Businessmen in a meeting

Re-Evaluating Managers’ Motives

February 19, 2020

Posted by Sophia Man

In today’s workforce, Managers are often criticized for their poor management, committing the cardinal sin such as leading with a big ego, micro-management, showing lack of support for staff development and not communicating openly. And the list goes on and on.

Indeed, when job fulfilment and satisfaction at the workplace is becoming even more important, many employees have become less tolerant of being led and managed poorly.

They are increasingly expecting Managers to step up their management game by providing more coaching, feedback, development, communications, etc.

Although companies have taken the popular steps to better equip their Managers, from revamping competency frameworks and re-assessing selection criteria, to providing more management training and exposure, these well-intentioned initiatives have often failed to deliver obvious results.

So, where have we missed the mark? And what else can we do?

When reviewing the strategies to enhance Managers’ capabilities, we often see one common theme across organizations –While companies often tell Managers “how” to manage well by equipping them with the required skills and knowledge through different trainings, guidelines and curriculum, few engage Managers with their “why” – their motivation – the ultimate force that drives them to demonstrate good management day in and day out.

It’s more than a skills problem.

Indeed, this pitfall is quite common. Fundamental Attribution Error in psychology tells us that we as humans have a strong tendency to over-attribute the behavior of others to internal factors, such as opinions, judgements, personality traits and abilities, and underestimate the external environmental and contextual circumstances that might also affect them.

Hence, when diagnosing the cause of so-called “poor management”, companies point to the lack of skills and competencies of Managers, rather than organizational conditions (e.g. culture, environment and policies) that might also be at play.

It explains why the traditional paradigm on enhancing management capabilities has primarily focused on the establishment of skills and up-skilling.

While important, focusing on building leadership skills and competencies will not suffice for Managers to show good management.

After all, knowing how to lead doesn’t equate to wanting to lead and acting on it.

Transforming Managers to demonstrate good management, essentially, requires a behavioral change from the inside-out. In this case, understanding the psychology of behavior helps us identify what truly drives Managers to execute good management.

The link of motivation and performance. 

Research has long told us that motivation is critical for goal attainment and performance because it serves as a psychological catalyst that guides and drives our behavior.

The importance of motivation is not a new idea. Yet, in practice, few consider its importance and implications for promoting good management behavior.

Some HR peers might say “But it’s Managers’ responsibility to manage others.

It’s nice if they’re motivated to do so. But if not, it’s still part of their job!”

While this sounds right, this is not how the psychology of human behavior works.

Realistically, we can’t just assume Managers will show good management just because they opted into the role, they’re held accountable for it, or they’ve learned the fundamental skills in theory.

In fact, Vroom’s classic Expectancy Theory explained that people are only motivated to behave in a certain way based on the expectation that their effort and performance will lead to desirable outcomes that suit them.

In other words, to motivate Managers to execute good management, it is crucial that they see clearly how their good management behavior would lead to positive outcomes for themselves, their teams, and their culture (in that order).

The message we’ve been telling our Managers.

Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, few organizations currently have strategies at a systemic level to incentivize Managers to perform good management.

The link between management performance and positive outcomes grounded in personal motivations, as a result, is often blurry or non-existent.

Over time, this sends off a negative message to our Managers’ radar:
“We hear that we’re expected to put in more time and effort to lead, develop and guide our staff, ALL on top of my already heavy workload. And what do I get in return? Is it really worth it?!”

Managing effectively is hard work (and we empathize). When Managers see there are little to no rewards to manage well while juggling other daily demands, even the aspiring ones would feel de-motivated and end up, consciously or subconsciously, putting their management hat at the back-seat.

And this is often the case we see these days.

How we can do it differently?

Now you might say “Okay, it’s not just a skills problem. It’s about connecting management skills with motivation to optimize management behavior. But how exactly do we plant and strengthen the psychology pathway of motivation, i.e. management performance leading to positive outcomes, in Managers’ mind??”

​To do so, we need to first identify what motivates individual Managers to lead, then build incentives aligned with their drivers, and reinforce the desired management behavior with active role-modelling, while creating an environment in which they are freed-up to lead.

1. Using design thinking to identify motivations

By using design thinking – the process of designing solutions from the users’ perspective – we root out motivation drivers directly from the Managers’ point of view.

To have a holistic understanding of what truly makes our Managers “tick”, the practice of asking and observing our Managers is crucial.

