Kyle looks away from the whiteboard, frowning. “That’s interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that before.” Kyle1 is not a junior employee — he’s worked at several companies — so my stomach drops when I hear this. In his 15+ years working, no one has asked him, “What do you find motivating at work?”
Kyle is not the only one missing out on these questions. A recent Gallup poll found that only 30% of surveyed employees have these conversations with their boss. When you don’t talk with your direct reports about what motivates them or their career goals, the best case scenario is that you miss opportunities to help them grow and bring their best selves to work. The worst case scenario? They leave due to your negligence. Lack of career development drives 40% of employee attrition, according to Gartner.
But where do you start? If you were asked, “Hey, what motivates you?” would you know how to answer? I probably wouldn’t.
So to help frame these conversations, over the past year I’ve experimented with something I call “The Motivation Matrix”. It’s effectively a semi-structured qualitative interview, where your job is to ask curious questions, listen, and point out themes. While I’ve written this post with a coach-direct report relationship in mind, I’ve run it with mentees, co-workers, friends, and even just for myself. By the end of the exercise, you and your teammate have a better sense of:
- what motivates them
- what they find draining
- skills they can work on
- their longer term career goals
As a coach, this translates to helping you:
- delegate better
- spot burnout sooner than you might have
- connect your teammates with resources to learn new skills
- make informed decisions about organizational structure and succession planning
Here’s how it works.
How to lead a Motivation Matrix exercise
What you’ll need
Before you get started, you’ll need:
- Rapport with your teammate. These conversations can be vulnerable — one teammate joked they should’ve had a chaise lounge and paid me $150 dollars afterward — so having enough trust built up to have an honest conversation is important. Typically, I want to have worked with someone for at least three months before I run this exercise, but your mileage may vary.
- A writing surface. If you and your teammate are co-located and have access to a whiteboard and markers, great! That means you’re reading this in the future and the pandemic is over. Huzzah! If, however, you’re running this remotely, you can have your teammate create a powerpoint slide and share their screen. For simplicity, the rest of this article will use “board” as a stand-in for whatever writing surface you end up using.
- Active listening skills. There’s nothing worse than having a career conversation with a boss who isn’t listening or invested. You’ll need to be fully engaged: turn off notifications, and pay attention to body language, tone of voice, and word choice cues2. You need to be curious, present, and non-judgmental, or you risk your teammates’ trust.
- About 1 to 1.5 hours. This time should ideally be dedicated outside of a one-on-one.
First, have your teammate divide their board into 5 main sections with the following titles:
Let me briefly break down each of these sections.
- Dream Jobs are those roles that most excite your teammate. You’ll be using these as a jumping off point for additional discussion (more on that in a minute).3
- Strengths are those skills that people feel are easy, energizing, and enjoyable. This approach draws on the concept of “strengths-based coaching”. These will mostly be activities like, Coding in Python, Planning Projects, or Writing.
- If Strengths are the activities that your teammate finds exciting, Motivators are the characteristics that make life and work enjoyable, things like, Having demonstrable impact, Working with smart people and Spending time with family.
- Mehs, by contrast, are those activities or aspects of the workplace your teammate finds draining or de-moralizing, that make someone say, “meh”. I’ve seen things like, Wasting time and money, Process that gets in the way, and Writing. And, yes, what motivates one person might de-motivate another.
- Finally, in the Skills section, you’ll be capturing brainstormed skills from each of the dream jobs your teammate listed. More on this later.
Now that you’ve got your 5 section headers, it’s time to help guide your teammate through some self-discovery. By the end of the exercise, the two of you will have a shared guide on where your direct wants to go, what they enjoy (and don’t), how to best use their talents, and what skills to invest in.
Guiding the Conversation
This is roughly the discussion guide I use when leading a Motivation Matrix exercise:
In the next few paragraphs, I’ll discuss each of these question sections.
This first question is met with a look of incredulity and “My dream job?” Think about it: when was the last time someone asked you what you wanted to be when you grow up? It’s not a question we’re usually asked. Expect a pause here, and be comfortable with at least thirteen seconds of silence before someone writes something down on the board.
When I’ve done this with my directs, usually the first job they’ll put is more or less the job they’re doing (or my job). Either we’re all actually pretty happy with our jobs or we feel the need to assuage our boss (or ourselves). So don’t stop at just one job. Ask the followup question, “What are some other dream jobs?”
Encourage these dream jobs to be creative and bold. When I’ve asked this, I heard a wide array of jobs, including economist, pilot, non-profit leader, professional audio book listener, baker, and qualitative UX researcher (I put stand-up comedian on mine). Usually, you’ll end up with somewhere around 3 to 5 different jobs,4 but I’ve seen as many as 12. Some people will have highly ambitious dream jobs (e.g. “CTO”) while others will have other priorities (e.g. “full-time parent”). It’s important that you don’t let your own career goals color your response here.
While this section of the discussion guide seems linear, in practice you’ll need to improvise, repeat questions, allow for pauses, and loop back. Your job is to identify and label things your teammate is saying that sound like strengths, motivators, and mehs, and ask clarifying followup questions. Here’s an example with Kyle:
R: So you want to be a yoga instructor? That’s cool! I had no idea.
K: Yes, I had a back injury when I was younger and it’s helped me a lot.
R: Oh, I didn’t know that. I’ve noticed you’re really good at teaching when new hires join, too. What do you think about putting it as a “Strength”?
K: Yeah, I am good at that, thanks! I really enjoy it.
R: What else makes you want to teach yoga? What makes that dream job feel exciting?
K: Well, in tech, you usually have to work a standard 40 hour work week. But if you’re a yoga teacher you have more flexibility to work different hours. And you get to have space to meditate more regularly.
R: Do you like having space to meditate?
K: Yes I do.
