The Motivating Question Most Bosses Don’t Think to Ask

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As any manager knows: Setting goals for your team often feels more challenging than it should. After all, a goal is just a sentence or two. But when you’re a manager, you need to not only connect them to larger company goals, but also ensure that your team will be motivated enough to complete them.

And no, not because their happiness is your own goal, but because motivated employees are productive employees. The more productive they are, the easier your life will be.

So, what’s the secret formula for doing just this? It’s actually pretty simple—just ask your direct reports what their goals are.

Really! I’ve found that many leaders don’t spend enough time asking their employees what their career goals are.

This is a big mistake. Not only do these discussions demonstrate that you actually care about your team and their success, they’ll also give you valuable information you can use to lead them effectively. Because every time you can connect one of their goals to a team goal, you’re making it (almost) impossible for them not to give it their all.

For example, let’s say that one of your department’s goals is to manage 100 client accounts. If you manage an analyst who works behind the scenes but has aspirations for a client-facing role, your goal might be for her to get more opportunities for client interaction.

To help her with this, you could start by allowing her to attend some client meetings or take a small role in a presentation. Or, if she isn’t quite ready for that, you could suggest that she attend Toastmaster’s to improve her presentation skills (or, try to find some room in the budget for the company to sponsor her). As she gains confidence, you’ll be able to offload more assignments to her, and have more time to spend growing your client base.

See how well this works?

Here are some questions you can ask during your next one-on-one to understand their ambitions:

  • What’s one career goal you’d like to achieve this year?
  • Where would you like to be in one year? Five years?
  • What do you enjoy doing?
  • What motivates you at work? What doesn’t motivate you?
  • What new projects or assignments would you love to take on in the next year?
  • What are you currently doing for your own professional development?
  • How can I be a resource for you?

As you’re having these conversations, aim to be both supportive, but honest. For example, if you have an inexperienced employee whose goal is to be a manager in 12 months, you’ll need to provide him with candid feedback about how that timeline is probably unlikely. At the same time, you could work with him to set goals (in areas like time management, organization, or leadership) that could help him get himself better prepared for that kind of opportunity down the road.

Just one final note: As you’re setting goals, make sure that you keep each person’s skill level in mind so that you can provide adequate oversight and coaching. After all, you’re the one who’s ultimately responsible for your team and their success (or failure), so you’ll need to be smart about what you delegate (and to whom).

Still, the benefits of aligning your employees’ goals with your own are worth it. When your employees are motivated and performing well, everyone wins in the end.

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