Help employees choose their own adventure

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Eric Allais is President & CEO of PathGuide Technologies, which provides warehouse management and shipping solutions to distributors.

Do the Choose your own adventure books ring a bell? For the uninitiated, the premise was that each book offered readers a variety of choices throughout the story that would determine what would happen next. You could choose which path to take or which villain to encounter, leading to multiple possible endings that allow for endless rereads with different results each time. What does this have to do with business strategy?

I’ve been thinking about these books because they relate to helping employees achieve success in their careers. What motivates employees who work hard, do well, grow and build successful careers? More importantly, what’s stopping those who don’t see the same fruitful results from their labor, and why?

In an exercise akin to making my own Choose your own adventure book I discovered four categories of outcomes that tend to motivate success. Looking back, I wanted to better understand what holds back people who are less motivated to take their careers to the next level. The goal: Recognize who is on a mediocre path (and why) and lead them in a direction that generates more enthusiasm and leads to a better outcome.

Contents

Common Obstacles in the Employee Journey

I’ve noticed three recurring themes that often keep employees from achieving the same level of success as your typical star performer.

1. They lack positive influences in their career.

Perhaps the employee is not confident in his skills or has not had a mentor who invested time in him. Perhaps they made a mistake on a project and hoped to avoid repeating that mistake on a similar task. If it was a public bust, with the results released by management, fear of further scrutiny or potential embarrassment could be a roadblock. Or this employee is often overlooked when handling certain projects; the reasons may vary, but they feel like the kid who always got picked last in gym class. These employees often lack a positive role model to praise their contributions at work.

2. They make excuses or deviate.

Then there are those who make excuses for their performance (or lack thereof). You’ll probably hear them say something like, “the project is outside the scope of what we’re doing,” or it’s going to “take too long to see results.” Another example is someone who pushes back on a project because he or she has to carry the team or end up doing most of the work. On the other hand, they may shift responsibility for a project and suggest that someone else has the time or is more capable. The challenge is that these individuals often react dismissively when encouraged to take their game to the next level.

3. They don’t apply themselves.

Finally, there are people who are completely disconnected from their work (hello, silent quitters). These individuals are distracted, have little energy for tasks, or are no longer interested in their work. They may find it easier to procrastinate than to work harder. If the carrot doesn’t entice them, it’s quite possible that the stick won’t either. At the other end of the spectrum are those who claim that the work conflicts with their personal beliefs. Collectively, this is the most difficult group of employees to get back on track. You may have to help some of them choose their next adventure.

A roadmap to success

After identifying common roadblocks, I looked for similarities between employees who consistently achieved success. While it probably depends on the profession, I’ve observed four potential motivators that employers could use to help employees, depending on the circumstances.

1. Identify the tangible benefit to success.

Even though we all go to work to earn a paycheck, some people have an insatiable need to succeed. Some do it for personal gain, while others enjoy it because they just need to feel needed. Whether their livelihood depends on the income to keep a roof over their heads or whether it gives them the freedom to give back, support others, participate in hobbies, travel, etc., these employees enjoy satisfaction from need their work.

2. Make it a game where recognition is the prize.

Success, and the recognition that comes with it, can propel certain individuals forward, such as the Energizer Bunny. Whether they’ve been there before and understand what it takes to get back on top, or high expectations are simply ingrained in their personality, competitive pressures may be necessary to drive success.

3. Name possible consequences.

For a particular group, it may not be money or even an inherent excitement that compels them. They take Ed Harris’s words in the film to heart apollo 13, Portraying NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz: “Failure Is Not an Option.” Their motivation may come from knowing that failure has consequences, that KPIs are under scrutiny, or that they simply don’t want to be embarrassed.

4. Defend the greater good.

Finally, there are employees who are happy to work extra hours if it means they don’t have to let their customers or team down. This group may also believe that motivation can trump intelligence, and they probably enjoy continuous learning to improve their work. They are passionate about their work and believe it is their duty to promote success.

Managing employees is challenging these days, but understanding what motivates them is more important than ever. Doing it successfully is like bending the rules of one Choose your own adventure book. Sometimes you have to jump forward to make sure you don’t accidentally lead your character over the edge of a cliff. Or in this case, you need to determine what the employee thinks is in their best interest to move them forward. Helping unmotivated employees get from where they are to a desired outcome takes time, planning, attention and effort. Of course, this is not an exhaustive list as every company has its own unique drivers and challenges. But hopefully this will inspire you to work with employees to “choose their own adventure” and lead them on a path to career success. There is hope for the motivated and there are many ways to get there.


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