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Lead Your Team Managing

High or Low? Managing a Team with Different Motivation Levels

High or Low? Managing a Team with Different Motivation Levels
Credit: SFIO CRACHO/Shutterstock

Many workplace experts recommend a customized leadership approach in which bosses adjust their management style to best motivate each individual employee. Some suggest handling employees by generational group, but often, the most effective method is much simpler: managing team members according their own motivation levels.

Think about the superstars on your team. These are the employees who consistently go above and beyond without being asked. They're always looking for the next challenge, and when you hand it to them, they do an outstanding job. These are your "high performers."

"Low performers," on the other hand, do a good job, but only when they're encouraged, reminded and guided every step of the way. That's not to say that low performers are bad employees — they simply need a different type of leadership. [See Related Story: What Kind of Leader Are You? Traits, Skills and Styles]

In their book "Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results Without Losing Your Soul" (AMACOM, 2016), authors Karin Hurt and David Dye explain that determining your management approach for each of your team members begins with identifying their level of competence and confidence in their role.

"Your high performers and low performers need fundamentally different things," said Hurt, a leadership consultant and CEO of Let's Grow Leaders. "What many managers misunderstand is that potentially 'high performers' are showing up as 'low performers' because they haven't been given the proper challenges and encouragement."

"If a leader were to manage all levels of employees the same way, top talent may get frustrated and/or low performers may get overwhelmed," added Samantha Lambert, director of human resources at Blue Fountain Media.

Hurt and Dye outlined four competence/confidence combinations that cover most employees on any given team:

This could be an employee in the perfect sweet spot of positive energy and flow, or who may be becoming a bit bored and longing for more, said Dye, president of leadership training and consulting firm Trailblaze, Inc

"At best, they're your A-players, although the high confidence/competence combo can sometimes manifest itself in feelings of superiority, particularly if the rest of the team is weak," he added.

An employee with high competence but low confidence needs encouragement.

"The good news is you've got skills to work with," Hurt said. "The low confidence may appear as disengagement, but don't be fooled."

These employees think they're doing a great job, but aren't quite meeting expectations. They need help seeing their strengths and developmental opportunities more clearly.

"Offering feedback through 360 assessments, specific examples and coaching will help bring his skills in line with his self-perceptions," said Dye.

Most often, an employee who lacks both competence and confidence needs training. Be sure to connect what you're asking of them to why it matters, Hurt said: "Help them understand how their work connects to the big picture. Then train and teach the skills she needs for success in the role."

Hurt noted that there may also be a skills mismatch, so when you're working with a low competence/low confidence employee, have deeper developmental conversations to determine if there is a better fit for him or her within your organization.

Similarly, Lambert advised having one-on-one conversations with employees to discover more about how each of them learns, works and needs to be managed.

"If budget permits, there is software and third-party [platforms] that can help you learn about employees by having them take a PI (predictive index) test … to assess employee behaviors and how they will 'likely' deal with certain situations surrounding employment and the type of manager they need," she added.

Leaders may sometimes ignore higher performers because they don't need the same level of attention that a lower performer does. Although high performers are often self-motivated, managers should continue working with these employees to set measurable goals and provide feedback, said Andee Harris, chief engagement officer of HighGround employee engagement software.

"Managers need to step back and understand what motivates each high performer, then provide ample opportunities for them to grow in their careers," Harris told Business News Daily. "[Find out] what motivates them personally and professionally and what they're looking to achieve during their time at the organization."

"Don't ignore your high performers," Hurt added. "Let them know you value their contribution and the impact they make."

Hurt also said high performers often get frustrated by a lack of progress in their careers; yet, they're often blind to their own shortcomings when they've been so successful. She recommends having a direct conversation about their strengths and what it will take to get to the next level of responsibility.

Managers typically deal with low performers from a context of frustration, said Scott Johnson, founder and CEO of employee recognition software Motivosity. This, he said, only further increases the low performer's likelihood of performing badly. 

"With low performers, the most compassionate thing a manager can do is to shine a light on the gap between expectations and reality and offer help with mapping out a plan to get the person to where they need to be," Johnson said.

Matthew Jonas, president and cofounder of TopFire Media, said it's wise to take advantage of "teachable moments" with low performers to build their confidence.

"It's often less about their motivation to do a great job and more about a lack of confidence in their abilities," Jonas said. "Make sure low performers know that they have carte blanche [license] to break a couple of eggs, and be there to help them clean the mess when they do."

Because low performers tend to need clear instructions and goals, it's important to set concrete milestones and create a specific roadmap or timeline outlining what they need to do to improve, said Lambert.

"Ask them what they need to get there and how much time [they need]," she said. "Setting transparent expectations and clear instructions will be the deciding factor that informs a leader if the low performer can do better or if they need to be replaced."

The tricky part of adjusting your management approach for each employee is treating people differently (based on their individual needs) without creating the impression that there's bias or favoritism. Above all else, effective managers treat everyone with respect and dignity, said Dye.

Harris agreed, adding that a customized management approach comes down to asking the right questions and frequently checking in with employees to see what they need from you as a leader.

"During check-ins, managers need to ask employees: 'How can I be a better manager to you? What types of training would you benefit from? Where do you need more support?'" Harris said. "Asking these questions can lead to productive, actionable conversations that drive higher performance."

To help build a strong team dynamic, managers should also encourage employees to be transparent about their goals and share progress with their peers, said Harris: "Successfully reaching goals in a public forum can motivate workers to step up their game at work while contributing to larger companywide initiatives."

Nicole Fallon

Nicole received her Bachelor's degree in Media, Culture and Communication from New York University. She began freelancing for Business News Daily in 2010 and joined the team as a staff writer three years later. She currently serves as the managing editor. Reach her by email, or follow her on Twitter.