For a brief moment in my life I thought acting would be fun. Not as a career, but as a hobby. I did a couple of school plays, but I mostly did it because I didn’t want to do homework. During a skit rehearsal someone explained that acting better when you can learn what motivates and sympathize with the character you’re trying to portray. This is one of the few pieces of advice that has stuck with me throughout the years.
When I wrote my first book I didn’t realize I was writing a book. I was working on a project. I had something to say. Once it was complete I realized I had broken through the mental barrier of writing and had written something of substance. I decided to write more. So I dabbed my hand in fiction. It was a bit of an odd choice because I typically don’t read fiction. I get too lost in the characters.
For me I started writing fiction because I had something to say and the most efficient way for me to say it was through characters I created. Now I’ve written two pieces of fiction. Nothing to brag about, but they were fun projects and each had a purpose. They’ve also been extremely helpful with teaching me leadership.
When I’ve sat down to develop characters and their back stories I’ve had to ask myself, what is this character’s motivation? Why would they be motivated to play the role I need them to in my story? Pro tip, if you want your book to be marketable and enjoyed make sure you pick motivations that a large audience can relate to. Something odd happened as I was building characters. I started seeing more dimensions to the people I was working with. I started noticing and caring more about their lives and what they were doing because I could see how their lives were impacting their work. Finding that connection made being personable a lot easier, because I was able to more easily see its purpose.
Sometimes someone will just need someone else to listen to their story. When we tell stories we reveal a lot about ourselves. We share our world view, group identities, and factual information. When someone’s talking you get to hear their perspective and if you listen carefully, you can hear what motivates them.
This fall I moved to a new job and have spent several months listening and talking to people so they could get to know me and so I could get to know them. We have one employee who has a wonderful history and is a bohemian combination of various skills. After I was done talking with her I started to ask myself, why does she have so many varying interests? What’s the thread that connects them all?
The answer is the way she asks questions and the confidence she carries from having answers. This employee has a hard time walking away from a question she doesn’t have an answer to or something she doesn’t understand as well as she’d like to. So, when she had questions about photography she studied and learned photography. When she had questions about how computers worked, she’d studied and learned computers.
When she got the job here she studied and learned everything she needed to know to be functional, but that doesn’t mean she knew every part of the job. With an audit coming up I visited this employee with a copy of the audit questions. I knew that it would be valuable to sit down with her, but I let her control when we scheduled the time. I’m always impressed by how good employees will take the time to hear and prioritize a leader’s goals.
When the time came to sit down I didn’t need to tell her how to do her job. We just talked and read the questions. She had answers to all of them, but I could tell in the tone of her voice that she was less confident about some of her responses than she was when she was talking about the things she was passionate about. It took a few very minor verbal and nonverbal clues for her to realize where she was lacking and at the end of the conversation we didn’t commit to a time line for a follow up. I knew I didn’t need to.
I was right not scheduling the follow up. Let’s be clear, I’m not against follow up. I planned to follow up, but I didn’t schedule it. The next day she came up to me and informed me that because she had budgeted the time to meet with me, she also budgeted the time for self improvement. She spent the rest of that day researching all of the answers where her confidence wasn’t as high. I listened. As she talked I could hear her proudly relate specific answers to certain questions where the day before we only had generalizations. Listening to this conversation allowed me to acknowledge her effort and rehearse for the upcoming audit.
Listening is an important skill for leaders, but taking the time to understand what motivates your team members is what makes listening worth while. Not everyone I’ve worked with is as self motivated as this employee, but everyone I’ve worked with is motivated by something, and taking the time to figure out what that is isn’t just a good idea, it’s a big step on the road to making good people great performers.