Rust begets rust.

rust2smallPeople are motivated by different things. Some people want money, some people want titles, some people want to be well-respected by the group of people they work with. Some want to feel they are making a difference in the world. And some would like, very specifically, to do anything that allows them to damn. the. man.

I’ve worked with people in all of these categories and I’ve helped them find their next challenges based on what motivates them. In all this time, there are only a few people who, from a distance, have appeared to be coin-operated.

What does that mean? I’m sure you can picture it. This is the worker-bee who arrives at the factory, gets in at 9, clocks out and back in around lunch, and then leaves right as the buzzer sounds at 5pm. Coin-operated workers are robotic, people who don’t care what they do 8 hours a day as long as they receive a paycheck for the work.

But here’s the thing. Though I’ve spoken about these people in meetings and identified them to management teams, I’m not sure I believe they exist. Are there people who don’t care what they spend their lives doing? I doubt it. What if these people are simply matched with the wrong role and, if paired with work that motivates them, they could emerge as passionate and productive employees?

It takes real gumption to ask your employees what motivates them and if their current work fits the bill. After all, you may be shining a light on the fact that it’s time for them to move on. It’s possible that your Project Manager is secretly pining to start her own personal training business. Your back-end developer might want to build radios and sell them on Kickstarter. It could happen!

Fear not. In most cases, people are just ever so slightly misaligned. Your junior designer is curious about front-end development but afraid to leave the design team. Your lively QA engineer (who was always too talkative for  sprint-planning meetings) daydreams about being part of the sales process. If these are the kinds of tweaks that would result in more engaged employees, why not find a way to give the people what they want?

It’s more work to custom-build career paths in an organization, but avoiding the complexities of employee motivation is like burying your head in the sand. People who are under-motivated by the work they do are either going to leave or slowly rust away, losing more and more mobility in their joints until they arrive, robotic, each morning to clock in for their “coin-operated” job.

Some of the most important work that leaders can do is to keep an eye out for the first signs of coin-operated rust. Dynamic employees energize the team and push each other to do amazing work; coin-operated folks slowly drain the team of its battery. Pairing employees with work that motivates them requires flexibility and a bit of foresight, but at the end of the day, your team’s success  depends on it.