Recently, my colleague Cynthia stopped by to discuss how differently she reacts to her two managers. One manager always expresses faith in Cynthia’s abilities, includes her at meetings and makes sure to ask her advice about critical decisions. The other simply attempts to find fault and minimize Cynthia’s contributions. Only one of these managers truly understands how to motivate an employee.
Our conversation reminded me of the classic children’s book “The Little Engine that Could.” It’s about a train filled with toys and treats that breaks down before reaching the children, and it asks for help from several other trains going up the hill. Just one small blue train offers help, trying her best to deliver the toys and treats to the children. As she struggles with this challenge, she repeats to herself, “I think I can. I think I can.” And, of course, she succeeds.
How relevant is this story in our hectic professional lives and what meaning can its message have for managers?
Let’s look again at the three key motivators Cynthia identified:
What if the stuck train refused the Little Blue Engine’s help because she was too small, too inexperienced, too insignificant or too junior to accomplish the task? Then the Little Blue Engine would have moved on and would not have risen to the challenge. The message to her would have been, “You can’t do this job.”
When a manager expresses faith in an employee’s ability to do a job, it creates positive energy. Even if the task is challenging, an employee usually will find a way to meet — and often exceed — the goal, if the manager shows confidence in the employee’s capabilities.
Cynthia expressed that sentiment and gave an example when talking with me about her positive manager. “Joe always believes that I am capable of doing the task,” she said. “I sometimes don’t believe it myself, but he does. It makes me want to work harder for him.”
Simply put, when a manager believes in the employee’s abilities, there is a good chance the employee will succeed.
Another strong motivator is sharing important information, which often means including employees in meetings. When she was told by her “demotivating” manager that she was just an add-on to a meeting and that her presence wasn’t really necessary, Cynthia was taken aback. She thought it was insensitive and insulting to hear that from her supervisor.
Without important information, even the most capable employees can’t do their best work. When managers withhold information, whether intentionally or unintentionally, they send a strong and negative message to employees, in effect saying, “I’m important, and you’re not.”
Finally, a motivating manager solicits input from employees before making critical decisions. Consulting on decisions serves several purposes for the manager and the employee.
These three motivators — having faith in an employee’s ability to do the job, sharing information and asking for opinions about critical decisions — are simple, everyday occurrences that a manager can use to motivate employees.
What can we learn from the Little Engine that Could? Amazing things happen when people believe in themselves, and when others believe in them.
Are you a motivating manager?
Susan Zeidman is director of training and development for the NPD Group. She is in charge of all learning solutions for the company, and she provides executive and managerial coaching. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.