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Basketball players practicing

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

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

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.  ‘I know 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.  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.

What does high school basketball have to do with leading adults in organizations?

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 accordingly. This is not just about being nice – it’s about igniting the best in others so they perform more highly. 

first break all rules book

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? How do we know what someone is passionate about?

It’s easy – just ask.  Try this:

Connect. 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?Two people talking

What do you like about what you do now?

What’s one thing most important to you in your work?

If you could do more of something, what would that be?

Where do you see yourself 5 years from now?

What would you need to learn in order to achieve that?

or how about, “How can I help?”

Notice, these questions are not about the job, they are about the other person.

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.

Double click: As you ‘connect’ with your employee, listen intently and be curious. A trick I learned from my colleague Andy Kimball of QUBE International is to double click on key words.

Just like on a computer, when you ‘double click’ your mouse over a topic, it opens up.  So when you’re listening to someone, listen for key words, and try double clicking.  For example if they say:

    1. “I really like variety” = ask ‘What’s an example of variety for you?’
    2. “I want more work-life balance” = ask ‘what would be the ideal balance for you?’
    3. “I want to Advance my career” = as ‘What’s important to you about that?’

Job Sculpt. Once you know what’s motivating a person, you can build more of that 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. You can also involve the employee in building in more of their own motivators.

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.

If you want to know more about how best leaders inspire higher engagement in others, give us a call, or head over to and 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

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