How does one motivate an employee to give that extra effort when trying to solve a problem before coming into the managers office to ask for help? Numerous books have been written on the subject of motivation by people far smarter than me. The normal take-away is that one person can not motivate another one. Motivation is an internal process – the conventional wisdom seems reasonable to me. I only get going when I want to get going.
With that being said, it is possible to rebalance the situation to make seeking help more costly than trying to solve it themselves. The approach I’ve used throughout my career (mostly after LBS and my education in economic incentives and costs) is to push the folks I work with or work for me on a team to think for themselves. The way I do this is to work with them during a problem to help them think through the entire problem and push them to find the basic questions that when answered will lead to the solution.
This is the Socratic method of teaching (and leading). It can be irritating as hell for those on the other end, but it works pretty well. It’s probably easier to give an example –
Problem – A webinar needed to be posted online three days ago, but still hasn’t. The employee in charge comes in to your office –it’s late and I don’t know what to do.
Manager – Let’s talk about the problem and figure it out
Employee – it’s an emergency – what do you think we should do
Manager – I know – tell me about the problem [guy who does webinars is MIA and it’s late]
Employee – what should I do?
Manager – We need to get the file uploaded ASAP. What’s involved in creating it?
Employee – I normally get a file and upload it to a special page. What should I do?
M – Seems reasonable – what do you think it takes to create the final product?
E – uh, I don’t know
M – *silence* [walking to white board and writing finished WMV on the board] – what pieces does it take to create this doc
E – [jaw clinched, eyes staring at door] there’s a PowerPoint file and audio
M – Excellent – do we have those?
E – I have audio but not the PPT
M – what else is necessary?
E – uh, I’m unsure
M – we’ll need to mix them correctly – right?
E – yes – it’s normally done with XYZ product on Bob’s machine or we do it in PowerPoint
M – Bob’s machine – seems we need Bob – Eh? PowerPoint – then you need the PPT and we’re almost there – right?
E – uh, yes – I guess
M – What’s next?
E – call Bob find PPT
M – have you mixed in PowerPoint before?
E – No –
M – Take 45 minutes to research it online and let’s have a chat at X:45 about it. What else?
E – Grab the PPT from the Shared Server?
M – Sounds good to me. I’d like to see a rough draft of this by now + 2 hrs.
From there – reward like hell for any initiative – complement and make taking the initiative way more pleasurable than mindlessly coming to the manager. Personally – I have an unquestioned expectation that the people who work with me for me a) have more in them than they’re currently displaying b) they’ll give their best effort on everything. This approach from that point of view is very helpful if those expectations are sincerely. Oh, and I’ll dump a person off the island in a New York minute if I find they’re not giving their best effort on every thing. I’ll take dim but a hard worker vs. smart and lazy every … day … of … the … week.
It’s best to use this when you’re sure that the employee could have done it themselves. It’s sometimes a good idea to start with some questions designed to get you up-to-speed and to help judge if the questions are coming from a point of ignorance or laziness.
Ignorance (lack of knowledge) is fine and sometimes the case so I recommend asking the Qs and moving forward. Laziness – now that’s an entirely different kettle of fish. The the challenge isn’t just answering the question but motivating your team member to work as hard as they can to get the answer before pushing the work of thinking off to someone else.
This approach makes the long run the costs for not thinking far higher than trying first and then reaching out.