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Understand What Motivates Your Boss

 
3/13/2006
To get ahead at work, says Stever Robbins, working toward organizational goals is admirable. But what really counts is understanding the needs of your manager. It's all about power, affiliation, and achievement.

by Stever Robbins

QuestionWhat to do if I'm not allowed to be productive because of my manager's own self-interest? Should I just buckle down and try not to get noticed?

Answer Letters from last month's column Productivity Means Working Smarter, Not Longer have been gratifying and surprising. Most unexpected was a theme I heard over and over: "My manager won't let me work smart. What do I do?" That's a real problem. Let's start by facing reality: In larger companies, your personal success doesn't necessarily depend on doing what's best for business.

Long-time readers will know your bosses should be setting direction, giving feedback, and helping you tap your internal motivation—but most don't. So take charge of yourself, face the reality of organizational life, and do what it takes to get your needs met.

You're there for the cash
Why do you go to work? If you're one of the lucky few, your work ignites your passion. It challenges you. It lets you accomplish what you find most worthwhile, provides community, and helps you contribute in a meaningful way. You'd keep working even if you won the lottery. Chances are, that's not you. Even if your job does some of that, you wouldn't do it if it weren't for the paycheck. That's fine. Almost everyone works for the money. So face that. Roll it around in your brain for a few minutes. Repeat after me: At the end of the day, even if you enjoy your job, you're there to get paid. So "working smart" means working in whatever way gets you paid.

Understand first that people decide what you get paid.

You've heard managers say they'll heap riches on those who do a good job. Ignore their words; watch their actions. Who do they really reward? Why? Mostly, we reward those who meet our needs, first and foremost. If you know what your managers really want, you can meet their needs while meeting the needs of the business. The late Harvard psychology professor David McClelland had an easy framework you can use.

McClelland said motivation comes in three flavors: power, affiliation, and achievement. Power People want things to happen their way. Affiliation People want to be popular and liked. And Achievement People want results. We're all part power, part affiliation, and part achievement.

Take Mary. Mary wakes up thinking, "What can I do today?" Her day isn't complete unless she finishes something, preferably working at least a few hours with others. She tells her employees the outcomes she wants and lets them figure out the "how." That makes Mary about 60 percent achievement, 30 percent affiliation, and 10 percent power.

Interestingly, we are taught that American business is all about achievement; it's all that matters. When we talk "productivity," "efficiency," "goal-setting," we're swimming in achievement language. We set achievement goals and base bonuses on achievement measures. But guess what—people don't actually behave that way, as your letters clearly show. They're also driven by power and affiliation. "Working smart" means getting results, but even more, it means satisfying your boss's needs for power and affiliation as well.

Manage your boss's real needs
If your boss wants you to get results, my advice on "working smart" holds. Get stuff done. Measure what you get done. Discuss the measures with your boss. Do, do, do. Your boss will be thrilled that by working smart, you can get more stuff done in less time. Then go home early, and have a life.

If your bosses want power, they want things done their way. Like bureaucrats, Power bosses often work this way. Following procedure and doing things the right way is more important than doing the right things.

Your job for a Power boss is helping her empire-build and/or helping her get things done her way. Be careful, though. Your boss may be bad at figuring out what needs to be done. So even if she's getting her way, her way just might hurt the business.

You often find this power game happening when a new executive arrives to take over the show. They axe old projects and start their own. But if the outgoing exec was doing great, maybe no changes need to be made. To an incoming Power Person, this won't do. They must change things simply to have the organization reflect their desires.

An affiliation-oriented boss wants to be homecoming king. He wants to be liked. Your job becomes helping smooth out relationships, being friendly with your boss, and helping him manage the people relationships. Emotional intelligence helps you meet the needs of an Affiliation boss.

When you hear "we're one, big happy family," that's affiliation talking. Affiliation puts relationships first. I like that; relationships bind organizations together. But affiliation can go too far. Keeping incompetents in powerful positions just because they're friends may honor relationships but tank the company. Even though your boss may not value it as much, make sure the work still gets done so you have someplace to work come next year.

Work smart by balancing all needs
All this comes back to working smart. If you're trying to work smart and your boss says sorting paper clips is more important than crafting a distribution strategy, you need to know what's happening inside your boss's head and find the real motivation. Is your boss usually an achievement junkie? Then maybe she has a real reason paper clips are important. Talk to your boss. Make sure you both understand and agree on priorities, based on what it will take to get the job done.

If you have a Power boss, she may be more concerned with having you sort paper clips her way than doing your job your way. You need to choose to own the business priorities yourself. Figure out those priorities and ask your boss how you can meet them. Since your boss needs to dictate the "how," you choose the right "what."

The affiliation-oriented boss may have relationship concerns. "We can't alienate our existing distributors. They've been with us for years! Joe and I go golfing every Wednesday." Here, you must factor the relationships into account. Approach your boss with a positive attitude and make sure you approach your distribution with the relationship goals in mind as well.

Line up your compensation
Even though you'll meet your boss's motivational style, you still need to get paid. Socially, we rarely acknowledge power and affiliation goals out loud. Those goals are considered unprofessional, even though they drive so many of us. So you need to frame your job in terms of achievement goals that will get you paid, while making it clear that you'll meet your boss's power and affiliation needs along the way. Trust me—as long as you're helping a power-oriented boss expand their empire, you'll be able to find a meeting of the minds about what you need to do to get paid and move ahead.

Notice that I've said very little about meeting the organization's needs. That's because only an executive who understands the link between their own needs and the organization's needs will value your attempts to do the right thing for the business. In the final analysis, it isn't between you and the company; it's between you and the people who will promote and pay you.

That group consists of more than just your boss. Your boss's boss and other senior managers may be watching. Your Power boss may report to an Achievement executive. If your efforts are visible to the exec, helping your boss achieve in a way that her boss recognizes might be your best strategy.

You can't have it all
At this point, you might be thinking that with all this strategizing about satisfying the three needs of management, it will be a miracle if you can juggle it all. Welcome to organizational life. If you have family or community needs, you can toss those into the mix. (This balancing act drives some people to self-employment. It was sure a factor when I set out on my own.)

The bad news is that you can't satisfy your needs, your boss's, and your organization's. After all, it's in the organization's best interest for you to forgo a raise while working an extra ten hours a week. You'll almost certainly need to sacrifice something. But the good news is that it's your choice. Choose wisely.

© 2006 by Stever Robbins. All rights reserved in all media.

Stever Robbins is CEO of The Stever Robbins Company, a firm that helps high-performing individuals build careers and lives that connect deeply to their passion. You can find more of his articles at http://www.SteverRobbins.com. He is the author of It Takes a Lot More than Attitude to Lead a Stellar Organization.