Can I Speak With The Manager? COOKING UP A GREAT TEAM

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CISWTM is a semi-regular series of observations, best practices and frameworks focused on both excellence in delivering customer service and managing teams as a servant leader. The author has an MBA from Harvard Business School, focusing his studies on service operations, organizational behavior and leadership. He has worked at/with some of America’s most recognized brands including American Express and Tesla. He is available for consultative work for individuals, teams and organizations. Views expressed are solely his.

Have you ever used an at-home meal kit and added all of the aromatics and vegetable at once? Perhaps it’s just me (and the silent few) who will admit that we don’t always follow the directions of recipes: either intentionally we have cooked for some time (not my case) or unintentionally because we did not read the directions closely. If you’ve ever wondered why the taste was a bit off or did not pay much attention because it “is all going to the same place,” then the cooking world has failed to teach you the importance of understanding each ingredient, optimal cooking conditions and the pay off of a meal well-cooked.

For example, garlic, an all-star ingredient in many recipes, should be cooked last. Unlike onions, which are more durable against heat, garlic (an aromatic) quickly reaches its flavor peak with the addition of heat. Cooking might seem like an odd analog to discuss understanding your team and its potential, but we’ve all failed to follow cooking instructions at some point. Similarly, many leaders at some point will fail to utilize their team’s talents from a failure to understand who they are (the ingredients), appreciate how they are motivated (the optimal cooking conditions) and the synergistic benefit of channeling those team (a meal well-cooked).

The first step is to understand your team’s needs/motivations.

There are several frameworks and logic models for understanding teams, but I prefer to start with the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (MHON) because it applies to all humans (on your team and otherwise). The underlying belief of MHON is that all humans want to be their best selves — to be self-actualized. Understanding that as the end-goal, I also use Daniel Pink’s framework for Motivation 3.0 (Autonomy, Mastery & Purpose).

In my experience leading contingent, permanent, “blue” and “white” collar teams, I’ve learned that you can provide autonomy, mastery and purpose but not in the exact same manner with the same messaging to all of your workforce all at the same time — you need to segment and target. To apply a more targeted motivation strategy, I rely on McClelland’s Need Theory (Achievement, Affiliation & Power) Need Theory provides a high-level grouping that can be the basis before moving on to other tools for more micro-targeting including Clifton StrengthFinders, DISC and similar tools.

The second step is to leverage this knowledge to create the conditions for optimal performance.

You’ve gone grocery shopping and now it is time to pair the ingredients with their optimal conditions. Below I’ve included very high-level summaries of each model I referenced and how I’ve implemented them for optimal performance. In some cases, success was a result of understanding the context of the workplace before taking action and in other cases it was from a personal failing.

Feel free to reach out for a consult on how you can apply these models, especially if you have questions about translating this for remote work given the current circumstances.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (MHON)

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MHON is shaped as a pyramid with physiological needs (food, water) as the base building upward to include safety needs (psychological safety, financial security, health), then belonging (friendship, intimacy), then esteem (prestige, mastery) and finally self-actualization. There is valid criticism of MHON for its order-ranking and potential cultural bias, however these elements are useful starting points from which I draw overall utility. I’ve used MHON to guide discussions about the importance of establishing emotional safety (before any employee would provide useful feedback) to help improve an organization.

While working at a non-profit, I convened a cross-functional taskforce to address student safety. In the most traditional sense that meant security guards because that organization usually thought of safety primarily in physical terms. However, bringing in teachers, athletic directors, school counselors, administrators and tutors as well as the security guards provided a more holistic view of safety. The focus shifted from are the students safe from only bodily harm to safe from emotional trauma, attacks to their esteem and inhibitors to self-actualization. I facilitated discussion using MHON to look at gaps in how safety was defined (were students psychologically safe and physically safe?) and how it was measured (when do we know when the students are not safe). Most importantly, we left those initials meetings with an awareness that everyone in the room was mapped to a section of the MHON pyramid, and understood the role everyone else in the room played to build a solid, safe structure for the students.

Motivation 3.0

I was first exposed to Daniel Pink’s work while “shopping” a class at Harvard Business School. The class was about motivating employees and that day’s lesson focused on designing an optimal motivation (economic model) for Safelight employees and which business tactics to implement to drive customer and employee satisfaction (and therefore revenue). The class discussions included theories of behavioral economics and defining the exact price that employees would be most responsive to incentives. But where the class pointed left, the professor pointed us right to Pink’s Motivation 3.0 theory, which is based in empirical research and is a new wave of managerial framing that moves beyond the simplified reward and punishment system of carrots and sticks.

As a millennial, this framework feels most relevant for my generation because we are very vocal in the workplace about our needs and will leave companies that do not meet our needs. Seeing this framework also reminded me of the newer wave of educators who embed autonomy, mastery and purpose more explicitly in course design — high school students of today have assignments more similar to my generation’s college assignments in that they are much more open-ended and meant to provide more ways to demonstrate content mastery.

  • Autonomy can include flexible work arrangements and more casual dress codes. For a business, loosening these restrictions are actually aligned to “operating like an owner” by focusing on what matters most — the results, not how you’re dressed to sit on calls all day.
  • Mastery is fairly self-explanatory and I hypothesize can be seen in LinkedIn titles that indicate “Head of” or Chief X Officers that include revenue, customer and insights. Businesses need both generalist and specialists to thrive, a master of acquisition and a chief (all around) marketing officer.
  • Purpose is often the “why” of the work. How do the company’s goals tie to what matters to them personally. Businesses that insist workers just work will see high millennial turnover while competitors that understand linking the work to purpose will get the most from employees.

