Find the Right Motivations – Zig Zag Principle #61

February 8th, 2012 by Rich Christiansen


incentivesWhat Will Motivate Your People?

Before developing your system of rewards, remember that what motivates one person may not motivate the next.  When I was general manager of About.com’s web services division, I had a highly talented engineer named Earl who worked for me.  He was, without question, one of our brightest engineers, but I continually struggled to figure out how to motivate this guy.  I regularly gave out bonuses, rewards, and incentives that everyone else loved, but Earl did not seem to care.  Nothing I offered seemed to motivate him, and I knew his contributions were affected by his apathy toward my rewards system. 

As we were planning our first Christmas party, I finally figured out what motivated Earl.  During a planning session, he asked if he could play a piano number for the entertainment.  I didn’t think much about it, but told him that would be fine.  The night of the Christmas party, Earl walked in, all decked out in a tuxedo, complete with flowing tails.  When he sat down to play the piano, it was clear he cared deeply about his performance, and he delivered his delightful number with the flare of a concert pianist.  Everyone cheered and clapped for him, and then he stood up and gave an overly exaggerated bow.  From that point forward, I knew what motivated him.  He didn’t care about things or money.  He loved recognition and any opportunity to perform and take a bow.

As the New Year began, I implemented what I dubbed “Lunch and Learn with Earl.”  Twice each month, we’d have a Lunch and Learn where the company would buy lunch and the junior engineers could visit with this master engineer.  They would ask him questions, he would impart his wisdom, and at the end they would all clap and Earl would beam.  The junior engineers learned a great deal from Earl, and Earl loved the recognition.  Productivity went through the roof. 

I had another employee who would always get really excited about the rewards I proposed, but before she achieved her goal, she would simply go out and buy the same thing she was going to be rewarded with.  And while she did good work, I knew she could be doing far more.  This pattern caused me immense frustration, but I finally found out that what she really wanted was for us to pay for her tuition at school and call it a scholarship.  By listening carefully to things she said, I learned that her parents had plenty of money, but they had always drilled into their children how they had gone through college on scholarships.  This young woman had good grades, but because she had no real financial need, she hadn’t been able to get a scholarship.  So, I developed a reward system that provided her with the scholarship she so desperately wanted.  

It’s also important to figure out what the people you are trying to motivate do not want.  I’ve learned that a reward for one person may actually feel like a punishment for another.  A few years ago, we established a reward for the young men who were working for CastleWave to go to Las Vegas and see the Blue Man Group.  We set up a very specific goal and also very specific rewards, which included going to the Stratosphere and riding on a roller coaster set atop of one of the tallest hotels that juts out over the city.  These boys, with one exception, worked extra hard because they loved the idea of this trip.  When they weren’t focused on the work, it was all they talked about. The exception happened to be a different personality type.  He was one of our key engineers who was a little shy and did not like big crowds.  In fact, the thought of going to Las Vegas with a bunch of loud teenagers couldn’t have been less motivating. 

Gratefully, he came to me and let me know that he really did not want to go on this trip. So, I found something else that motivated this engineer, and took the other boys when they reached their goal.  If I had ignored his needs, the outcome might have been tragic.  He was a key member of the team, and he could have subconsciously tried to sabotage the goal for the rest of the group because he did not want to go on the trip.

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