First Line Managers Cannot Motivate Employees

At Verbena High School, in the seventh grade, I and three of my buddies had the water boy duties for the football team. I saw firsthand what players went through to play football. In the ninth grade I went out for the team. Our coach was tough. We frankly did not have a very good team. I remember the first time I got to be in the three on one drill. This is the drill that separated the men from the boys. It went like this, you stood in front of three players, the coach would throw the ball to one player at a time, that player was to run over you, while you tried to tackle him. Our coach trained each of us on the proper tackling techniques. Some of us made a pitiful attempt to tackle the players, especially us young guys. The coach took pity on us most times and just made us tackle the young guys. This was the drill that most players dreaded the most, and after the drill some of the younger players quit the team. After three years of doing this our team had couple of winning seasons, my senior the team only lost one game, the last one. Our pride was the key, we loved winning, and we practiced hard to win.

What does this story have to do with the motivation of employees? Our coach trained his players. You as a manager will train new employees. Some employees do just great during the training stage; there is always someone there to help them. These new employees show great progress. Then what happens, you take off the training wheels. Now the employee is face to face with a difficult customer or fellow employee. What happens, do they make the play? It requires their motivation to push forward in this difficult situation. You may step in to assist, but at some point the employee has to become a starter on the team.

Motivation was the key to making the tackle, my motivation, not the coaches. My pride took over; I was determined to make the play. I wanted to be the best. I had to find the internal strength to make the play; the coach could not train me to find this strength. You as a manger can train the employee on the department’s processes; and, the way to discuss problems with employees and customers. Then it is up to your employees to take charge. How do you train employees to take charge if they do not want too? You can’t. You can only offer encouragement.

An employee with years of experience at our company bid on a dispatcher’s job in our center, I thought he was a great match. We went through a formal training process for several weeks. I went through our mission and how we perform processes and why. He was doing great. One day, I came in with the objective to arrange for him to go into the position rotation. I said here is the week you will go on your own. He said he was not sure he was ready. Now, everyone he worked with in the department said he was doing great. So, I pressed forward, let’s do it this week. He did not say anything; I thought we were in agreement. That afternoon, he came into my office; he decided to go back to his old job. He said it was too much of a change for him. I agreed, he finished out the week, and then went back to his old job. I said, “I know this is the best move for you and the company.” I meant what I told him, he was lucky he had a place to go, and I was lucky he could go back.

This was not a waste of our time. Yes, it meant I had to start over again with another employee. But as I told him, you are better and the company is better for what you have learned. I knew that in his  job, all he learned in our department would help him perform that job in a much more knowledgeable way. He had interfaced with our dispatch center for years. Our department and his department was better because he would be happy doing his old job.

This is what I know. I cannot provide motivation for an employee. Pride of performance is and must be internal to the employee for them to be successful. Employees must perform up to the standard of the department. As a first line manager, I have to take action to get that performance up to the standard. I know most employees will not be happy being directed to improve. If the employee cannot perform, my final option may be to terminate the employee. Most times this is because the employee is not internally motivated to perform to the standard.

To have a winning team a first line manager must require performance. Performance must come from the pride within the employee; and, their desire to do a great job. The employee’s pride comes from tackling the tough problems they encounter each day. Employees must take personal pride in this performance. You must try; but, your motivation is not transferable. You can only create a department where each employee can buy into the mission of the department and motivate themselves.

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About OJ

I am a retired first line manager with over 40 years of experience. In operations management, accounting management, and central operations management. It is my wish to convey some of the experiences I have learned form over the years in the articles on my site.
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