There are many articles written about Motivation 3.0 including this one that includes suggestions and pitfalls to avoid. Here’s the short YouTube video that initially hooked me.

In the current climate of COVID-19, businesses have been forced to provide a level of autonomy to an entire workforce in a very short timeline. I believe this will ultimately be for the better. It is unclear how mastery will show up in this crisis today, but toward the end we may see something different. I believe many employees will debate the purpose of their job and how it fits into their lives today and once work returns to whatever the new normal will be. Businesses and teams that have weaker connections between employee purpose and the actual work itself will likely see higher attrition in the term following this crisis.

Need Theory

David McClelland’s Need Theory came after MHON and in some ways is an expansion, focusing on how needs can be optimally used by managers. The three needs, of which individuals have a constellation of where each ranks for them, are achievement, affiliation and power. No one is solely one of the three, but instead the pattern of the three can be helpful for the individual to introspect. As a manager, you should be able to get a feel for which needs is strongest among your stuff.

  • Those with a need for achievement are said to believe in ascension through work projects and a hierarchy of positions.
  • Those with a need for affiliation are said to do well in customer serving roles, prefer collaboration to competition, and put high value on social relationships at work.
  • Those with a need for power are said to desire control and authority (over others or institutions) and to be motivated by competition.

After HBS I returned to campus for a professional development workshop where I learned about Need Theory — important timing as I had my MBA course content fresh in my head and a few months at a new job to contextualize this framework. The most powerful takeaway for me was that the pattern of our needs could help explain why we were disappointed in our current jobs, how we should start thinking about our next roles / ideal work cultures and awareness of the dark triad. In fact, I shared what I learned with a close friend (not at the workshop) who was very high in affiliation but in a role that was tailored for someone who a high need for power. The powerful role was intimidating to other colleagues, directly inhibiting an ability to form close bonds. I was able to impart some of what I learned and together we brainstormed a) how to accept the nature of that role not meeting the highest priority need and b) how to game plan to find the next role that match my friend’s need profile.

The power of realizing friends and my own prioritization of these 3 needs fundamentally shifted how I viewed working relationships and how I altered my messaging to meet the needs of my colleagues.

  • On teams with managers that are more affiliation-oriented, I pause to remember that asking about a weekend and having an engaging (and authentic) conversation is important to that person. If the meeting agenda slips while establishing rapport, I factor that time into future meetings.
  • On teams with managers that are more power-oriented, I try to identify what is most important to my manager and what I can have responsibility for. The easiest conflicts to avoid are ones in which you both “care too much”, want the same goal but have vastly different approaches. This is also called “picking your spots,” a lesson I learned after butting heads early and often.
  • On teams with managers that are more achievement oriented, I put together project plans and focus on managing up as a way to provide transparency. I use this approach to get more autonomy to do my work at my own pace, but with regular check ins to make clear the projects will be completed to their satisfaction.

As a manager, I have also used these profiles to assess where my staff was in each element and how to set them up for success. For example, I get the most from my teams when I do not put the strongly affiliative in situations that required decisive, immediate tactics — in instances of failure those employees would worry they might jeopardize relationships with peers. I work to stretch those employees to build them up to being comfortable, but also respecting their needs. To be clear, this profile should not be under-valued. I have found that strongly affiliative employees are the culture bearers that are the basis for a thriving team. My takeaway here is that understanding your teams needs is essential for optimal output an a failure to do so sets your team up to fail.

What Else

There are a few other great lens to understand and maximize the impact of your team include: Sirosota’s Three Factor Theory ( article link), StrengthFinders, DISC and Hygiene Theory.

Personally, I have enjoyed using StrengthFinders in a team setting because it felt comprehensive in its reach and its ethos of using strengths to fill in gaps felt empowering. During my onboarding for Tesla’s Leadership Development Program, we had a chance to see where our cohort (of 11) stacked across the 4 broad buckets for our top 5 strengths. It was helpful to see where we had gaps collectively and where people aligned. It was also great to see that our program chose a diverse group with true broad-scale, management experience that spanned across all 4 broad buckets and that we as a group could be deployed anywhere in the business to have an impact. In Q3 of 2018 when Tesla made history (one of the many times it did), it was from a smart leader that put about 10 very individually diverse leaders into one org and leveraged our programs connectedness to fill in gaps. After that quarter, many of us fully experienced the floor and ceiling of strengths — observing new, different ways to close our gaps by working so closely, intensely and quickly with a well-curated group.

Final Words

As a psychology undergrad, one of the first effects you learn is called “The Hawthorne Effect.” At the time, it was summarized to say experimenters tried many ways increase productivity but that ultimately just paying attention to the workforce is what leads to productivity. Since then, there has been criticism of the study’s interpretation and driver of motivation — I highly encourage you look this up. The takeaway for me as a manager is that teams perform better when you are around — potentially for a myriad of reasons — and if you don’t make productive use of your time with your team, you’re attempting to cook without turning the stove on first.

In most cases, the author did not ask to speak to the manager, but these suggestions are geared toward managers to organize their business to receive fewer manager inquiries. The author has experience working across several industries and leading teams responsible for service delivery — and yes, he has had many conversations with disappointed customers asking to speak with a manager.

Originally published at on March 23, 2020.

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