Leadership: When was it great to go to work?

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For more than 20 years, I started every class in basic supervisory skills the same way. I asked participants to identify a time when it had been great to go to work. Then they split into workgroups where they shared their experiences with the other members and then came up with their own list of the characteristics of a great place to work.

It was amazing how similar the lists turned out to be. In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy said that all happy families are alike. My experience is that all great teams and workgroups are alike, too.

What wasn’t said was interesting, too. There was barely a mention of things like salary or benefits. Hardly anyone mentioned a great physical environment, either. The things that make it great to come to work turn out to be the things that we think of as intrinsic motivators. That’s my first big insight when I look back on those classes and that experience.

Deci and Ryan Got It Right

Edward Deci and Richard Ryan have been researching the causes of intrinsic motivation for decades. They identified three vitally important ones.

The men and women in my classes didn’t use Deci and Ryan’s terminology. They used common conversational language, but, over and over, they identified the same three things as the researchers.

Autonomy helps create a great place to work. We human beings want to control as much of our life as possible. The people in my classes talked about having the choice to do things when and where and how they thought was best. That was one of the important things about a great place to work for them: they could make the important choices themselves.

When people describe a great place to work, they talk about working alongside people whom they enjoy working with. They used phrases like, “It was a great group,” and “Everybody pulled their weight,” and “We had each other’s backs.”

Deci and Ryan used different language. They called this working with people you like “relatedness.”

When the people in my classes described a great place to work, they almost always described how much they were learning and how much fun it was. Deci and Ryan called this one “competence.” Most of the time the people in my classes talked about this in the sense of learning, though sometimes they referred to the opportunity to use the lessons they’d learned in other places.

If you want the people where you work or on your team to be motivated, just about the best thing you can do is give them as much control as possible over their own work, make sure that people support each other both in terms of the work and emotionally, and help people to learn as much as they can. That leads me to the other big insight.

If You’re the Boss, Then You’re the Key

When we dug into why the places we described were great, the boss was always part of the reason. “Boss,” the way I’m using the term, is the person officially responsible for the performance of the group. The causal chain is simple. Great bosses create great places to work by creating the conditions where people motivate themselves.

The kind of boss the people in my classes described was more like a gardener and less like an architect. He or she paid attention to the conditions, making sure they were right for people to grow. That meant that many conditions affected everyone, but it also meant that the boss also cared for everyone in a unique way.

Bottom Line

If you want to be a great boss, start by thinking of yourself as a gardener. Create an environment where people can make significant choices about their work, work with people they can trust and enjoy, and learn a lot.

Reading Resources

Growing Great Employees: Turning Ordinary People into Extraordinary Performers by Erika Andersen

Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World by General Stanley McChrystal and Tantum Collins

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