Skip to main content
Basketball player dribbling ball driving past a defender

Want to Motivate your employees? First, Break this rule!

Basketball player dribbling ball driving past a defender

We’re 2 hours into running our guts out at our nightly basketball practice; fast breaks, full court press, and running endless sets of lines.  Suddenly the coach yells ‘STOP!’ As he berated the unlucky player who missed a lay up, we ashamedly hunch over, hands on our knees, gasping for air as the sweat streamed from our faces.  No-way that player missed another lay-up.

Next time down the floor the whistle blew again, ‘STOP!’  Shit.  I’d missed an easy jumper.  I braced for the barrage of criticism.  ‘Matt’ he said in a reassuring voice.  ‘there’s no one on this team that try’s harder than you’. [I lifted my head] ‘You’re a shooter’ he said. [I stood up straight] ‘Relax, and shoot the way I know you can’. [I hit the next 5 jumpers in a row].

What rule did this coach break?

‘Treat everyone the same’.  That’s right.  You’ve heard that. ‘You have to treat everyone the same’. Well I call BS. This coach knew something about motivation.  He knew what each of his players unique needs were, and he treated each one differently.  He broke the rule.

The one player was a natural athlete, strong, fit, determined, and he responded to a challenge. I was 2nd string and desperately wanted to add value to the team, I responded to encouragement.  He treated us all fairly, but not the same. He treated each of us uniquely.

What does high school basketball have to do with business leadership?

If you’ve ever read the book First Break All the Rules (Buckingham and Coffman) one of the rules they  encourage us to break is to ‘treat everyone the same’.  The best leaders in the world, take the time to understand what motivates their employees and then treat them uniquely. This is not about being nice – it’s about igniting the best in others so they perform more highly. 

There are reams of data and research studies showing a direct co-relation between companies who have high employee engagement, and their ability to generate higher revenue, have higher customer loyalty, and higher employee retention.  See the Gallup Q-12 Meta-analysis as one example.

Most employee engagement surveys have questions in them such as:

  • My Manager or someone at work seems to care about me and my development
  • I have an opportunity to do what I do best
  • I’ve been recognized in the last seven days for what I do best

So how do we tap into what motivates someone?

Here’s 2 quick ideas:

2 business women talking and getting to know each other better
photo by Christina Morillo – Pexels


Connect.1 Take time to get to know the other person.  In a meeting, over coffee, on your way to the next sales call.  It only takes a few minutes to ask someone about what matters most to them:

  • What attracted you to your current role?
  • What do you like about what you do now?
  • If you could do more of something, what would that be?
  • Whats most challenging for you in getting to do more of that
  • Where do you see yourself say, 5 years from now?
  • What would you need to learn in order to achieve that?
  • “How can I help?”

Notice, these questions are not about the job, they are about the other person. Now you have a better sense of what motivates them. Now you can use that knowledge to keep things exciting or interesting for them.

If you’re thinking, ‘ya, easy for a high school coach, but I don’t have time’. Consider that this coach had a full time day job, 2 kids, a wife, and his own recreation.  You can do it, and if you do tap into what motivates your team members, you’ll reap the rewards of higher performance and higher engagement.

For a quick guide on how to connect easily and effectively click here.

Job Sculpt

Job Sculpt. Once you know what’s motivating a person, you can build more of those elements into their work.  In their book What Motivates Me, Chester Elton and Adrianne Gostick, call this job sculpting.   You don’t have to change their job completely – after all – they signed up for it.  But you can look for ways to build in more of what they like.

For example, maybe you’ve noticed they really come alive when they are problem solving with team members, perhaps they’re particularly good at resolving technical issues, or maybe they like organizing and facilitating team meetings. You can also involve the employee in building in more of their own motivators.

In Summary

So in summary, if you want to find a way to motivate your employees?

  1. Take the time to connect with each employee.
  2. Listen to understand what is most motivating to them.
  3. Break the rule and treat each employee uniquely – treat them all fairly, but each one, uniquely.
  4. Look for ways to ‘sculpt’ their current role, to include more of the things that motivate them.
  5. When you provide feedback or ideas, remember to include what they care about.

1 Andy Kimball, Chief Performance Officer for Clearchoice Dental coined this term and has used it to train thousands of leaders around the world.

Want to know more about how best leaders inspire higher engagement in others?  Give us a call, or head over to our leadership training page or check out our Coaching for Engagement or What About Me seminars.


Matt MacEachern

Ignite the best in self and others


  • Another great article Matt and so true!! I’ve been practicing most of these for a while now and they really work. There were a few new techniques I can’t wait to try out and I especially loved the double click idea. I also loved the personal story at the beginning to demonstrate the point. Thanks for sharing and keep em coming!!

    • Hi Dale. Thanks so much. I’m not surprised you use these techniques. You’re always authentically curious about other people – you just ask questions so naturally. thanks again Dale

Leave a Reply


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

How to Motivate Employees in 10 Minutes or Less

Get your free eBook when you subscribe to my newsletter.