With over 25 years spent managing, teaching and observing employees — and with a degree in psychology and time spent teaching courses on the subject at Cornell University — I’ve spent my fair share of time analyzing and dissecting the thought processes of workers. I’ve determined that individuals fall into one of three primary groups of motivation: the checklist technician, the rewards artist and the societal. This “three categories of motivation” theory explores the psychology of your co-workers and you.
The Checklist Technician
If you’re a person who experiences an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment when you complete a task and can check it off a list, then you fall into this category. Early studies on why we remember specific checklist-related items were conducted by Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik. Zeigarnik was one of the first researchers to confirm our brain’s fixation on pursuing a task. The Zeigarnik Effect surmises that we remember and place emphasis on responsibilities and items that need to be completed more than things that we’ve already finished.
The checklist technician thrives on task tension, which improves cognitive availability. There is a euphoria in completing a task and an inner sense of pride. But, be careful when managing checklist people because that euphoria is fleeting, and these people soon feel compelled by the next task at hand.
Pro: These can be great people for managing your most important tasks and projects. They’re highly focused when they have a clear understanding of the project, and they do well when there are OKRs and metrics in place.
Con: If your organization doesn’t have cogently defined project objectives and timelines, these people might focus on what is important, but miss the urgent. These people often do not work well with those who have trouble organizing or with those who like to talk through things in too much detail.
The Rewards Artist
Most of us enjoy the feeling of being recognized for our efforts. For some, it’s so motivating that they base their value on it, or, more appropriately, they base how they think others value them on the rewards they receive. These people are the most difficult of the three categories to keep motivated, and many times they don’t emphasize the right items. In a Harvard Business Review article, the authors state, “According to numerous studies in laboratories, workplaces, classrooms, and other settings, rewards typically undermine the very processes they intended to enhance.” There is also the issue that rewards are fleeting. These people are more worried about getting the prize than getting things completed correctly.
Pro: These people can be highly motivating and inspiring to their co-workers. They often make sure their team members also win awards, and they can build productive coalitions at work that can push agendas to completion.
Con: These are the people who spend too much time on social media, wondering who is looking at their Facebook posts, or checking on their LinkedIn number of likes throughout the day. They are heavy multitaskers and often miss key points in meetings and projects. One other major issue is that they experience a declining level of satisfaction with rewards seen as equal value to what they’ve already obtained. They require a more substantial reward to feel motivated, and at some point, this isn’t possible. As the ability to attain higher rewards diminishes, these people lose motivation or, worse yet, become work saboteurs.
For those who find their primary motivation at work around social interactions, work can be very stimulating. These people’s closest friends are those associated with their work. They text with co-workers and vendors after work and on the weekends and are the ones who make sure we all go to work-related happy hours and events.
Pro: They can be a pick-me-up for others at work and make many people feel important with their constant attention, and they can create a positive emotional contagion. They are often connectors and can get stalled items moving quickly with their social talents.
Con: These workers habitually have mood swings. They frequently need to untwist their way of thinking and can suffer from cognitive distortion, which leads to false conclusions about situations and intentions. Since they’re excessively emotionally invested at work, they often act spiteful and lash out at those they don’t like.
Be The Ringleader For Employee Engagement
As a leader, you must be able to build a team, yet never forget the individual. You must understand where your people primarily fall among these three categories to keep them motivated and, more importantly, engaged at work. There are significant emotional bonds tied to all three categories, and people need a sense of purpose to work successfully.
A Gallup poll indicated that companies with the highest levels of employee engagement are 21% more productive than those with low levels of employee engagement. Employee engagement is not missed by those in the C-suite of great organizations since higher employee engagement scores affect the bottom-line financials. According to the research advisory firm Bersin by Deloitte, no less than 85% of business leaders globally believe employee engagement is essential.
The encouraging thing about people in each of these three categories is that they can be highly successful at work, and each group has members at the top of organizations. You need to understand how each of your people fits into these categories; this will help with job satisfaction and motivation, which has a correlation with employee engagement. A final point to consider is where you fit into these categories. Remember, in order to be a great leader, you need emotional intelligence, which requires self-awareness.