The money’s nice, but ... Featured

9:41am EDT July 22, 2002

My brother-in-law, Ed, recently started a new job as a manager of the used car department in a large car dealership, after 15 years managing another, smaller dealership for the owner.

His comments to me on a visit to Florida made me think about motivational theory in a new way.

He says he feels angry, unappreciated, second-guessed,”and micromanaged. Why is this top performer, who was promoted six times in the course of 15 years in his last job before the dealership was sold, feeling unappreciated, demotivated and ready to quit?

First, it’s important to look at the culture in a car dealership, for the corporate culture defines the environment for motivation. One way of looking at it is to use the formula “B = f(ExP)” or “Behavior is a function of both the environment in which the behavior is produced and the personality of the individual who’s doing the job.”

We have all seen star performers in one department flounder in another. A culture which encourages creativity and teamwork, and leaders who spark enthusiasm and unleash potential, produce different behaviors than a culture which punishes failure and promotes fear in employees. This has been defined as a “Fight, flight or freeze” culture. Fighting (anger, hostility and resentment), flight (absenteeism, turnover, evasion of job duties) or freezing (apathy, procrastination or stagnation) are the result of management through overcontrol.

Salespeople in a car dealership are expected to work extremely long hours for an unpredictable payoff. Employees compete intensely for customers, since most dealerships work on a “first to see the customer, gets the customer” basis, and the salespeople are working on straight commission. Also, most dealerships experience lots of down time, when customers aren’t available.

So if the relationships with other salespeople or managers aren’t working well, the friction that results is especially unpleasant.

Salespeople typically talk with each other and their sales manager during this down time, since they have few other tasks when there’s no one to sell to. You really get to know the people you work with in long hours of interaction. So Ed’s gift, which is his ability to maintain friendships and motivate people, while at the same time not being “the heavy,” is especially useful in this environment. He understands people, accepts their limitations and knows how to keep them motivated.

The boss in this dealership (and many car dealerships where turnover and absenteeism are high) wanted to create a hierarchical structure — “where everyone knew who was boss.” It didn’t work so well with a group of independent operators who were motivated by a less forceful and more subtle form of management and who wanted to create relationships which worked well in an environment that required lots of time together.

Ed, like most experienced salespeople, is motivated to achieve when he is “left to his own devices” by being able to “do whatever it takes” to get the job done. The day I talked to him, he had decided to leave ahead of schedule, having put in 12 hours the day before when only an 8-hour day was scheduled.

In his old job, this would have been fine. He was given the ability to make decisions without checking in. He was able to “own” the job — to get results in whatever way he could. In his new job, he was called on the carpet for not checking with the owner before he left.

When you examine the issue of motivating others to do their best work, you need to look at both extrinsic rewards — pay, benefits, working conditions and perks — and intrinsic rewards, a feeling of accomplishment and achievement.

When asked what motivates them to do a good job, people mention intrinsic rewards such as challenging work, risk taking, the ability to see the results of their work, recognition, creativity and relationships with coworkers and their boss. And they mention them far more frequently than they mention money or benefits. So, although Ed was making more money in his new job, he felt less motivated to produce results.

But there is no one formula for motivating people. Each person is different, which means you have to thoroughly get to know your employees — and build relationships — before you can learn what motivates them. At different stages of our careers, different needs and motivations kick in.

It’s always good to ask, “When were you motivated to achieve your best work and why?” during the interview process and listen carefully to the answer to be sure you can offer what they’re looking for. Some employees may be motivated by risk taking — but you don’t have a job which offers that particular reward. Some may be looking to build friendships on the job — but they may have to work by themselves in the job you have available. Some may want to work for a good boss, some may want their skills and abilities utilized, or to work with cutting edge technology.

Keep in mind, though, that some motivators are universal. Most people, in jobs ranging from factory work to senior management, like to see a result or achieve “closure” — to see a job through from beginning to end.

Another common driver is the overriding need to feel competent in their job. This requires managers to create short-term, achievable goals, provide a chance to learn new skills required to achieve the results and provide positive feedback when the job is done well.

Holly Maurer-Klein is president of HMK Associates, a human resource consulting firm that assists companies in all stages of growth to hire, motivate and retain their best people. Reach her at (412) 362-7355 or hmk@hmkassociates.com.