A thorn in every manager’s side is the very smart employee who is just not self-motivated, at least not with any consistency. When they are engaged, they are spectacular and provide brilliance that is not matched by any other employee but when they are not engaged, watch out. They go AWOL, they promise to deliver what you need but don’t make any progress at all by the due date, they are so absent at times you are not sure if they still work for you. But then, suddenly, they deliver the breakthrough that you needed. ARGHHH! You can’t live with them but you can’t live without them (or at least you worry you can’t). You love them and you hate them. How do you manage such an employee, or if this sounds like you, how do you manage yourself? After managing employees for more than 25 years, it has only been in the last year or two that I really understood the importance of this problem and the lesson it provides for managing all types of employees.
First, as such an employee’s manager, you probably need to accept that you are not going to fundamentally change this person. You can minimize the damage they do (maybe) and try to optimize their value but fundamental change is a different story. The good news is that they might still be very valuable to your organization. Furthermore, managing this type of employee is just an extreme example of managing any employee. That is, you need to find out what motivates them and provide as much of that as possible. In this extreme case, many times what motivates them is the intrinsic project. Are they excited about the activities and if they are, you get brilliance; if not, you get nothing. Don’t get me wrong, this is not easy. You usually cannot simply ask the employee what motivates them or what they need to be more productive because they don’t really know. And if they do, many times they are not comfortable telling you. This is one of the reasons that MBWA is so important – it allows you to get to know your employees and observe, to some extent, what is happening (MBWA = Management by Walking Around). Perhaps in today’s virtual world where teams are located at far reaches of the globe, it is a combination of MBFA and MBCA (Management by Flying Around and Management by Calling Around). For those of us early in our management career and who are action-oriented and have a “just do it” mentality, taking the time to do this MBWA can be disconcerting. We feel that we are not really doing anything. But if you consider that one of your primary jobs is getting the best from your employees, this may in fact be the most important thing you have to do. The bottom line is, get to know your employees so you can provide the environment, incentives and activities that motivate them since, although it may sound a bit cliché, everyone is different.
One of the classic mistakes I see young engineering managers make is not understanding how different people really are. They have a tendency to assume that everyone is pretty similar and thus what makes them happy will make their employees happy. In reality, I have had people working for me who were so incredibly sensitive to feedback that it was best for me to provide a gentle nudge in a particular direction or mention in passing what I might do in their situation rather than make a specific request. They still beat themselves up that they had not already thought of what I suggested and apologize! On the other hand, I have had employees who would not “get it” despite numerous very direct conversations (at least from my perspective) until I had written them up in a formal reprimand – they simply did not feel they could ever be wrong and did not understand they needed to do what I requested as their manager. Similarly for the work environment. Some employees thrive in a bustling, communal, interactive, multitasked environment whereas others require a relatively quiet, uninterrupted atmosphere to do their best work. And it is your job as manager to know which is which and give them what they need to be most productive, at least to the extent possible.
So this begs the question – “When do I give the employee what they need to be most productive and when do I decide enough is enough?” Well, first of all, don’t think of it as giving them something extra or a perq simply because they are motivated differently than you are or need a different working environment than you do. Don’t make it personal even though it is likely to be more effort for you than if they were just like you. Value diversity. As the saying goes, if they always agreed with you then one of you is redundant. So you decide if it is “worth it” just like for other decisions you make – is the net value to the organization positive. If it takes too much of your time, disrupts other employees or in some other way costs the organization to accommodate the employee, then at some point, it is not worth it and you need to encourage (or require) that the employee finds an organization that is a better fit. But the collective value of motivating and accommodating different types of employees is quite a powerful force so don’t be too hasty with that decision. If they are valuable to the organization, try to accommodate their needs and work style and you will gain a loyal employee while benefiting your organization. I have seen this work time and time again.
So what about the flip side of this discussion? What if you find yourself at odds with the motivation style and environment of your organization. If your boss gives hugs and warm wishes whereas you need a threat and kick in the tail to get going. If you need to be left alone to do your best work but your organization has pep rallies and joint morning calisthenics. Well, in the extreme (like these examples) it is probably time for you to find an organization which is a better fit. But if you just need some reasonable accommodations rather than a wholesale change in the organizations culture, it is worth a try even if it is not easy. If you build trust with your boss, gain credibility with early wins and are clear about you can deliver for the organization, the chances are you will find common ground. If you can show the value you provide and you can be clear about what helps you deliver that value, most managers will work with you. But to do this, you need to understand what your manager values and what she needs to do her job too. If what you need makes it fundamentally harder for her to do her job, then forget it. Her time is probably stretched much too thin already and you still need to be considering how to make it easier for her, not more difficult. For example, if you work best with uninterrupted effort so you only want to check email once a day but your boss is must prepare data for her manager every two hours that requires your input, you have a problem. All of this requires significant self-awareness on your part. If you are a high performer you probably have this awareness and you will adapt to your environment as-needed while still asking for what helps you perform at your best. If you have an overinflated opinion of your value, which it turns out many underperformers do, it is going to be difficult. You are not self-aware enough to know you are not self-aware. There may be a couple of future posts for these topics - (i) Don’t be Shy but Don’t Whine and (ii) Being Self-Aware Enough to Know You Are Not Self-Aware Enough.
To sum up the current Post, be sure you internalize the significant differences between each of your employees with respect to how they are motivated and the environment that allows them to optimize their performance. When it comes to obtaining the best from your employees, there is really no substitute for understanding them as individuals.