In fact, companies rarely ask their Managers what motivate them to lead, but rather just assume they know (which we know it is not a logical approach). Alternatively, if we seek to understand first, with empathy and an intention to help Managers succeed in their own journey, we take the powerful first step towards unlocking their real drivers.

Now, not all Managers would feel comfortable enough to openly share their real motivations in a focus group or a 1:1 development session (it could be a sensitive topic after all).

And some might not be consciously aware of their motivations and therefore can’t articulate them.

Hence, additionally, taking the time to observe how Managers really are when they are “in-motion”- what they do at the frontline and how they interact with their staff on a regular basis, we can gain powerful insights into their management pain points and the blocks that might otherwise go unnoticed or unspoken.

2. Building insights-based incentives to encourage good management   

Once we understand what motivates our Managers to lead, here are some considerations when ideating the incentives –

One, motivations to lead are dynamic in nature. Rather than having a one-size-fits-all incentive program, there should be different incentives in place that speak to different motivational needs of Managers.

Two, incentives must be directly linked to the motivational drivers of the Managers. Developing customized, insights-based incentives will appeal to their specific needs.

In psychology, motivations can be derived from intrinsic (internally-driven) and extrinsic (externally-driven) factors.

To incentivize Managers who are primarily driven by extrinsic drivers to lead, organizations can develop a clearly laid-out and communicated “reward system” – both financial and non-financial- such as bonuses, promotion, public recognition, leadership exposure and opportunities to lead key projects, and directly link it to management performance to drive good management.

On the other hand, to incentivize Managers who are guided by intrinsic drivers to lead – whether it be sense of contentment, shaping the future of the company or helping others to succeed –organizations that emphasize meanings and purposes (beyond making profits) at a systemic level will often inspire and bolster Managers’ own internal meanings to lead.  

Also, embedding other meaning-enhancing building blocks such as connecting company’s vision to Manager’s emotional values, trust and sense of ownership helps nourish Managers’ internal value system that guides them to execute good management behavior.

3. Promoting intrinsic motivations to sustain good management  

Indeed, when we focus on nourishing the intrinsic motivations, Managers have a higher chance of keeping up with their good management behavior in the long run.

“Ultimately, an inspirational manager must be able to lead their staff with head and heart,” says Aalok Gupta, former Head of Learning & Talent Development at HSBC. “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

While the “head” part deals with using skills, knowledge and strategies to lead effectively, the “heart” part – consistently showing care and support in employees’ work and development –  is equally important for Managers to earn their credits of good management in the eyes of their staff.

Hence, rather than the extrinsic motivations, it’s the intrinsic motivations – naturally laden with purpose and meaning – that connect to the “heart” of the Manager, inspiring them to emotionally connect with their teamsand allowing them to consistently show genuine care and support to their staff throughout their management journey.

4. Reinforcing with role-modelling and freeing up Managers to lead

While a clearly-developed link between management performance and positive outcomes can incentivize good management behavior, an ongoing reinforcement is equally important for its sustainability.

Role-modelling from senior management deeply affects good management culture in organizations.  “Senior management must be able to walk the talk,” said Chester Nam, Regional Training Manager (North Asia) at Abbott Diagnostics Laboratory, “if Managers are urged to spend more time coaching their staff, for instance, but their direct supervisors and senior leaders never use coaching in their daily management, most Managers are not likely to bother.”

When senior leaders consistently show up as people leaders, modelling the leadership behavior that they expect from Managers, they set up the management standards for Managers to align their management behavior accordingly.

The top-down effect takes time, but the impact is long-term and infectious.

Realistically, many Managers – even for the ones with the best intention to lead and develop their staff – find themselves spending a significant amount of their time handling other non-supervisory responsibilities, dealing with meetings, tackling team-based problems and other administrative tasks.

Lacking the time to lead has become a real motivation-killer for many.

Here, organizations can help Managers “gain” back their time to lead by reworking internal processes and delegations, and re-evaluating their current job responsibilities.

Freeing up Managers from the unnecessary tasks and responsibilities will allow them to focus on what matters most in their role – to be a true leader with the time, the skills and the desire that guide and inspire their teams to move towards company’s direction while developing them individually.

Hence, poor management cannot be merely solved by more skills-enhancements for Managers.  

Looking at the issue from a psychology framework helps us see the necessary, yet often ignored element for cultivating good management behavior in organizations – motivation.

Just as our favourite scientist Albert Einstein once said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results”.  If we want to re-gain our sanity over the epidemic of “poor management”, it’s time we looked at the problem more holistically.

And this time with a motivational lens.