R: Let’s put that under “Motivators”. Tell me more about having more flexible time.
K: Well, *laughs* I’m a little weird, I’m usually at my best in the mornings and the evenings. Working a 9 to 5 just doesn’t always jive well with me.
R: You don’t like working a 9 to 5?
K: [long pause] Not really, no.
R: Hmm, so would you say “Working in the mornings and evenings” is a motivator or that “Working 9 to 5 is a demotivator”?
K: I guess they’re the same, but I want to stay positive so I’ll put it on the “Motivator” section.
R: What else do you find exciting about being a yoga instructor?
And so on. You’ll do this for a while, with each of the jobs your teammate has listed in their “Dream Jobs” section. Here’s what Kyle’s example might look like by now:
You can also use this as an opportunity to briefly ask about things that might be de-motivating in someone’s current role. For example:
K: Yeah, I have a tough time interacting with grumpy people. I find them really draining.
R: Can you give me an example of what grumpy looks like?
K: [pause] Well, the other morning at our kanban meeting I had an interaction with ____ where he kept saying no to all my ideas.
It might be tempting to dig into this more. Don’t. In my experience, digging too much into current de-motivators can distract from the exercise overall. Instead, take this and file it away to follow up in a subsequent one-on-one.
When you have about 20-30 minutes left in your time together, you’ll have your teammate pick their favorite job that they’ve listed and answer these questions, listing each of these skills under the “Skills” section. You’ll probably need to follow up with some “And what else?” questions here, or even suggest some skills that they might be missing.
For example, if one of Kyle’s other dream jobs is Professor, you might come up with the following list of skills:
If you have time, you can repeat this with a few of the other dream jobs. You want to have roughly 10-15 minutes left for the next section.
Some of the skills your teammate listed might already be strengths. If that’s the case, be sure to encourage them to add them to the Strengths column on the board.
Other skills, however, won’t feel as strong due to lack of opportunity or lack of motivation around building them. Ask them which of these weaker skills they feel most excited to learn, or that they feel will benefit them the most in their long-term dreams. Underline these. You’ll be following up with them in a subsequent coaching session to come up with a learning plan around these skills.5
Sometimes folks are surprised at what skills they can learn in their current role. Take Writing grant proposals, for instance. While most Data Scientists in industry don’t need to write academic grant proposals in their day-to-day jobs, they often do need to write persuasively around how they intend to solve problems and the costs/benefits involved (not unlike a grant proposal). If Kyle wanted to work on this skill, I’d know to start delegating these opportunities to him, connect him with a mentor who does it well, and encourage him to find a workshop on persuasive technical writing. Kyle growing this skill helps me, too, because as he improves, I can lean on him for this kind of work.
As you wrap up, you and your teammate will take a screenshot or photo of the resulting board and keep it in a shared doc. Here’s what Kyle’s board might look like by the end of the session. Note that this is a simplified example — you should expect to see more items under each header.
You’ll also want to reiterate to your teammate some next steps. As I note above, this is a vulnerable exercise, so your direct will want some reassurance with how you’ll help them with this information. So you’ll want to explain how you’ll:
- work with them to develop a learning plan around skills in a subsequent session
- find and frame new projects around their strengths
- follow up on potential de-motivators and address them
- connect them to new opportunities, mentors, and resources that I know they’d find energizing
In Kyle’s case, I’d tell him that I would:
- Share some development courses or books on responding to feedback
- Encourage him to block off time and find a space for some quiet time to recharge during the day
- Look for more opportunities for him to teach others (perhaps even a workshop on mindfulness at work?)
- Follow up in a separate one-on-one about the recent grumpy interaction with a teammate
These are highly individualized to Kyle, and will hopefully help him feel more engaged and productive at work.6
If you run this exercise across your team, you’ll end up with very different results for different teammates. Some are going to want to be Chief Data Officers as their dream job. Others will want a job that maximizes their time at home with their family. Some will love writing (me). Others find it exhausting.
Your job as a manager is finding creative, strategic ways of taking everyone’s unique mish-mash of motivations and making it work across multiple teammates. You might move a teammate off one team to a new team that will better challenge her, thereby giving another teammate the green space they need to have more impact. Or partner someone who wants more experience mentoring and enjoys coding in Java with a teammate who wants to grow this skill. This might feel like an intricate game of three-dimensional chess when you’d rather play an easy game of checkers. But if your dream job involves managing people, it’s a skill worth learning.
- All names used throughout this blog post are pseudonyms and I’ve heavily modified details to protect anonymity.
- In improv comedy, this is sometimes called “legal ears” — i.e. the kind of ears you need to have if you’re a lawyer trying to figure out details in a case.
- Readers familiar with Kim Scott’s Radical Candor might recognize this part of the framework. I found her book deeply helpful in kicking off these kinds of conversations earlier in my coaching career; consequently, this blog post has some heavy parallels with the framework she and her collaborator Russ Laraway share. There are two key differences. First, Kim and Russ’s approach includes a conversation where your employees tell you their life story and you help them identify their values. I tried this and I’m not sure how effective it was, but you might find it helpful in your own management practice. Second, Kim and Russ’s framework has less focus on other motivators and de-motivators outside of skill development. In any case, if you haven’t read Radical Candor yet, drop everything and go get a copy right now. Barring that, this podcast gives a nice overview.
- What happens if someone only gives you one job, even after you encourage them to come up with more? This has happened to me only once while running this exercise. In that case, I simply reframed “Dream Jobs” as “Jobs” and asked my teammate to tell me stories about what they did and didn’t enjoy from each of those jobs (including their current one).
- For an introduction to collaborating on a learning plan in a coaching session, see this two part podcast from Manager Tools.
- For another great take on reframing work to feel more engaged, check out Designing Your Work Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans.