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Practical Guide for A Manager Part 1: Finding Meaning

Written by Contributor Published on   7 mins read

Strategies that are effective yet often neglected by managers.

Editor’s note:

This article was originally published in the WeChat public account iquanwai. The writer Sun Quanquan is a former consulting director at Mercer and later founded and became the CEO of Quanwai (圈外), which focuses on providing mobile online learning products for working professionals. Kr-Asia.com has been authorized to publish this article.

This article introduces strategies that are effective yet often neglected by managers. The first one is helping your staff find meaning in the work they do. 

The significance of meaning in the work comes as no one is really “willing” to work for others. We are all working for ourselves only. That is why internal motivations are much more effective and will last longer than external motivations such as a monetary bonus. 

The meaning sometimes comes as employees find their works helpful to others. Sometimes, the link between employees’ current work and their goal gives them a sense of self-achievement.

This is the Part 1 of a 3-Part Sereis.

Link to the Part 2 and Part 3.

Photo by Paul Bence on Unsplash.

In order to become a successful manager, one must equip himself with a lot of managerial skills.

Before we dive in, let’s first ponder about two questions:

  • What causes an employee to do or not do a task?
  • Why don’t employees do what you want them to do?

BJ Fogg’s behavior model is a model of the motivations for behaviors. The model posits that for a behavior to take place, three factors must exist concurrently: motivation, ability, and trigger.

In other words, only when a person has enough motivation for performing a task, and has the ability to perform the task, and there is something to trigger the performance of the task could the performance of the task actually happen.

This model is of crucial importance to any manager, because in the end, management is about driving your team to achieve a goal.

How do you motivate and drive your employees?

With this model, the solution is simple. As a manager, we need to motivate employees to work enthusiastically, increase their working ability, and always remind them of what needs to be done.

This not only applies to managing individuals. Managing the entire company works the same way. In order for an enterprise to get all its employees working as a team to achieve the company’s goal, all three of the elements of this model must be encouraged, taking the forms of a motivation system, capability system, and a roles system.

The motivation system comes down to a company’s performance and incentive schemes to motivate employees to work.

The capability system refers to a company’s training and development program that provides employees with the skills they need to do their work well.

The roles system means the departments in the company, and the positions, duties, and responsibilities. This addresses the problems related to employees’ understanding of their own duties.

All articles regarding organizational behavior essentially boil down to these three things.

First of all, Looking for meaning

Photo by Jimi Filipovski on Unsplash

From CEOs of start-ups to the upper management at Fortune 500 enterprises, they all ask me the same question: In all your experience consulting with so many enterprises, what reward mechanism do you find works the best?

It’s tempting to think that there’s a perfect reward system out there – a  magic bullet that will solve all motivational issues at work.

Unfortunately, even during my 8 years of giving consulting services at my former company, an industry leader in business consulting, and having witnessed the world’s most advanced management practices, I have still not found any company has found the answer to this question.

The core issue is this: No one is really “willing” to work for others; we are all working for ourselves only. Any form of reward scheme using external motivators will struggle to change a person’s behavior from the root.

We do what we have to do, so we can do what we want to do. This, I think, is the attitude of the majority towards work.

But, just as I said before, if we hated something (for instance, studying or working), and we do it because of another goal (such as making a living), then we will never fully commit ourselves to it.

Imagine a pipeline operator, for example, where whether or not a person is working wholeheartedly makes little difference to the results. In today’s work, we have to rely on our minds. Hence if you hate doing something, it is very difficult to produce great results.

Additionally, internal motivation will be diluted if we use external rewards too frequently.

For example, I helped a fast-moving consumer goods company design its sales incentive program. In all their past rewarding experience, every time the marketing team came out with a campaign, if it needed the collaboration of the sales team, the employees would be given extra incentives.

Eventually, employees were starting to ask HR: If I participate in the training, will you be giving us bonuses? The abuse of a reward system reinforced in everyone that whatever they did, it must be for a bonus. When this occurs, incentives become ineffective.

In contrast, let me give a positive example. Last weekend while I was on business trip, mid-night at the hotel I suddenly got a painfully upset stomach. Struggling to my feet I made a phone call to the front desk, asking the service personnel to help me buy medicine. I was told there weren’t any 24-hour pharmacies in the vicinity.

Image credit to 123rf.com.cn.

There were two service staff on duty at the time. The female assistant came up to the room and helped me down stairs, then let the male assistant brought me to the hospital. At the hospital, he helped me register, collect my medicine and brought me back to the hotel.

The male assistant carefully informed the female staff member: we were given two types of medicines, one in pill form and another granule form that needed to be mixed with water. He has already taken the pill. Could you please accompany him to his room and help him mix the granule medicine?

Thereafter, the female assistant brought me up to the room, helped me with the prepare the granule medicine, and even gave me an oat biscuit saying that this particular medicine shouldn’t be consumed on an empty stomach.

When she was mixing the medicines, she even poured the mixtures in and out between two glasses to cool down the drink for me. After I finished it, she told me she would extend my check-out time to 2 pm the next day so I could have more time to rest.

When I came down the next day to check out at noon, the two assistants that assisted the night before were off their shift. The front desk staff, after hearing my room number, immediately asked me: Are you feeling alright today?

This assistant went to change the mineral water that was prepared earlier for guests, replaced it with a glass of luke-warm water to soothe my stomach.

Having been in the consultancy industry for so many years, I have had numerous gold and platinum cards given to me from international hotels chains, but this was my first time feeling at home in a hotel. Even my own family members do not treat me as thoughtfully as the service staff at this hotel.

In contrast to service assistants who help to turn on and off the water tap and who bow non-stop in restaurants, I feel these service staff were much more genuine.

This form of thoughtful service does not easily get noticed by management. If there is only a monetary reward system in place, I believe it is hard to incentivize service staff to behave in this way.

From the management point of view, any problems that can be solved using money is not a real problem. Hence, money must be given but it is never sufficient in and of itself.

Sociologist and philosopher Max Weber once said: “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.” Hence helping staff to find meaning in the work they do is the ultimate success of manager.

Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

So how can we help staff find meaning in their work? Where does this so-called meaning come from? From my own point of view, this falls into two categories:

1. Meaning from helping others

If your company does something that can change or influence the lives of others, then you must let your employees understand this during recruitment and select those who share the same values.

For instance, Quanwai is an online education company. We helped many young people find their direction, making their careers smoother. Almost every day we receive gratitude from our customers.

Therefore, I will always share the stories of customers and their words of appreciation to my team, letting them know that the things we are doing really can change the lives of many people. Everything that we do is slowly and gradually making the world a better place.  We are giving more opportunities for people with dreams.

2. Meaning in self-achievement

Everyone has a strong desire to become a better version of themselves, and through work is one of the most important ways to accomplish this.

However, many managers are unable to discover the connection between employees’ desire for self-development and the work they do, and lose out on the opportunity to use self-achievement as a way of motivating staff.

For instance, as the manager of a young man who has aspirations of starting a business in the future, you need to spend some time helping him analyze the required skills and resources he needs for starting a business. During work, you should remind him of how his work is helping him build the skills and resources he needs run a successful business.

Only by truly understanding your workers, and being willing to put yourself in their shoes, can you become a good manager.

Everyone needs a sense of meaning. One of the duties of a  manager is to discover and foster this sense of meaning in others.


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