 5 when I share how being a likeable and respectable leader requires understanding and applying the right "tone."

All leaders need a coach to help with leadership development. I’d welcome the opportunity to be your coach. For a free complimentary coaching session, connect with me via email at or visit

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